When plans for Thomas Heatherwick’s $150 million public sculpture for the Hudson Yards real-estate development in Manhattan were unveiled to the public last week, my jaw dropped. The project, titled Vessel, is so ridiculously over-the-top and so breathtakingly ill-conceived that at first I thought it had to be a joke, or a set piece from a dystopian sci-fi film. But sadly, it seems, this is reality.
The work is set to be installed next year and is apparently already under construction in Italy, where it has handily gone 100 percent over its initial budget of $75 million. (The money is coming from Related Companies, the real-estate developer behind Hudson Yards.) New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has voiced his support for the endeavor, but I am holding out hope that this thing somehow can be stopped. I have three main reasons: (1) it appears to be ugly, boring, and largely pointless, (2) it is an absurd amount of money for an artwork, and (3) its mere presence in the city seems likely to have a deleterious effect on the public’s appreciation for culture in New York.
The easy case to make about Vessel is that it is extremely unattractive. Heatherwick, a master of publicity, actually seems to know this and compared his tower at a press conference to a garbage bin last week, as if to co-opt that analogy from the start. To my eye, it recalls a hypertrophied mall without stores or some sort of futuristic prison, or the the overbuilt, alienating architecture that features in some of Andreas Gursky’s digitally altered photos, or Piranesi’s prison prints. The most generous analogy I can come up with is that it resembles an upside-down beehive smothered, for some unknown reason, in bronzed steel.
The work measures 150 feet tall and will have 2,500 steps and 80 landings. Curiously, Mayor de Blasio imagined the place in public comments last week as “a place that will cause us to reflect and think,” but just looking at all those stairs, in the renderings, induces stress in me. I imagine people running around them, snapping selfies, and waiting in long lines to reach the top. It is an artwork or building (Paul Goldberger has pointed out that neither term is exactly apt) as pure spectacle, pure participatory carnival, but a carnival that seems mostly to involve walking up and down stairs, which makes Carsten Höller’s facile slides and other follies look fun, by comparison.
In an equally weird comment during the unveiling, Heatherwick diagnosed an acute love for fitness among New Yorkers and, according to Politico, mused, “The hope is that this could be the white-sneakered, ultimate, morning fitness thing for someone coming at 6 in the morning every day.” Which, sure. But it is easy to see why the developer behind the project, Stephen M. Ross, is really excited about the project: this gigantic structure will be filled with bodies, walking all around to no discernible end, taking photos before spending money all around Hudson Yards. It is a prime example of an artwork as lifestyle, as an economic driver, and it will be a painfully fitting capstone for the north end of the High Line, a public-private development that has rapidly abetted gentrification in a neighborhood that is home to some of the most dramatic inequality in all of the city.
The whole eyesore would almost be acceptable, in a humorous, nihilistic kind of way, if we didn’t know just how much money was going down the drain on this. To repeat, it will be a full $150 million—or $200 million if you factor in the money going toward the surrounding park. (Given Heatherwick’s apparent penchant for cost overruns, who knows just how high that price will soar, though?)
This project comes about at a time when many of New York’s largest museums have been struggling financially. The Met has attempted to plug a budget shortfall by laying off staff and offering buyouts. Meanwhile, the city’s smaller nonprofits continue to chug along, hosting fundraisers and making ends meet. Their budgets are modest: Artists Space’s is around $1.9 million (for the fiscal year ending 2014), SculptureCenter $1.4 million (2014), White Columns $920,000 (2014), and the Studio Museum in Harlem $6.4 million (2015). The Public Art Fund spent $5.4 million in the fiscal year ending 2015, staging a fairly impressive array of artworks all around town. The current price tag for Heatherwick’s sculpture, invested with a 4 percent annual return could keep the Public Art Fund afloat in perpetuity, showing literally thousands of artworks to the delight of New Yorkers and the great people who visit our city.
And yet, as institutions with broad mandates and wide audiences struggle to get by, Heatherwick and Ross are being given a sum that dwarfs their annual budgets to build one awful architectural folly. And for the record, generally speaking, I am all in favor of artists taking the money and running, since I tend to think it ultimately bolsters the public’s perception of art, but this pushes the limits of reason, to say nothing of good taste in its outlandishness.
Which brings us to my final point, that the work would actually have a negative effect on the public’s understanding, appreciation, and even love of art. Already, headlines about multimillion-dollar art sales make contemporary art seem like a rich man’s game, something for an ultra-elite, moneyed sliver of society. Heatherwick’s sculpture is an overblown monument to that sensibility. In fact, it makes the spectacle culture promoted by the Guggenheim Museum and Tate Modern look quaint in comparison. As Ross so nicely put it in New York magazine, “The public doesn’t have any idea of what Hudson Yards is. Nobody has a real idea of what it really means—what the impact will be for the city going forward. It will be the new center. You have these great corporations moving here, and then you have this.” You have this: a gleaming accretion of capital.
It is, of course, true that the work could ultimately stun when it arrives in the flesh. If that happens, I will be the first to happily eat my shoe, but when an artwork is so large, and its intent is so clearly to dazzle within the context of bland corporate architecture, it feels fair to at least make a passing judgment based on renderings.
All of that said, Heatherwick’s Vessel, grandiose, bombastic, and ultimately hollow, is at least perfectly named: it is a vessel for consumerism, for empty showmanship, and for all of the shallowness and superficiality that real art aims to counteract.