Can New York City’s ‘Vessel’ Be Saved?

When Heatherwick Studio unveiled the Vessel in Hudson Yards in 2016, the 16-story honeycomb had its share of detractors. Some criticized its $200 million price tag, while others complained it blotted out views of nearby arts venue The Shed or joked it looked like “a giant shawarma.” 

No one predicted the centerpiece of the five-acre Hudson Yards Public Square would become the site of repeated tragedies.

On Thursday, July 29, a 14-year-old boy plunged to his death from the Vessel’s eighth floor, the fourth suicide there in less than two years.

The attraction had just reopened in May, after being closed since January in the wake of earlier suicides. The first death at the Vessel was in February 2020.

Despite the repeated incidents, Related Companies, the developer that oversees the Vessel, declined to raise the glass railing, which is currently about waist-high on an adult.

In January, Curbed’s Audrey Wachs said raising the barrier above eye level was “the most straightforward harm-prevention tactic.”

It would save lives, she added, “but it also would have obstructed the view, the Vessel’s key selling point.”

Instead, a $10 admission fee was instituted with the May reopening and visitors were required to enter with at least one companion. Signs offering help were posted and security officers were trained in suicide prevention.

Those measures weren’t enough to stop the young teen from quickly slipping over the side rail last week, as his family looked on in horror.

In an op-ed Monday, Architectural Record editor-in-chief Cathleen McGuigan said it was time for the “150-foot-high folly” to be demolished, a sentiment shared by Curbed architecture critic Justin Davidson.

“Not only does the tragedy of four suicides mark the Vessel,” McGuigan wrote, “but the idea that this gargantuan chunk of shiny, copper-colored steel is a sculptural amenity for the citizens of New York is the biggest folly of all.”

Thomas Heatherwick

Photo: Elena Heatherwick

While many have decried the hubris of Related’s billionaire chairman, Stephen Ross, McGuigan criticized the Bloomberg administration for allowing a private developer to oversee the development of Hudson Yards’ mandated public space in the first place.

“Taking down the Vessel would begin to correct this enormous error in which the public interest was pushed aside,” she wrote.

Longtime architecture writer Fred Bernstein suggested dismantling just the top half of the structure—“so it wouldn’t be such an attractive target and also wouldn’t compete so much with The Shed.”

Alternatively, he mused, “I wonder if it could be sunk into the ocean for scuba divers or as an artificial coral reef for marine life.”

For now Heatherwick Studios seems determined to find a structural solution that allows the Vessel to reopen without inviting future tragedies.

In a statement shared with AD, a spokesperson said the studio was “distraught” over the most recent deaths and, in conjunction with Related, “has exhaustively explored physical solutions that would increase safety.”

But such solutions require “rigorous” testing, they added, “and while we have not identified one yet, we continue to work to identify a solution that is feasible in terms of engineering and installation.”

Ross has hinted he’s considering closing the structure permanently, telling The Daily Beast, “We thought we did everything that would really prevent this.”

But Lowell Kern, chair of Manhattan Community Board 4, which oversees western Manhattan, is dubious. Last week Kern told The New York Times the boy’s death “was entirely preventable.”

“For Related to claim they did everything possible here is just not true,” Kern told the Beast. “They could have raised the height of the barriers, and that would have prevented this tragedy. For reasons unknown to us they decided not to do that.”

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