When future Architecture Textbooks are written, it seems as safe a bet as any that New York’s High Line project will mark an important turning point not just in the history of adaptive reuse but also in our popular engagement with urban design. It’s fair to call the elevated, 1.5-mile park a genuine phenomenon. It has driven Chelsea’s property values skyward, spurred a glut of real estate development, and inspired similar efforts in at least 19 other American cities.
The High Line also managed something exceedingly rare: it became an instant landmark, joining the pantheon of Gotham’s greats, alongside the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the New York Public Library. Like the slightly-more stately Brooklyn Bridge, it turns infrastructure into a tourist attraction. If you’ve spoken to any visitor to the city over the past few years, you’ve heard about their memorable jaunt to the west side of Manhattan to walk the High Line.
But can a landmark be planned ahead of time? Or does that kind of status require a kind of natural charisma or even luck? Is building a landmark like capturing lightning in a bottle? What elevates Chicago’s beloved Cloud Gate (or, if you prefer, The Bean) above every other art project languishing away in a public park? While it’d obviously be impossible to know for sure, we collected a valuable data point in our hypothetical study in March 2019 when New York’s Hudson Yards Redevelopment Authority opened a 16-story, a honeycomb-shaped monument called The Vessel.
Designed by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, The Vessel is part sculpture, part viewing platform, and part poster from the M.C. Escher gift shop. It rises above Hudson Yards’ plaza, widening like a cone, clad in resplendent copper and glass marvel of symmetry and geometry. Assem-bled from 75 giant modular pieces manufactured in Monfalcone, Italy, the Vessel feels expensive. And it was. The monument cost a reported $200 million. But in simplest terms, The Vessel is an intricately conceived, very shiny staircase to nowhere in particular. And while one can catch a view of the Hudson River from many of its 80 landings, The Vessel is its own self-justifying destination. One goes to the Vessel to marvel at its construction and snap Instagram photos of its 154 interlocking flights of stairs.
Funded by developer Related Companies, the Vessel sits at the High Line’s northern-most point, and it’s clear that the structure was meant to capitalize on both its neighbor’s traffic and its cultural ubiquity: “We said we want to design a 365-days-a-year Christmas tree,” Related CEO Jeff Blau said upon the Vessel’s opening, “so that every single person who comes here has to come to Hudson Yards.”
With a large Related shopping center sitting in the Vessel’s shadow, one can imagine precisely why one would want a landmark there. But the Vessel is more than just a mall advertisement. Taken together, Hudson Yards represents the most expensive private development in the history of American real estate with an overall price tag of $25 billion, with planned luxury residences, retail, and a state-of-the-art performing arts center. Accordingly, Related has touted the Vessel as “America’s Eiffel Tower,” and implied that the monument should last for “hundreds of years.”
The idea of creating an intentional land-mark is a flexible one, spanning from hypercapitalist developments in New York to large-scale civic projects in communist China. A few years ago, a project in Changsa, China embodied many of the same goals (and a similar affinity for stairs) as the Vessel.
Designed by Amsterdam’s NEXT Architects, the striking Lucky Knot bridge offers pedestrians multiple undulating paths across the Dragon King Harbor River. Playful in its sensibility, the Lucky Knot invites pedestrians to choose their own path across the arcing, bright-red strands of the bridge that resemble a Möbius ring. The bridge has become a popular backdrop for wedding photos and a tourist magnet—while also managing to serve a functional need. Like the Vessel, the Lucky Knot is an argument for a certain vision of the future.
It’s far too early to know whether the Vessel’s bid for landmark status has been successful. Reviews have been somewhere south of mixed, with many criticizing the clear commercial intentions of the project. However, one may note that early reviews for the Eiffel Tower weren’t kind either. It’s entirely possible that the next time you talk to a recent visitor to New York, they’ll tell you about their memorable climb to the top of the Vessel.
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