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Heatherwick's Vessel ascends its way to NYC recognition

Inspired by Indian stepwells, the Vessel, designed by Heatherwick Studio, is an impressive centrepiece in the highly anticipated Hudson Yards area of New York.

by Meghna MehtaPublished on : Jun 03, 2019

I had heard much about the Vessel and many informed me, that as an architect visting New York City I must go see this newly built ‘sculpture’ in an area called the Hudson Yards . As anybody would, I frantically googled the name, and there popped an image of an impressive vase-cum-basket shaped structure finished in copper; and I immediately decided to go. I began my exploration at the High Line (an elevated railway line converted into a public park), which eventually leads up to the Vessel in Hudson Yards.

The Hudson Yards has garnered much attention over the past few years, as it is about to become one of the largest real estate projects in American history. Belonging to the original meat-packing district, to now being taken over by developers to convert it into a commercial district hub, many New Yorkers believe it will destroy the essence of the place. While the commercial buildings in Hudson Yards are in progression, the Vessel is one of the first built landmarks to mark the epicentre of this upcoming hub and may soon become the new ‘square’ to meet at, in Manhattan. Vessel is the central feature of the main public square in the Hudson Yards development. Designed by the London-based Heatherwick Studio as the centrepiece, Vessel is envisioned to create an impact and make its presence felt, becoming sculptural as well as interactive to etch itself into people’s minds.

  • Vessel and its surrounding context Image Credit: Michael Moran for Related-Oxford
  • Vessel and its surrounding context Image Credit: Francis Dzikowski for Related-Oxford
  • Interior of the Vessel Image Credit: Getty Images

A 16-storey circular frame, the climbing structure comprises of 2,465 steps, 80 landings and views stretching across the Hudson River and Manhattan. As I got off the HighLine and onto a small scaffolding-created walkway that had signages directing me towards the Hudson Yards, I was led onto an open square and before I could get accustomed to its new scale, I could see the ‘Vessel’. It was nothing like it appeared in photographs I had seen - the scale was enormous, empowering but pleasingly not overpowering. It felt humane. Was it due to the porosity of the structure? Was it due to its shape? Or was it merely due to the fact that you could see people standing at all levels that made it so accessible yet impactful? With these questions in mind, I proceeded closer to the structure. The copper finish of the exterior cladding reflected brilliantly, almost mimicking Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago. However, here, it was not as easy to photograph your own reflection.

Interior of the Vessel Image Credit: Getty Images

As I proceeded towards the entry through an elevated stone cladded platform, my head constantly tilted towards the sky, I could not help but be reminded of the stepwells of Modhera in Gujarat, India. It is only later upon investigation that I learnt how the desginers looked for clues in the Spanish Steps in Rome and the many Indian stepwells when conceptualising this project. These examples of highly successful interactive spaces in forms of open squares and plazas seemed to have played a critical role here too.

Voila! Having visited the stepwells of Modhera myself, this new age structure that stood before me blew my mind! The stepwells, as suggested in their name itself, descend from ground zero into the earth, seeking water at different levels. Their focus lies in the centre, which is accessed from all four sides. Contrary to this, the Vessel creates an experience that is upward and outward, all the while also looking in.

Interior of Vessel Image Credit: Getty Images

The design of the structure is prominently porous with floating staircases, floating landings and interconnected platforms. It was interesting to note that the relationship between the staircase and the landing here so closely resembled a centuries old Indian technique to create an active mechanism for social, communal and cultural interaction.

Having said that, it was also overwhelming and at the same time rather adventurous to climb the staircases one by one, getting bigger and better views of the city and the Hudson river beyond, being urged to get right to the top. The 3-dimensional quality of the structure surely leaves innumerable possibilities to explore the verticality.

Needless to say, much engineering and creative innovation seems to have gone into building this geometric marvel – 154 interconnecting flights of stairs designed as a completely self-supporting structure without any additional columns and beams. A steel spine between each pair of staircases creates a natural division between ‘up’ and ‘down’. The raw welded steel is exposed and the undersides of the steps are clad in a deep copper-toned metal.

The construction, quality and finesse of the Vessel is certainly something to be impressed by. This centrepiece has given ‘sculpture’ a whole new meaning, making it interact with people, while giving visitors, tourists and even office goers a pleasing visual to applaud and appreciate. The Vessel has given the city a true monument that tethers between art, sculpture and architecture. While many controversies surround its urban context and placement, one cannot deny the independent and rather individual statement it makes in the urban fabric. It was an interesting experience for me as an architect to visit the project, but whether and how it may contribute to the larger scheme of things at the Hudson Yards and to New York, is yet to be determined.

  • Exterior of the Vessel with a view of Hudson River Image Credit: Michael Moran for Related-Oxford
  • Exterior of the Vessel Image Credit: Michael Moran for Related-Oxford
  • Exploded axonometric Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • Roof plan Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • Section Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • Detail of balustrade Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • Section of lift Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

Project Details

Name of the project: Vessel
Location: Hudson Yards, New York
Client: Related, Oxford Properties Group
Completion March 2019
Gross (external) area: 2,210 sqm
Architect: Heatherwick Studio
Design director: Thomas Heatherwick
Group leader: Stuart Wood
Project leader: Laurence Dudeney
Project team: Charlotte Bovis, Einar Blixhavn, Antoine van Erp, Felipe Escudero, Thomas Farmer, Steven Howson, Jessica In, Nilufer Kocabas, Panagiota Kotsovinou, Barbara Lavickova, Alexander Laing, Elli Liverakou, Pippa Murphy, Luke Plumbley, Ivan Ucros Polley, Daniel Portilla, Jeff Powers, Matthew Pratt, Peter Romvári, Ville Saarikoski, Takashi Tsurumaki
Design engineers: AKTII
Structural engineers: Thornton Tomasetti
Landscape architects: Nelson Byrd Woltz
Architect of record: KPF Associates
Steel contractor: Cimolai Lift
Contractor: Cimolai Technologies
Cladding contractor: Permasteelia
Crowd analysis: ARUP
Lighting designers: L’Observateur
Project management: Tisham

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