The first thing I noticed about Vessel, the 150-foot-tall architectural objet at the center of Hudson Yards’ public space, is that it’s very, very shiny. There are definite Cloud Gate vibes—each time I’ve been there, people have stopped to stare at their orangey reflections, and if selfies haven’t already appeared on Instagram, I’m sure they will soon.
The shininess, though, feels emblematic of something larger; what better way for developer Related to sell Hudson Yards as “a new neighborhood in New York” than to plop a bauble that will never dull (it’s covered in copper-coated steel, because actual copper would rust over time) in the middle of the whole thing?
There’s no telling what New Yorkers will do to Vessel once they have the opportunity to climb it—though the rules for the attraction explicitly state that food, gum, vaping, sitting, spitting, and other unmannerly behaviors aren’t allowed—but the exterior, at least, will always look as shiny as a new penny.
It’s a totally different experience once you actually enter Vessel: The interior of the sculpture, as well as those 154 staircases, is made of dark concrete, a stark contrast to the bright, gleaming exterior. The “Escher-esque repetition,” as Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange put it in her Hudson Yards review, is a bit unnerving and definitely a little dystopian, with endless flights to climb for seemingly no reason at all.
But according to Thomas Heatherwick, the British designer who dreamed up Vessel (and executed it with the help of Related CEO Stephen Ross, who shelled out $200 million for it), there is a point to the climb. It’s all about connection, he believes, and providing the public with a unique space that matches the “dynamism of New York,” as he put it during the megaproject’s opening festivities.
“It’s a platform for whatever’s going to happen with it, and on it, for the years and decades to come,” Heatherwick said, noting “it’s not finished” until New Yorkers actually climb and experience it.
Who can actually climb the thing is, of course, an issue; there’s one elevator, which deposits those who need to use it on the south side of the sculpture, where they can… stay and look out at the Shed before going back to Vessel’s base. Because of the nature of the piece—interconnected staircases, and lots of them—it’s already not very friendly to those with mobility issues. Having an elevator that doesn’t allow for much movement throughout the piece doesn’t help.
But let’s assume you’re able to climb all the way to the top. You should wear comfortable walking shoes, and prepare to stop every so often, both to catch your breath and take photos. Once you make it up there, you will probably feel awed. I did; for all of the criticism, there is something impressive about the structure. Both the experience and the architecture are a novelty—I can’t think of the last time I climbed a piece of public art that looks like a beehive—and that in and of itself makes it worth a visit, at least once. (The views, as my colleague Caroline Spivack said after we climbed, are “of New Jersey.” They’re fine, but maybe beside the point.)
The real test of Vessel’s success, though, will come later, once the sheen has worn off (not literally, of course) and New Yorkers have a chance to put Heatherwick’s theory to the test. Stuart Wood, an architect with Heatherwick Studios who worked on the project, compared it to “a piece of furniture in the urban living room … that it’s a place for conversation and reflection.” Whether that bears out, or whether it becomes just another Instagrammable thing in a city that’s increasingly full of them, remains to be seen. (But the fact that you need to get a ticket beforehand doesn’t exactly lend itself to spontaneous reflection.)