On a day in late March when wind gusts hit 36 miles per hour, Vessel sang out its response. Throughout Hudson Yards, the five-acre Manhattan site in which it assumes a spotlight presence, the 16-story sculpture produced a spooky, whistling moan. Even amid the furious cold wind, people stopped to try to figure out the source of the voice filling the air. It seems that when the wind is right, Vessel’s honeycombing form emits an unwavering note, turning the work into an accidental sound sculpture (though Manhattan’s official sound sculpture remains Max Nauhaus’s 1977 Times Square, embedded still beneath a grating on Broadway and 46th Street).
Vessel, by the 49-year-old British designer Thomas Heatherwick, is a work of art—or is it architecture?—that many New Yorkers were determined not to like upon its public debut in March. Whether it is regarded as an attraction or a sculpture or even a building, some people see it as a token art gesture by the developers of a complex that includes an appalling mall and 1000-foot-plus towers housing apartments at GNP-scaled prices. At first glance, the copper-hued surfaces of Vessel take on the reflections reminiscent of mirrors in carnival fun houses—wild distortions in which humans or passing clouds break into cubist compositions.
Perhaps it’s the sheer glitzy shine of the material, its pieces seamlessly fitting like a Pythagorean puzzle, which makes for a lukewarm first impression. Its very hue has a whiff of Trump—both of his dyed hair and of the interiors of some of his so-called developments (e.g. his namesake tower on Fifth Avenue). But Vessel becomes a worthy work of art when you enter it; experience it. This is clearly not one of Walter De Maria’s or Robert Smithson’s thoughtful earthworks, but Vessel approaches the scale of such, and it allows, indeed is designed for, people to occupy it. It turns out that some of its most thrilling sculptural moments are not the ones apparent on its multiple façades. Rather, it’s the inner structure that imbues it with aesthetic integrity.
Upon entering the structure—an inner sanctum defined by 154 flights of stairs (2500 steps in total) and 80 landings, all immediately visible—visitors are greeted by a blue, glowing center, a colored cobalt glass circle illuminated from below. Already, this circle of light has become the source of a new New York custom—the laying of cell phones on its surface, so that users can reach in and touch the button to take a photo revealing the inner identity of the sculpture. There’s something Narcissus-like about the way people kneel to the pool of blue, some brushing their palms along the surface to see if it is light-warmed (it’s not), then placing their smartphones on the glass like offerings. While there is no reflective quality to the glass, the very gestures and ceremonial devotion people pay to the glass might make it the object of an urban myth.
The most arresting moment, though, upon entering the work is encountering the sinuous steel tracks of the elevator shafts, accidental works of art within a work of art. These frameworks for the elevators are open on their side and each tapers as it rises the full height of the structure. Silver gear-teeth razor along the sides. While virtually every tourist aims a phone up to the structure, few people seem to take in these undulating shafts, their cavities making statements as Minimalist sculptures.
An Escher-like, zigzagging array of flights of stairs leads eventually to the top, but during the climb, the supporting steel members of the structure come into view, with their pristine rows of rivets. Charles Demuth and other Precisionists would surely have delighted in these pure industrial moments, structural elements still rust free, absent of graffiti or grime. Predictably, the higher one climbs (the experience of which can be vertiginous, especially on a blustery day when it feels as if you could be blown off), the more expansive the views. New Jersey, alas, never beckons from any height. But some thrilling sculptural moments do come into view along the climb. For instance, the lines of neatly arrayed, idle, silvered railroad cars that fill the extant train yard to the west work as a monumental sculpture. The massed train cars become a singular work of art, with echoes of De Maria’s 1979 Broken Kilometer, the sculpture composed of rows of polished brass rods that is on public view in SoHo.
Other sculptural and architectural wonders come into view, too, such as the splayed bracing of one of the new office towers as it vaults and hugs a lower portion of the building. The Shed—the performance venue whose interior envelope can expand or contract with a moveable, undulating façade on Gulliver-scaled wheels (pure examples of industrial might, sculptural in their effect)—appears also.
It’s easy to compare the Vessel to a variety of existing sundry forms, natural and manmade (some critics have likened the structure to a beehive and a wastepaper basket, though I also see resemblances to a whalebone corset or an ectoskeleton). The first architectural reference that struck me upon entering was its resemblance to a John Portman hotel atrium, though absent a roof and walls.
This is a sculpture that is meant to be fun. Don’t look for profound meanings or theoretical allusions, or what “ism” it might harken to. It’s not the object of the Vessel that is the art. The art is the experience the visitor has upon occupying the work. It’s not likely that many people would regard Vessel as a beautiful work of art or a beautiful sculpture. Memorable and iconic in its form, yes, but pretty or delicate, no. What many people appear to be taken by first and foremost—and you can witness this by watching the viewers—is its scale. Is there a manmade object on earth that is at all similar? New Yorkers should be grateful that we have a new icon.
Here is an attraction that offers a new and novel experience. Not one that will change your life or that you’ll never forget, but one that will certainly engage you for the time it takes to climb to the top and make the descent. Afterwards, you’re free to wander the mall to look at five-figure watches and jewelry on sale, or, better, link up to the High Line and begin a walk south, away from the shopping crowds.
Vessel is something New Yorkers might take visitors from out of town to see and climb. And that same New Yorker, having already climbed it, might wish to remain at the base and wave to his visitors as they make the ascent.
“I’ll be waiting for you down here, when you’re done,” you’ll call to them.