thomas heatherwick has unveiled plans for an engaging public landmark that will form the centerpiece of new york’s hudson yards development. named ‘vessel’, the interactive structure is intended to be climbed, explored, and experienced. comprising 154 interconnecting flights of stairs, the installation will offer a variety of ways to engage with the city’s urban landscape. in total, the design — with its almost 2,500 individual steps and 80 landings — will offer a mile’s worth of pathway above a sprawling public garden.
‘in a city full of eye-catching structures, our first thought was that it shouldn’t just be something to look at,’ explains heatherwick. ‘instead we wanted to make something that everybody could use, touch, relate to. influenced by images we had seen of indian stepwells, made from hundreds of flights of stairs going down into the ground, an idea emerged to use flights of stairs as building elements.’
video courtesy of hudson yards
heatherwick studio’s design for hudson yards comprises a geometric lattice of intersecting flights of stairs. the form of the painted steel frame, rises from a 50 foot diameter base and widens at the top to 150 feet, with an underside clad with a polished copper-colored skin.
‘when I was a student, I fell in love with an old discarded flight of wooden stairs outside a local building site,’ heatherwick says. ‘it caught my imagination and I loved that is was part furniture and part infrastructure. you could climb up stairs, jump on them, dance on them, get tired on them and then plonk yourself down on them. years later, suddenly here was an opportunity to make a new kind of landmark for hudson yards. we wondered whether it could be built entirely from steps and landings?’
images courtesy of forbes massie / heatherwick studio, unless otherwise stated
‘vessel’ will form the centerpiece of a public square and gardens designed by landscape architects nelson byrd woltz — in collaboration with heatherwick studio. informed by manhattan’s rich ecological history, the site will feature more than five acres of plazas with groves of trees, woodlands plants, perennial gardens and a 200-foot-long fountain that mirrors the flow of a river. the platform itself serves as a ventilating cover over the working rail yards below and is engineered to support large-scale plantings, while simultaneously acting as a reservoir for site storm-water management and reuse.
at the project’s unveiling in new york, designboom spoke with thomas heatherwick who explained the concept behind the design in more detail. read the interview in full below.
the installation is comprised of 154 intricately interconnecting flights of stairs
designboom: from the outside it seems like there weren’t too many constraints for the project. can you explain the initial design process?
thomas heatherwick: I suppose we see it as a kind of building extension of the public space. in creating a vast new public space there was a high risk of ‘generic-ness’, and building environments can be so similar now. even when buildings are a bit different, the forces that drive retail, that drive residential, and the mix of things that come together to make any new development, are now pretty similar. so the particularity of the space is so important. we’re standing next to a 1,200 foot-high tower in construction, but we’re still roughly the same height humans were 2,000 years ago, when buildings weren’t a fraction of that. so we got more and more passionate about how to keep particularity in the environment around us that is less about shape, but more about the emotional response.
the design comprises almost 2,500 individual steps and 80 landings
TH: (continued) in a way, we saw this as a building made from staircases. there was nothing to commemorate here, and having something that creates a physical engagement creates a chemistry between us. you would probably go a different route than I would. there’s a sort of unspoken choreography as you see each other, in seeing and being seen, and an almost stitched in humor. if something is an unfamiliar experience it draws out different responses from people that can trigger another layer of ways people respond to each other.
so the idea grew from saying: if we have got this space, how can we lift the people up to see each other? — as there is no point trying to compete with a 1,200 foot-high tower. the reason it has a small bottom is to leave as much of the square as clear as possible for things that can happen on the flatter part. so to us, it’s a piece of the square, it isn’t a separate thing. there is a mile of public space, but within that there are 80 human scale spaces. when it is pouring with rain, that would be the place to stay dry.
the plaza surrounds the base of the structure
image courtesy of visualhouse / nelson byrd woltz
DB: new york has seen a number of different types of public space in recent years. how exciting is it to design a new type of public space for the city, that encourages people to engage with it in a different way?
TH: I feel that new york has been pioneering different kinds of public space out of some kind of necessity, because the city was originally planned with one mega public space. the density was so great that there has been a thirst for space. the high line was a kind of shock in its humbleness, and yet in how radical it was. it has no job, it’s not really a route from one place to another, but it’s about human experience. in a way that egged us on to believe that maybe we could make a different kind of public space for the city. the reason the high line is special is that if the same greenery was on the ground it wouldn’t have meaning. it’s the fact that it is raised up that means that your perspective on people and the world around is altered, and different than your usual perspective.
the scheme forms the centerpiece of the hudson yards development
image courtesy of visualhouse / nelson byrd woltz
TH: (continued) we thought this project was a pretty unusual kind of commission really, whether you like it or not, it will be a different experience of space to have with your friends or by yourself. it shows that humans can do unusual things, and that we can make and create. cities need to keep inventing new environments.
‘vessel’ is expected to take two years to complete
TH: (continued) buildings are becoming more similar, and cities are becoming more and more similar. you have to try harder to create real difference, because 50 years ago or 100 years ago, we could travel around the world and towns or cities were different because there was not this global connectivity. now, global procurement and communication means that an office building near the arctic is pretty similar to an office building in a tropical climate near the equator. there is this simultaneous general merging and ‘similar-izing’ of cities, which I find less interesting when I am more passionate about cities that believe that they facilitate human progress.
scale model of the structure, on display at the unveiling
image © designboom
DB: is the structure wheelchair accessible?
TH: yes, and it’s not just as a duty. we’re going to have quite an amazing elevator. we’ve designed it with extra love in the details. when have you ever been on a curving elevator? and in fact, when was the last time you walked up 16 storeys? there was a sense that there was a physical dimension and a spatial human scale to this project, and whether you see it as a building or an extension of public space, it is a platform for new york to use and to do what it wants with.
thomas heatherwick revealed the landmark project at an event that took place at hudson yards
image © designboom
hudson yards is being developed by related companies and oxford properties group. under construction on the far west side of midtown manhattan, the vast scheme is the largest private real estate development in the history of the united states and the largest development in new york city since rockefeller center in 1939.
architecture in new york (164 articles)
architecture in the US (384 articles)
hudson yards (6 articles)
thomas heatherwick (40 articles)
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