“Vessel” at Hudson Yards: A Capitalist Christening and Architectural Narcissism

April 30th, 2019  |  Published in April 2019

In 1996, Tom Otterness installed a bronze sculptural grouping of anthropomorphized houses and coins off the banks of Roosevelt Island in the East River titled The Marriage of Real Estate and Money (Figure 1). The figures are executed in a playful manner while offering a trenchant critique of the troubling relationship that continues to exist between city officials, business tycoons, real estate developers, and a host of other key players in urban planning. The aesthetic centerpiece of Hudson Yards—Vessel (2019)—might be taken as the neoliberal newborn that was recently unveiled to the world by the city’s illustrious power couple of real estate and capital (Figure 2). The British designer Thomas Heatherwick was commissioned to imagine and develop a structure to crown the public square of New York’s newest neighborhood—the largest real estate project in the city since Rockefeller Center, at least by some estimates.[1]

Since Hudson Yards opened on March 15, 2019, many critics have offered acerbic and insightful forms of architectural criticism that engage with interrelated questions about displacement, privatization, gentrification, and the future of New York’s urban political economy. However, few have included an analysis of Vessel’s spatial logic, architectural referents, and what these reference points imply about developers’ aspirations for the sculpture and broader site. Through an examination of the phenomenological effects brought on by moving within Vessel and considering some of the architectural precedents the structure indexes, I maintain that this new interactive work calls attention to itself while serving the interests of developers in their failed attempts to make Hudson Yards a meaningful civic site. In my estimation, negotiating Vessel’s spaces and surfaces culminates in two critical points: looking down into the structure from its top platform and repeatedly encountering the polished, copper-colored panels above the 154 interconnected flights of stairs.

Figure 1: Tom Otterness, “The Marriage of Real Estate and Money”, 1996. Bronze, dimensions variable. Roosevelt Island, NY. Photo by Oren Slor.

 

Figure 2: Thomas Heatherwick Studio, “Vessel”, 2019. Stainless steel, 150 feet (height); 7,250 square meters. Hudson Yards, NY.

The form of Vessel evokes a number of organic and inorganic points of comparison, such as capillaries, futuristic combat sheathing, chain links, bee hives, and a stylized, high-tech pinecone. Visual associations continue to unfold as visitors mount the 80 landings and gain further vantage points of the interior and surrounding environs. Ultimately, any engagement with Vessel invariably leads to reaching the top platform, providing sweeping views of Weehawken across the Hudson River and an uninhibited gaze into the offerings of The Shops and Restaurants at Hudson Yards (mostly fine dining options and luxury brands like Dior, Fendi, and Neiman Marcus). Turning inward, spectators can take in the symmetrical terraces filled with pedestrians making their way around the circuitous tiers. As Heatherwick Studio has explained, this design was based on the ancient stepwells of India, such as Chand Baori (800 CE) in Abhaneri and Dada Harir (1499 CE) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (Figure 3). Stepwells or baori were complex subterranean edifices—often commissioned by wealthy patrons—where members of nearly every caste convened to collect water, socialize, and engage in bathing rituals. While not all, many stepwells were richly decorated with stone-carved deities and served as Hindu temples.[2] Peering down into the heart of Vessel (Figure 4), the main art-historical model becomes clearer. There is one other significant architectural citation that brings sacred connotations, which comes by way of the sculpture’s ubiquitous reflective surfaces.

Figure 3: Dada Harir Vav, Ahmadabad, Gujarat, India. Photo credit: Victoria S. Lautman

 

Figure 4: Heatherwick Studio, Vessel, 2019. Nighttime view looking down into the structure. Photo courtesy of the author.

One of the chief experiences of navigating the public landmark involves constantly looking in different directions, surveying people on the ground below, spotting visitors occupying other spaces within Vessel, and noticing people in neighboring buildings. As Artnet’s Ben Davis observes, Vessel’s “spectacle is of yourself watching others watch you from its many platforms.”[3] While this is certainly true, I contend there is another facet to this spectacle: Vessel’s agency, as imparted to it by the developers Related, Oxford Properties Group. Through this process of visual scanning, viewers inevitably look up to see themselves. Yet, ironically, one is denied this satisfaction—and the Instagrammable moment that some visitors are undoubtedly pining for. An interesting visual phenomenon plays out across the expanse of the polished mirrors. The exterior panels of the structure only reflect the surrounding plaza below, consciously or unconsciously a nod to the perspectival technique called di sotto in sù (from below upwards). This technique was deployed in the decoration of secular and ecclesiastical palaces in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo periods. Andrea Mantegna’s illusionistic ceiling painting for the ducal palace of Ludovico Gonzaga is a prime example of this tradition (Figure 5). The structural parallels between Vessel’s overall shape and the bronze sculptural pine cone that adorns the exedra of the Cortile della Pigna in the Vatican (Figure 6) further contribute to this comparison to lavish chambers and estates.

