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A group of tall skyscrapers and one decorative structure.

At Hudson Yards, the future isn’t now

The $25 billion megaproject bills itself as a “future city”—but it’s more of the same

There is a spot, walking north on the High Line toward West 30th Street, where Hudson Yards looks almost all right. The Shed, wearing a pillowy parka made from weatherproof ETFE panels, slides in from the left. The transparent lobby of 10 Hudson Yards overlaps it from the right, and the copper bowl of Vessel sparkles in the winter sunlight. The towers rise beyond: black-and-blue 15 Hudson Yards farther west, tan-striped 35 Hudson Yards to the north. There’s a hint of variety even though every material is hard and neutral, every edge geometric. There are even a couple of curves. It looks like a real city.

You’re coming off a curve yourself, as the High Line’s former rail trestle arcs, for the first time, out toward the river. Now there’s a new path open to the north, connecting you to the shops and the restaurants and the Equinox and the offices and the condos and the Instagrammable ball pits that live inside those muted grids.

But as you keep walking, those pieces disengage from each other—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven objects standing on a super-engineered platform. No one thought to bring any crayons, much less softness, or texture, or water. Help will eventually arrive, in the form of 200 mature trees and 28,000 plants, as well as a 200-foot-long handmade wooden bench, specified by landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz. Opening at the tail end of New York winter is not kind to the landscape, but it is hard to believe the plants will be enough to mitigate the unrelenting angles of the new city-within-a-city.

The problem of the design of Hudson Yards, the 28-acre, $25 billion development built on a platform over Penn Station’s working railroad tracks, is that there is no contrast. No weirdness, no wildness, nothing off book. The megaproject was built by an all-star team of designers, but in the end, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the corporate and the artistic.

All along I’ve been having trouble keeping the towers straight—maybe they need names? There’s 55 Hudson Yards, designed by Eugene Kohn of KPF, which has a retro-TV-shaped grid on the facade. Let’s call that one Mad Men Tower. There’s David Childs and SOM’s 35 Hudson Yards, which alternates glass with Jura limestone panels, which I’ll call the Thumbprint Building for its inward-curving entrances. (Related president L. Jay Cross tells me that, while the developers did not specify materials for the various architects, they “encouraged David Childs to use stone” when they realized the collection of towers was getting very, very glassy.)

15 Hudson Yards, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rockwell Group, sits over the Shed (also designed by those firms), and appears to robotically burrow into the skyscraper’s base. The lower part of the curtain wall is crisply patterned in alternating blue-and-black rectangles, so let’s call that the Textile Building.

A wall of windows.
55 Hudson Yards.
A steel structure with a curved design.
The Shed.
A close up of the steel facade of a building.
10 Hudson Yards and the Shops.
A building with a glass facade and a geometric shaped upper level.
30 Hudson Yards.

On the eastern side, both 10 and 30 Hudson Yards were designed by KPF, and both manage to be squat and pointy and shiny and pointless. You’ll know 30 Hudson Yards by Edge, the observation deck, so it can be the Lookout Building. You’ll know 10 Hudson Yards by how happy you’ll be to get to the Mercado Little Spain after a long, crowded journey north on the High Line. Let’s call it the Mastodon, for the way it switches from shiny, just at the base, to stone-clad, with Breuer-inspired legs that come down over the High Line’s 10th Avenue Spur.

The sharp angles and puffy Shed nod at something more contemporary than modernism, but modernist architects like Kevin Roche at KRJDA or Gordon Bunshaft at SOM understood that they needed to make space for genuine quirk. That is where their collaborators—artists like Sheila Hicks, Harry Bertoia, and Isamu Noguchi—came in: They made work by hand that complemented the grids of projects like the Ford Foundation Building or Manufacturers Hanover Bank with texture, curves, and color. That’s also where landscape architects like Dan Kiley and Hideo Sasaki came in, adding trees and planted beds, understory and allees, to soften the hard lines of projects like Lincoln Center or Dallas’s Fountain Place.

But at Hudson Yards, the art, selected by Related chairman Stephen Ross, is as hard and shiny as the architecture. One imagines, when he and his team went searching for a sculptor to create a centerpiece for the project, that he’d go for something along the lines of Jeff Koons’s Puppy, which came to Rockefeller Center for three months in 2000: whimsical and floral and surreal. (Ross clearly has Rockefeller Center envy. “I said at the beginning, I want a 365-day Christmas tree, and you are looking at it,” he said on a recent tour of the site.) But both the Puppy and the tree offered textural contrast to Raymond Hood’s limestone-clad ensemble of buildings. They lived and they died.

Whatever you call Heatherwick Studio’s Vessel—the wastebasket, the egg-crate, the Escher-brought-to-life, the basketball net, the Great Doner Kebab—it is the opposite of those examples. Not temporary, not cuddly, not delicate. It looks just like its renderings except possibly more perfect. I had mentally assigned it an outer cladding of weathering steel; with everything else so smooth and shiny, surely Vessel would have an industrial flavor? But no—Heatherwick Studio leaned into the fractal nature of its design, and the cladding, copper-colored steel, has a mirror finish like Anish Kapoor’s Bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park, welcoming our irresistible impulse to selfie. As we assembled on the plaza below it, the underside of the upper tiers crisply reflected us as ants in bright orange safety vests.

As I entered Vessel through its northern portal, there I was, on the ground and moving overhead, Alexandra multiplied. I don’t think I have ever seen a surface so shiny. While everything around us seemed covered in construction dust, or perhaps just the medium-gray scunge of New York winter, Vessel gleamed.

A tall metal structure with multiple levels. There are buildings surrounding it.

