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Stairways to Heaven Planned for Hudson Yard

An upper level view, from inside the Vessel planned for Hudson Yards. | FORBES MASSIE/ HEATHERWICK STUDIO
A rendering of the upper level of the Vessel planned for Hudson Yards. | FORBES MASSIE/ HEATHERWICK STUDIO

BY ALEX ELLEFSON | The architects and overseers of Hudson Yards have never been reluctant to tout the scale, design, and long-term impact of their ambitious project. Still, plans for the new neighborhood’s monument and public space, unveiled at a lavish September 14 ceremony, further cemented developer Stephen Ross’ vision of creating an attraction to stand tall alongside other iconic Manhattan destinations.

Dubbed the Vessel, the 150-foot-high steel monument — made of latticed staircases and landings — will form the centerpiece of a five-acre public square in the sprawling development. The structure will allow people to walk more than a mile through the twisting vortex of steps that look out onto lush gardens covering the area.

Ross said at the ceremony he wanted the monument to inspire the same wonder as the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, but offer the experience year-round.

The public square and gardens, including the 150-foot Vessel, looking south from West 33rd Street. | FORBES MASSIE/ HEATHERWICK STUDIO
A rendering of the public square and gardens, including the 150-foot Vessel, looking south from West 33rd Street. | FORBES MASSIE/ HEATHERWICK STUDIO

“I wanted to create a 365-day Christmas tree,” he explained. “We wanted something people could relate to and would be participatory, something that would be very exciting and would draw people here time-after-time.”

Ross showcased the design at the outdoor event, hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, that also included a speech by Mayor Bill de Blasio as well as a discussion with designer Thomas Heatherwick, who created the concept for the monument, and landscape architect Thomas Woltz, who crafted the public square and gardens.

Hundreds of people — including commissioners of the FDNY and NYPD, Public Advocate Letitia James, state and city legislators, as well as agency leaders — attended the event, which had the vibe of a Fashion Week soiree. Velvet ropes ringed the dapper guests in the seating area while a cavalry of photographers pursued Ross and de Blasio as they surveyed the site.

“This will be one of the great public squares in New York City,” said de Blasio. “And it’s going to be a place where people want to be just to feel the energy of what’s happening. Hudson Yards is reenergizing a section of our city that not long ago was disconnected from the vast majority of us. Something is happening here that is opening up vast potential, and it’s exciting to see just how far we can go.”

A rendering of the interior of the Vessel’s 154 flights of stairs, 80 landings, and nearly 2,500 steps, currently being built in Italy. | FORBES MASSIE/ HEATHERWICK STUDIO
A rendering of the interior of the Vessel’s 154 flights of stairs, 80 landings, and nearly 2,500 steps, the components of which are currently being built in Italy. | FORBES MASSIE/ HEATHERWICK STUDIO

Hudson Yards is built over a transportation hub used to store commuter trains. Besides the challenge of constructing the collection of sky-scratching towers over the site, the train activity below makes it difficult to support the plants and trees in the plaza.

To make sure soil is cool enough for plant life to flourish, the kinds of fans used in jet engines will blast heat from the rail yard away from the public square. The design also calls for a sophisticated cooling and irrigation system to support the 28,000 plants and more than 200 trees — all native to New York — planned for the site. The plaza will also have a 200-foot-long fountain inspired by a river that flowed through the area 400 years ago.

“It’s a landscape that pushes the boundaries of what landscape architecture might be,” said Woltz. “Imagine that people can come and enjoy this site, the plaza and garden, without realizing 30 trains are moving beneath you.”

When it’s complete, the plaza’s tree groves and gardens will connect the High Line to the Hudson Park and Boulevard — creating the longest path of open spaces created in Manhattan since Central Park.

To come up with the anchor for the new plaza, Heatherwick said he turned to Indian stepwells, stone staircases that descend into the earth through an inverse pyramid. His concept was to turn that idea inside out. However, Heatherwick said he also drew on personal experience to find inspiration for the design — recalling a time when he plucked an old wooden flight of stairs from a refuse bin on his college campus.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper moderates a September 14 discussion with Related Companies chairman Stephen Ross, designer Thomas Heatherwick, and landscape architect Thomas Woltz. |  ALEX ELLEFSON
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper moderates a September 14 discussion with Related Companies chairman Stephen Ross, designer Thomas Heatherwick, and landscape architect Thomas Woltz. | ALEX ELLEFSON

“If we could get a mile of public space, and in a way stitch it all together with 250 flights of stairs and make a project out of it, it would be like a viewing gallery for all the other places around,” he said.

His project weaves together 154 flights of stairs, 80 landings, and nearly 2,500 steps to create an almost walkable basket in the heart of the plaza. The project is currently being built in Italy, Heatherwick said, and is expected to be completed in two years.

Cooper, whose employer, CNN, plans to move into 30 Hudson Yards, said: “I can’t wait to run up the Vessel every morning before I go to work.

Ross’ Related Companies and Oxford Properties are developing Hudson Yards — the largest private real estate development in the United States. When completed the project will take up more than 17 million square feet of commercial and residential space, including a 750-seat school, more than 100 shops, and a luxury hotel. Ten Hudson Yards opened this year — and the nearby 15 Hudson Yards started selling its condos this week. The tower also began offering 106 affordable apartments, which are available through a lottery.

During his speech, de Blasio praised Ross for making the development a welcoming place for all New Yorkers.

“I’ve spoken to Steve many times and I know that he understands how important inclusion is — how important it is to have something that everyone can feel a part of,” the mayor said. “That it would only work if it was a public space meant for everyone.”

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