Figure 5: Andrea Mantegna, Oculus of the Camera Picta, 1465-74. Fresco, diameter of false oculus 8’ 9” (2.7m). Gonzaga Ducal Palace, Mantua, Italy. Photo credit: “tostphoto/Fotolia”.

 

Figure 6: “La Pigna”, 2nd century CE. Bronze, height: 4 meters. Cortile della Pigna, Vatican Museums, Rome.

Instead of an expansive sky painted in a radical trompe l’oeil technique or a ceiling fresco presenting a heavenly coterie of putti, onlookers are denied any sort of transcendence. Significantly, they are forced to acknowledge the land that Vessel is sited upon (Figure 7). The mirrors insistently direct individuals’ gaze, attention, and imagination toward the transformation of the grounds—twenty-eight acres of new residential and commercial properties. Rather than allow viewers to see themselves, Vessel calls attention to itself—and by extension the conception, evolution, and subsequent birth of Hudson Yards and all those involved. Vessel serves as the potent symbol, metallic finial, shiny hood ornament of this historic urban redevelopment project, or as Joshua McWhirter of Failed Architecture has put it, a “harbinger of capitalist urbanization’s worst impulses.”[4] If the proud parents of Vessel are real estate and money, then local government is the midwife that delivered this affected architectural being unto a public that contributed billions in tax breaks to realize the larger project.[5]

Figure 7: Looking up to see the plaza reflected in “Vessel’s” metal panels. Photo courtesy of the author.

 

Figure 8: Looking down to see the actual plaza surrounding “Vessel”. Photo courtesy of the author.

The title of the work naturally prompts the question: what does this vessel contain? To my mind, Vessel holds the collective aspirations of real estate magnates to harness and deploy the gravitas of art and architecture for their own purposes, namely giving meaning and purpose to a site that only serves the interest of an elite few. Ben Davis has adroitly pointed out that Vessel is “an obvious example of the kind of mega-art preferred by tycoons looking to buy some ersatz cultural cachet.”[6] As I have attempted to demonstrate in a short amount of space, there are intriguing references to past religious structures and architectural traditions that Heatherwick Studio embedded in the design of Vessel. One way of understanding these appropriations or co-optations is that the commissioning body of Related, Oxford Properties Group hoped to erect a work that could consecrate the site, attempting to elevate unabashed materialism and its cult of commodity to some spiritual, transcendental plane. Yet, like the perforated honey-comb patterning that is one of the defining features of Vessel, the framework cannot contain these tacit ambitions.

[1] Matthew Haag, “Amazon’s Tax Breaks and Incentives Were Big. Hudson Yard’s Are Bigger.” The New York Times, March 9, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/09/nyregion/hudson-yards-new-york-tax-breaks.html.

[2] Victoria S. Lautman, “Stepwell,” published May 29, 2016 by Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/technology/stepwell. Accessed April 14, 2019.

[3] Ben Davis, “Hudson Yards Has Thrown Everything at Making Itself Into a Cultural Destination. Does It Succeed?,” artnet news, March 19, 2019. https://news.artnet.com/opinion/hudson-yards-art-1491400.

[4] Joshua McWhirter, “Hudson Yards Was Not Inevitable,” Failed Architecture, March 28, 2019.https://failedarchitecture.com/hudson-yards-was-not-inevitable/. McWhirter’s main point is that architectural practice and criticism is having a moment of reckoning, and that open, robust criticism by those in the field around 2014 might have steered the development of Hudson Yards in a different direction.

[5] Matthew Haag, “Amazon’s Tax Breaks and Incentives Were Big. Hudson Yard’s Are Bigger.” The New York Times, March 9, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/09/nyregion/hudson-yards-new-york-tax-breaks.html. Citing analysis completed by researchers at the New School (Bridget Fisher and Flávia Leite), Haag reports that Hudson Yards has received nearly $6 billion in government assistance and tax breaks. The author also points out that future properties in the neighborhood can avail themselves of the tax break, which in some cases can be as much as a 40% discount and last almost 20 years.

[6] Ben Davis, “Hudson Yards Has Thrown Everything at Making Itself Into a Cultural Destination. Does It Succeed?,” artnet news, March 19, 2019. https://news.artnet.com/opinion/hudson-yards-art-1491400. Davis points out that visual art is incorporated into the retail environment of The Shops and Restaurants at Hudson Yards, with commissioned works by Willie Cole, Deborah Kass, Rico Gatson, Rob Pruitt, Will Cotton, Jeanette Hayes, and Laura Schnitger.

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