11 July 2019

The Vessel. A Stairway to Nowhere

New York has gained a new architectural icon. A giant honeycomb sculpture, an American version of the Eiffel Tower, an Escheresque “Stairway to Nowhere” (a play on Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven), boasting extraordinary views over the Hudson and the Big Apple. However one chooses to define it, Thomas Heatherwick’s The Vessel is New York’s latest landmark. More sculpture than architecture, it has already made its mark as an on site social platform, Instagram, and as one of the most popular hashtags. It’s basically a bold 3.0 architectural project that is hard to define in terms of both form and function, while fully responding to the client’s brief for a structure capable of competing with symbolic buildings such as the Rockefeller Centre or the Empire State Building.

Thomas Heatherwick wanted to create something original and unexpected that would serve no purpose other than to bring people together in a horizontal and vertical, totally public and free of charge space, providing them with an experience that was out of the ordinary and a different sort of freedom, thus embodying the true spirit of New York. Inspired by the structure of traditional Indian stepwells (although the model has been inverted), The Vessel consists of 154 flights of stairs, all interconnected, which intersect to create 80 panoramic landings. The structure rises to the equivalent of 16 floors, 45 metres high, for a total of 2,500 steps. Made up of repeated basic hexagons, the enormous prefabricated copper-clad concrete and steel structure was made in Italy by the Cimolai steel fabrication company in Monfalcone, which manufactured the pieces of this incredible 3D puzzle, which were shipped to New York by sea, a journey that took 15 days, including being transported across the Hudson River to the construction yard on barges

What architects, urbanists, designers and critics have all picked up on (often in far from positive vein) is that it is a fundamentally enigmatic object that fails to demarcate, enclose or contain anything at all. It serves no purpose other than to be panoramic and bring people together. It creates a spectral and futuristic atmosphere. And it’s pink. “My studio was commissioned to design a centrepiece for an unusual new piece of land in New York. In a city full of eye-catching structures, our first thought was that it shouldn’t just be something to look at. 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 of flights of stairs as building elements,” said Thomas Heatherwick. “We wondered whether it could be built entirely from steps and landings? The idea is that it will act as a new free stage set for the city and form a new public gathering place for New Yorkers and visitors.” As for the colour, Heatherwick did not pander to current trends or Millennial taste: “There’s a greyness of all buildings around the world, I felt this could afford to differentiate itself.”

What does strike the visitor, however, is the intensity, the warmth and the “sociality” of the edifice, which has already won a place in the hearts of the thousands of people who visit and move around New York every day. In the end, who’s to say that uselessness can’t be “good”? Who’s brave enough to claim that an inclusive, aggregational space, open to all, has no good reason to exist? With all due respect to those who believe that 150 million dollars are frankly too much for a “non place.”

The Vessel

Hudson Yards, New York City, NY 10001-2151


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