I can’t tell you not to take a trip up Vessel. I haven’t experienced anything like it before, and the Escher-esque repetition is discomfiting for those of us who prize our sense of direction. Project architect Stuart Wood says that Vessel is like a piece of furniture in the urban living room; that it’s a place for conversation and reflection. (Maybe the latter, but only in the physical sense.) But when you’re on Vessel all you can think about—all you can really focus on—is Vessel. Not tripping over the steps, deciding which staircase to take, do I take a photo now, or later, or both? As I leaned out over the railing, my companion for a few flights wondered if they were going to have to rope off a fall zone for dropping phones.

When William H. Whyte published The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1980, he defined “triangulation” as a necessary quality. Triangulation was the mutual act of looking at something—a performer, an artwork, a foundation—that allowed strangers to speak to each other. In today’s spaces, those free experiences have largely been replaced by food. The time for dawdling that design might once have encouraged has been transferred over to the doughnut department. The chefs, and their brands, provide the celebrity and diversity at Hudson Yards, from José Andrés’s Mercado Little Spain to Blue Bottle Coffee to David Chang’s Kāwi and Peach Mart to Thomas Keller’s TAK Room. It is a formula that has served Related well at Time Warner Center.

Food provides focus, provides cultural cover, provides color. But food is rarely free and, despite the foregrounding of the dozens of offerings at Hudson Yards, it isn’t brought forward by the architecture. From the plaza, you’ll only be able to see the second-floor Blue Bottle Coffee. Food is being used as a lure to get people to go up into the retail spaces, which kills any salutary effect it might have on the actual public space.

Ultimately, though, does it matter? For all the talk of Hudson Yards as being the first North American smart city, it doesn’t feel like the future, except for perhaps the video screens that advertise, offer touchscreen wayfinding, ticketing, and—surprise!—enclose cameras that watch your every move. The majority of innovations called out on the press packet sheet labeled “Engineered City” are largely under the hood: A constant stream of inputs monitored by “operations managers” will allow Hudson Yards, the sentient being, “to monitor and react to traffic patterns, air quality, power demands, temperature and pedestrian flow to create the most efficiently navigated and environmentally attuned neighborhood in New York.”

Think of it as the next generation of contested public space. This is also—ahem—the promise of the platform at the highly contested Sidewalk Toronto, where traffic, wind, and winter will be overcome through the collection of data. It is no coincidence that the corporate HQ for Sidewalk Labs is located in 10 Hudson Yards; Sidewalk’s Dan Doctoroff was the original mover for the site’s development, way back when he led the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics in 2001.

We always knew it would be like this, because this is what you get when you let a private developer make a neighborhood—there’s no room for weirdness. Even if you hire different architects, their work comes out the same. If you look at 15 and 35 Hudson Yards from the waist up, can you tell which one is designed by perennial frontrunners for the Pritzker Prize, and which by the architect of One World Trade Center?

It is an explicitly rich person’s neighborhood on the edge of an island that tilts ever forward into being 100 percent rich person’s neighborhood. You really don’t have to go there if you don’t work there and, as I joked last year on Twitter, the whole thing could detach and float down the Hudson and it wouldn’t change a thing in my life. Farewell, great ocean liner of lawyers, fine dining, and fancy gyms!

But, of course, it does matter.

Two escalators under an arched ceiling.
A detail of curved beams running along a ceiling.
The interior of Hudson Yards in New York City. There are floor to ceiling windows. The ceiling is high. There are many shops.
An elevator bank at Hudson Yards. There is an illuminated ceiling and illuminated walls with a flower design.

Rockefeller Center, Battery Park City, the neighborhood that would have been Atlantic Yards—each of these has been and will forever be more boring than the real city. Knowing this, we need to stop letting capital set the urban terms. Cities need to plan their own megaprojects, invest in the transportation network, make those parks, and then let the developers in to fill them out—on the city’s terms. Some of the most transformative urban developments in New York City over the past decade, like Brooklyn Bridge Park, have started with parks. So far, that’s what happening at Sunnyside Yard, in Queens, for which there is a second public meeting later this month.

The New York Times recently reported that Related and Oxford Properties Group, the developers of Hudson Yards, had received $6 billion in city subsidies. But their figures weren’t quite right. They included the $2.4 billion extension of the 7 train—a necessity, not a subsidy (though the originally planned two stops, with one at 41st Street, would have been smarter than just one)—and $1.2 billion for Hudson Boulevard and its parks. Those are appropriate public investments. The issue is the interest payments on the bonds the developers took out, as well as the tax breaks they will receive for years to come. The developers say they can’t afford to build without subsidy, but why do city leaders—especially in New York—always fall for this?

After the official tour I wandered back through the retail building with Cross, traversing the lobbies of 10 Hudson Yards and 30 Hudson Yards. He pointed out the future location of a tunnel to the 7 at the north end, and a potential hallway and elevated bridge that would cross 10th Avenue, through Brookfield’s Manhattan West, and connect to Moynihan Station. Finally, I felt a little bit excited. New routes!

I was reminded of the strange beauty of the Santiago Calatrava-designed tunnel below One World Trade Center. Before the Oculus opened, and the retail filled in, it felt like a fragment of a space station had fallen to earth. I kept taking people to see it, like a ride.

These are the sort of urban dérives—a term coined by philosopher Guy Debord to describe the joys of allowing oneself to drift from through the city in unplanned ways—that Vessel and, in fact, the entire development attempt to commodify and contain. How many blocks will you be able to traverse indoors? What places will now seem close that once seemed far? When the High Line opened, it created a whole new sense of proximity along the West Side. We’ve absorbed that shock to the system now, but maybe it can be startled again? Could these paths be beyond the reach of those elegantly be-cameraed kiosks? I want something to discover myself, something off the responsive digital map—something better than going around and around and always seeing another grid.