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New York City's Gigantic Public Art Failure

Designed to be the crown jewel of the Hudson Yards development, a 150-foot-tall collection of 154 interconnected staircases known as the Vessel remains off limits.

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(Photographs by David Kidd)
In  Brief:
  • New York City’s Hudson Yards in the largest private real estate development in America.
  • A $200 million interactive structure known as the Vessel is the project’s centerpiece.
  • The Vessel remains indefinitely closed because of its use in a number of suicides.

  • Until recently, the Far West Side of New York City was one of the last great undeveloped areas of Manhattan. Twenty years ago it was an unremarkable collection of repair shops, parking lots and storage facilities. A sprawling train yard owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was its defining feature. For years, development was discouraged by an out-of-date zoning code that prohibited tall buildings.

    In recent decades, several proposals for the site have been considered and rejected, including an 85,000-seat stadium. The city approved a 60-block rezoning plan in 2009 and a year later the MTA signed over the air rights to its train yard. Construction commenced soon after on Hudson Yards, a collection of super-tall glass towers, a high-end shopping mall and a $500 million performance hall. The 28-acre $25 billion project is the largest private real estate development in American history. 

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    Prefabricated sections of the Vessel await their installation in 2017.
    The centerpiece of Hudson Yards is a 150-foot-tall collection of 154 interconnected staircases known as the Vessel. Located in the project’s public square, the Vessel rises from a 50-foot pentagonal base to a diameter of 150 feet at the top. With nearly 2,500 individual steps and 80 landings, the monumental sculpture was designed to encourage visitors to interact with their surroundings and each other. 

    The Hudson Yards developer tapped an English studio to design the Vessel, which was assembled onsite from sections fabricated in Italy. Highly polished sheets of copper-colored steel cover the framework, reflecting people in the square below while remaining high enough to discourage vandalism. Unforeseen complexities in fabrication drove the price of the Vessel from an estimated $75 million to well over $200 million. 

    Deemed “gaudy” by the New York Times architecture critic, the Vessel opened in March 2019 to largely negative reviews. The shimmering structure has been likened to a giant shawarma or a mythical giant’s wastepaper basket, among other things. But that hasn’t stopped the endless swarms of Instagrammers who are drawn to the site. 

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    The Vessel under construction in the summer of 2018, less than a year before it opened to the public.
    Since the Vessel was designed for people to climb and clamor over, engineers took pains to stabilize the lattice of stairs, making it immune to both the wind and overactive visitors. Unbalanced-load scenarios were considered, such as when a concert or other event would cause all of the occupants to stand on one side or the other, or move up and down in unison. What they failed to consider was how easy it would be for some visitors to jump to their deaths. 

    By the time the Vessel marked its two-year anniversary, three people had committed suicide by leaping from its heights. The attraction was closed after the third death in January 2021 and reopened five months later with new protocols in place. Information about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline was placed along walkways and printed on tickets. Additional security staff were hired, and a buddy system established, requiring visitors to enter in groups of at least two.

    Later that summer, a 14-year-old boy leaped to his death while visiting with his family, prompting another closure that remains in effect today. The site’s developer is reportedly considering closing the Vessel permanently but has yet to announce an official decision. 

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    The public plaza is reflected in the Vessel’s copper-colored steel cladding.

    They Built It and They Came

    Crowds continue to flock to the area, as they did on a recent spring afternoon. In a random sampling, most visitors that day were from out of town and several had come from overseas. Whether from upstate New York or Shanghai, nearly everyone seemed to be aware of the Vessel’s troubled history. 

    The Vessel was on the list of things to see for Beth and Stuart, a couple visiting from Wales. “It is disappointing, but we still wanted to see it anyway,” said Stuart. “It’s a shame. It’s fantastic looking. Really impressive.”

    Londoners Karinna and Alex were not disappointed by the closure, mainly because they had been following news of the Vessel before their arrival. “You would have thought that they’d planned it better,” said Alex. 
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    Closed indefinitely, the Vessel still draws tourists and their cameras.
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    Visitors take selfies on the Vessel’s ground floor.
    David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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