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A Hollywood Special Effect Let Loose in the Landscape: A Review of Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel

The controversial addition to Manhattan’s west side is emblematic of the triumph of digital spectacle over real experience

The great convergence is upon us. No, I’m not talking about the latest instalment in the Avengers franchise, though I might as well be. I’ve just returned from a trip up the Vessel, Thomas Heatherwick’s improbable addition to the west side of Manhattan. Too small for a skyscraper, too big for a CEO’s desk ornament, the project feels like a Hollywood special effect let loose in the landscape. Or a Mario Bros game, as redesigned by Jorge Luis Borges. We have arrived at the final domination of digital spectacle over real experience. 

The project has been subjected to merciless critique, mainly because it is the hood ornament for the controversial Hudson Yards project. This US$25 billion, 28-acre development will be the ‘largest mixed-use private real estate venture in American history’ when complete (according to the New York Times); and, any way you look at it, a massive giveaway to corporate interests due to lucrative tax breaks provided by the city. As architecture and design critic Kate Wagner writes, it ‘puts the commodifiable image above all else, including the social good, aesthetic expression, and meaningful public space’.  Last year, a New Yorker article depicted Stephen M. Ross, responsible for the Hudson Yards development as a satanic Santa, determined to give his big baubles to New Yorkers whether they liked it or not, with Heatherwick in the role of head elf.

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Heatherwick Studio, Vessel, 2019. Courtesy: Glenn Adamson; photograph taken using an iPhone.

As I approached the Vessel, though, all I could think was that it is the perfect emblem of our times. People seem to love it – or at least, taking pictures of it. When seen in the middle distance, its golden sheathing approximates that on certain iPhones, which is appropriate, for it is surrounded by people holding theirs aloft, as if in allegiance. 

Though free to visit, the Vessel is time-ticketed, a further sign of its popularity. Fortunately, I’d booked ahead, so went right in. At ground level, dead centre, is a glowing blue disk. I’m not sure what Heatherwick intended here – temple altar? Star Trek ‘beam me up’ pad? – but the public knows just what to do: lay their phones flat, to get a shot pointed straight up.

Even as you climb its sloping switchbacks – not an arduous process, unless you are afraid of heights – the Vessel never looks as good in your eyes as it does on your screen. Your angle is constantly refreshed, as on a retailer’s website. Not even a 1970s John Portman atrium hotel (which the structure strongly resembles, with its tiers and statement elevator) is so relentlessly photogenic. About halfway up, in fact, I met a self-described ‘professional influencer’, being photographed for her own Instagram feed. She’ll now retain the rights to those images: Hudson Yards has backed down from its initial, jaw-droppingly sinister claim to possession of any representations of the Vessel, even those taken by private citizens – though they still exert a claim to redistribute visitors’ pictures in any way they like.

When I reached the top, I reflected on the Vessel’s most paradoxical feature: it’s a viewing platform with no view. To the east is an undistinguished stretch of New Jersey shoreline. In every other direction, including up overhead, there’s nothing but glass and steel. I decided this was the perfect setting. If the structure towered above a rainforest canopy, its total solipsism would be diluted. 

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Heatherwick Studio, Vessel, 2019. Courtesy: Glenn Adamson; photograph taken using an iPhone.

As I descended, I noticed a few things I’d been too distracted to see before: the Vessel’s seamed and riveted ribcage; ‘locator numbers’ (C4, H7, etc.) to help security staff locate problems. Like the lighting rig and backstage tackle of a theatre, these few concessions to reality serve only to throw the act of representation into high relief. The Vessel exists primarily not as a physical object, nor even as an urban icon, but rather as the sum total of all the images taken by the visiting public, floating free in the virtual.

Characterizing the Vessel as a bad sculpture or bad architecture or bad public space, then, misses the point. It is brazenly, terrifyingly indifferent to all those twentieth-century categories, and the critical apparatus that attended them. In this respect, too, it’s like a super hero movie or video game. Spend enough time in this nested hive, this self-regarding phantasmagoria, and you might come to feel like an apex member of a new species. As for myself, I probably won’t go back. I’d rather spend time with actual vessels – things I can actually lay my hands on.

Main image: Heatherwick Studio, Vessel, 2019. Courtesy: Heatherwick Studio; photograph: Michael Moran

Glenn Adamson is Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA, and the author of books including The Invention of Craft (2013).

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