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Max Touhey

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The antisocial stairway of Hudson Yards

From Columbia’s Low Library to Times Square, New York City’s greatest stairways are also its most convivial public places. Not so at Hudson Yards.

On a sunny mid-March afternoon, I strolled along the High Line from an appointment in the West 20s to Hudson Yards. I was eager to plunge into this new part of the city, to be a tourist in my own town. My colleagues—pretty much every architecture writer I know—had already weighed in on the place, declaring it a fraud, a demonic anti-neighborhood built by and for soulless billionaires—a point I found hard to argue.

Still, when I looked up at the development’s silvery towers framed by the tight sightlines of the linear park, I willed myself to give it a chance: “This is what the 21st century is like,” I thought. “Get used to it.”

Although I’d long been hating on the architectural bon bon I think of as the Heatherwick Object, I was determined to visit Hudson Yards with an open mind and enjoy what puckish designer Thomas Heatherwick once referred to as a device that might allow us to reflect on what is “timeless about humans and our physicality.”

My larger agenda, however, was to test what Mayor Bill de Blasio said at 2016 preview of the thing its owners call Vessel (TKA). (The letters stand for “temporarily known as”—a competition to rename it is underway—and it’s referred to sans article, much as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sometimes refers to Trump’s wall.) De Blasio boasted that Vessel and its surrounding plaza “will be one of the great public squares of New York City.”

At the first opportunity, I made an online reservation, blithely signing off on the draconian terms and conditions, which render the LLC that operates Vessel blameless for a range of hazards including “slipping, being knocked off balance, falling, exposure to flashing or intermittent special effects or lighting, personal injury or death.”

New Hudson Yards Neighborhood Officially Opens In Manhattan
Vessel is made of 154 interconnected staircases.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

I arrived carrying a notebook, the spiral-bound ink-and-paper kind. (There’s a limit to how 21st century a baby boomer can be.) My intention was to climb the 16 stories to the top of Vessel, which resembles an inverted beehive—clearly built by plutocrat bees, not workers—sit down somewhere, observe, and take notes. I try to understand urban places by immersing myself in them, and I have two well-honed strategies: walking around, and sitting still. As it turns out, only one of them is appropriate for Vessel.

After prowling greater Hudson Yards for an hour, searching for a fast meal that didn’t require waiting in line, I approached Vessel and navigated pair of checkpoints: one to insure that I was entering at the appropriate time, and the other to scan my barcode. Once inside the structure, I dodged the scrum at the very bottom, where adults and children were setting their phones on the ground, camera lenses skyward, to capture the perfect upward snapshot of Vessel’s gaping orifice.

Still feeling upbeat, I decided that the key virtue of Heatherwick’s design, is that unlike, say, the Statue of Liberty, there is no predetermined climbing path. If the selfie-stick militia is clogging one of the 154 stairways, I could easily take another.

I realized that the other good thing about Vessel is that it offers a previously non-existent perspective on a new part of town. I especially appreciated the views to the north, which reveal a swath of nascent boulevard and a strip of scraggly parkland that looks like a theme park in search of theme. (Perversely, that particular stretch of park was recently named for pioneering feminist politician Bella Abzug, the Congresswoman who represented Manhattan’s west side in the 1970s, before it was discovered by developers like Hudson Yards’ Stephen Ross.) There’s also a crowd-pleasing view of the Hudson River.

In his 2018 New Yorker profile, Ian Parker quoted Heatherwick telling an audience that the promise of all the stairs is you can “jump on them, dance on them, get tired on them, and then plonk yourself down on them.” Parker then pointed out that proposed rules for the Vessel forbid “‘food, gum, drinks other than water, strollers, backpacks, animals, running, jumping, and throwing balls.’ Also ‘No sitting on the stairs.’”

I didn’t check to see whether the “no sitting” rules apply before I began my visit; I just clambered upward, along with everyone else. I did notice, however, that other than on the steps themselves, there was nothing upon which to sit. Some Vessel visitors who appeared to be winded could have benefited from a spot to rest. (I expect that heart attacks will be to Vessel what sex acts in the window were to the Standard’s High Line hotel—the signature scandal.) I didn’t exactly need a place to sit, but I badly wanted one so I could extract myself from the flow and watch the helter-skelter ballet of other people navigating the gleaming coppery hexagons. I was hoping for a bench or even just a ledge on one of the 80 landings where I could stop and take in the theater of the thing. But of course, there wasn’t one.

In my mind, the ability to comfortably linger is the hallmark of a great public place. It is also the difference between an empty vessel and a container that can generate its own culture and community. But Vessel offers no benches or ledges, and I would no more sit on these stairways than I’d sit on the steps at a subway station. “Plonk yourself down” and you’d risk getting kicked or tripped over or charged with a breach of terms and conditions. I felt a profound need to stop moving, to push back against the thing’s hamster-wheel momentum—but I couldn’t do it.

Later, I checked with a publicist at the Related Companies, the developer of Hudson Yards, to find out whether there were plans to install any sort of seating. Not inside Vessel, I was told. But she emailed me a rendering of a sleek 200-foot-long bench that will someday trace the curve of an exquisitely landscaped slice of the plaza below. It seems I was confused by de Blasio’s earlier praise; the plaza may eventually be a great public space, but never Vessel.

Which is a shame. While going up and down flights of stairs, I was reminded of another frequently derided, tourist-saturated part of Manhattan. I’m thinking, of course, of Times Square, which has been remade in recent years in large part by another flashy, destination staircase.

Built from translucent structural glass, the 16-foot-tall Red Steps was the winner of a 1999 competition sponsored by the Van Alen Institute to replace the trailer that had been dispensing half-price theater tickets since the 1970s. (The TKTS booth is now housed beneath the steps). Designed by an obscure Australian firm, Choi Ropiha (now renamed CHROFI), it opened in 2008. The steps accommodate an estimated 13,000 people a day. Many of them, like Vessel visitors, are just in it for the selfies. But some people actually take the opportunity to sit and study the spectacle before them.

Times Square’s red TKTS steps are now a de facto gathering spot.
Shutterstock

To me there is something transcendent about being still amid the intense visual cacophony and perpetual motion of Times Square. The real magic of the steps, which are open to all without tickets or restriction (although they’re roped off when it rains) is that they’ve transformed the world’s most famous urban plaza—where there had previously been no room, physical or psychological, to linger—into a genuine public space.

I like to bring my grad students to the Red Steps to sit and observe. Almost all of them come with preconceived notions about Times Square that sound much like the criticisms of Hudson Yards: It’s a fake neighborhood, not a destination for real New Yorkers. I don’t know that many of my students ever return to Times Square voluntarily, but most of them come away from an hour on the steps with an ability to see historical layers and design nuances that make it a surprisingly authentic piece of the city.

Ultimately, however, the difference between a real public place and a pretender is how people behave. Are they comfortable? Do they make the place their own? Can they come and go as they please? The simple ability to stop, to linger, to sit and observe, “to plonk down,” is a form of ownership, even if it’s temporary. Unfortunately, requiring a ticket to enter sends a clear signal; this space doesn’t belong to you.

Steps, as you know if you’ve visited a state-of-the-art office or academic facility, are not just for climbing; they’re the social space du jour. My best hope for Vessel is that someday it ceases to be a ticketed attraction, the terms and conditions expire, and it’s adopted by people who will eat, drink, smoke, create—and, just maybe, sit still.

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