Vessel with View of Hudson River

Monstrous Stairway grabs attention in Manhattan

Just as the National Museum of Qatar is about to be open to the public in a few days, images of a new land mark in New York are taking over the internet.

Critics are busy trying to figure out what the building stands for. Andrew Russeth, Co-Executive Editor of ARTnews, calls it blithely, “a structure that is so ridiculously over-the-top and so breathtakingly ill-conceived that at first I thought it had to be a joke, or a set piece from a dystopian sci-fi film”.

One cannot fault Russeth this review, for a look at this monstrous piece of construction marvel is indeed spinetingling. Not only is this construction a confrontation of senses, it is also a rude awakening to the world of inequality while being a showcase of copiousness.

But like any other building that SCALE covers, we give this building and its creator a fair chance to explain the story behind it. Because no work of art and architecture is simple, it involves the dedication and creativity of designers and perseverance of builders and labourers.

Here are some facts from the architects. The building was commissioned to the Heatherwick Studio whose chief architect is Thomas Heatherwick, a British designer whose prolific and varied work over two decades is characterised by ingenuity, inventiveness and originality.

Vessel - Hudson River

Vessel with View of Hudson River

Thomas’ unusual approach applies artistic thinking to the needs of each project, resulting in some of the most acclaimed designs of our time, says the firm. Following the Gold Award success of the UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, Heatherwick Studio has won design briefs of exceptional buildings including the Google campus in Silicon Valley, Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross and the overhaul of London Olympia.

According to Heatherwick Studios, Vessel is a new type of public landmark – a 16-storey circular climbing frame, with 2,465 steps, 80 landings and views across the Hudson River and Manhattan. It is the central feature of the main public square in the Hudson Yards development, one of the largest real estate projects in American history, which is transforming a former rail yard in Manhattan’s Upper West Side into a completely new neighbourhood, with more than five acres of new public spaces and gardens.

The brief given to Heatherwick Studio was to design a centrepiece for Hudson Yards, something that would welcome visitors into the heart of the district and create a new place to meet in Manhattan. Part of the challenge was to create something memorable that would not be overwhelmed by the surrounding cluster of towers, or the scale of the new public space above the train platform. Exploring different possibilities, the team started to narrow the parameters: it should be a memorable single object, not a series of objects dispersed throughout the space; rather than an inert, static sculpture, it should be a social encounter, which encourages activity and participation – it should be fun.

Vessel Interior

Vessel Interior

Fun isn’t foremost on my mind as I scan through the buildings, it is pain, as the steps does seem to be a hurdle to encounter to have a social encounter in a place like Manhattan.

Russeth who climbed the stairs reveals that the Vessel has a disquieting, uncanny sense of being something that is not quite real and also comments on the unpleasurable experience of climbing the stairs which are narrow at some points and offers no respite in the form of seating available. But he also agrees that the view that the structure offers is the best.

Vessel - Manhattan

Vessel – Manhattan

According to Heatherwick Studios, every element of the Vessel is bespoke, from the joints to the handrails. The 75 huge steel components were produced in Venice by specialist fabricator Cimolai, before being brought from Italy in six shipments, carried across the Hudson River by barge, and assembled on site in a process that took three years.


Yet despite the size of the Vessel, it has been designed at a human scale, to be climbed, explored and enjoyed by New Yorkers and visitors – a simple structure, animated by people and the reflections of the square beneath. A pure intent it seems, but to call this structure simple is deriding the architecture and construction of this massive structure.

By Sindhu Nair


Pictures courtesy: Vessel Interior – Michael Moran for Related-Oxford


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