A Dallas architecture critic’s hot takes on Hudson Yards and the Vessel in New York
Last week, Hudson Yards, the largest development project in New York since the Rockefeller Center was built in the 1930s, was eagerly awaited. Hudson Yards is a $ 25 billion city with towering glass towers that have been erected over the train stations that lead to Penn Station. It’s a mixed-use complex with more office space than all of downtown Dallas, luxury residential units, and a huge mall with retailers including Neiman Marcus. At the heart of the development is the ship, a $ 200 million cone made of stairs designed by Thomas Heatherwick in the MC Escher style. There’s also a $ 500 million event venue, the shed, designed by architects Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro.
The architecture critic Mark Lamster offers these 21 observations on this city from a single source.
1. I love a pristine glass tower, but a world with mostly glass towers means an inhuman world with icy reflections and sharp surfaces. Why can’t we be a little more creative materially? A good model: the Republic Bank Tower here in Dallas with its beautiful perforated metal panels. More of that, please.
2. Any utopia that insists on its own perfection is also a dystopia. But you don’t even get perfection with Hudson Yards. The buildings are just … boring.
3. It’s not even that they are “bad” per se. This is where the pillars of the corporate architecture work – SOM, KPF. But everything is subordinate to a collective figure that feels impersonal and corporate.
4. Seen from any distance, the ship looks like a mythical giant’s wastebasket. Yes, it’s an easy target for that type of joke – it’s a giant doner kebab! – but these jokes come to the critical problem at Hudson Yards, namely that the size of the towers is so big that even a massive gimmick like the ship appears like a toy.
5. I’m not exactly sure what the shed is or why it is necessary. The puffy plastic exterior is odd, however, and it is certainly the most interesting architecture on the site. It looks really futuristic while everything else looks like it was futuristic in 1980. Or 1920. Actually …
6. A century ago we dreamed of thrown together Supertall Towers, but then they all had skybridges and helipads and finally we realized it was a bad idea, but we still seem to be building them.
7. The ship is like Twitter being an architectural work. You go around and around and you end up nowhere.
8. Hudson Yards is known as a “Smart City”, which means that data is constantly being accessed to regulate everything from energy consumption to traffic behavior. All of this is done in the name of efficiency. How much power and how much data are you willing to give a business unit, no matter how innocuous the argument is? Part of what makes a city desirable is a certain inefficiency. Here, too, every utopia is its own dystopia.
9. If this data capture operation doesn’t sound scary to you, this might be: The developers at Hudson Yards claim the right to use any photo you might take on the ship – like it or not. Yes, Big Brother wants your vacation photos. Say cheese!
10. Hudson Yards is so big that Victory Park, Dallas’ new neighborhood, feels like a mall.
11. The blue chip chefs are here: José Andrés, David Chang, Thomas Keller. But Hudson Yards is not the place for anything sui generis to develop. Chang can move here, but he would never have started in a place like this. And I wonder if there will be the halal carts and dirty water dog vendors that define New York. Hudson Yards needs to make room for some urban stuff.
12. What is the better known example of New York’s budget design objects: the ship or the Ground Zero Oculus by Santiago Calatrava?
13. New York now has another huge luxury goods mall, but if you walk down Madison Avenue it’s one vacancy at a time. I don’t shop a lot in these boutiques, but it’s sad to lose their individuality for the homogeneity of the mall and you crawl on all the empty shop fronts.
14. The ship: You climb onto a raised platform and stand around and wait and nothing happens. It’s like a train in Queens.
15. Hudson Yards would make a great name for a ballpark. Which would have been a better thing to put in Hudson Yards.
16. I suspect there was a lot of giggle at Amazon headquarters in Seattle last week. After all the turmoil over corporate returns, the company moved its HQ2 project out of Long Island City. But the New York developers at Hudson Yards benefited from even more public size. Does it help to be local?
17. The critical consensus was largely negative, both for development as a whole and for the ship. But critics hated the World Trade Center for the same reasons when it opened, and then warmed it up. However, it took a while.
18. It would have been cooler if, instead of boring towers, the entire complex had been a forest of these superskinny, supertall apartment buildings, but maybe not everything for plutocrats.
19. Irony: Philip Johnson, the elite corporate architect who was a self-proclaimed “whore”, suggested a mixed-use, middle- and low-income development for this location back in the 1960s. Somewhere he is laughing or crying or both. Probably both.
20. What makes New York or any other city so special is its unique character. When developments become hermetic they become homogeneous and that is the death of character.
21. The ship is the perfect object for our time: trading our collective narcissism lures you in so you can post footage on social media, but it’s really about promoting its own corporate interests. Compare that to another climbable New York sculpture, the Statue of Liberty, which celebrates America’s openness to immigrants. What does this trajectory say about our values?
Mark Lamster is an architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and a professor at the University of Texas at the Arlington School of Architecture.