Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The “Vessel” at New York’s Hudson Yards—like so many of his designs—look as if the dystopian world of 1984 has been given a precious makeover.
An alien arriving on Earth this month might be forgiven for assuming that Thomas Heatherwick is currently the world’s most beloved urban designer. The British designer/engineer just unveiled his mammoth climbing-frame-cum-corncob Vessel at New York’s Hudson Yards, while just a few minutes up the Hudson River, an offshore park Pier 55 (also known as Diller Island) is rising out of the tidal sludge on Heatherwick-designed concrete lily pads. In London, his Coal Drops Yard retail development, which features kissing buildings, opened last October in the formerly warehouse-filled hinterland behind Kings Cross Station. Further afield, Heatherwick Studios repurposed a grain silo as an art gallery in Cape Town in 2017 and is co-designing something that looks like a titanic xylophone in Shanghai.
This high-profile intercontinental spread has made Heatherwick all but ubiquitous. It has also earned him a heavy dose of suspicion mixed with contempt, both from critics and the public. His name is often used as something of a synonym for everything that’s wrong with contemporary urban design. The New York Times has dubbed him the “billionaire whisperer” for his dossier of flashy corporate projects; the Guardian called him a “Pied Piper” who has managed to beguile extra-wealthy patrons. Some of his projects have been dubbed “Truman Show Nightmares.” Even the generally, pro-development, pro-business conservative media has started coming for Heatherwick’s projects as bellwethers pointing to exactly where our cities are going awry. But why?
Because, frankly, many of Heatherwick’s projects stink. Time and again, his designs crop up in urban ensembles that look as if the dystopian world of Orwell’s 1984 had been given a kooky Wes Anderson makeover. It’s not aesthetics that are the inherent problem, however. The issue is that the kind of developments that Heatherwick’s structures brand appear playful but are actually loci for a queasy mix of distraction and surveillance, places that promise cheerful hi-jinx but which enforce consumption-driven regimentation on their users. Look at the Vessel (which some wags have already informally renamed “the Shawarma,” thanks to its resemblance to a spinning meatloaf-cone). Here’s a fun $150 million tower of staircases that invites visitors to clamber—but only under ludicrously strict conditions and control. Like many of his projects, it’s essentially a gaudy monument to being only ever-so-slightly free.
Or take Heatherwick’s most notorious project to date, London’s now-cancelled Garden Bridge. In its initial renderings it looked charming: a breezy, shady flower meadow strung incongruously but delightfully across the River Thames. But soon, the cracks started to show. The bridge would secure public funding from Transport for London as piece of infrastructure, but offer no needed improvement to pedestrian circulation, all the while banning bikes and closing in the evening for corporate event hire. Visitors would have their cellphones tracked; such typical public-park pleasures as music or picnics would be banned. Making this experience yet bitterer was a strong suspicion that the project was rigged in Heatherwick’s favor by then-mayor Boris Johnson. Having already lumbered London with a stifling, claustrophobic double-decker bus designed by Heatherwick, Johnson and the Garden Bridge then exited the scene, having cost the public purse £53 million ($70 million) without a single brick being laid.
This security-cameras-behind-the-flowers approach wasn’t a one-off. London’s Coal Drops Yards cropped up in an area once full of underground nightclubs and cheap artists’ studios. The area has now been transformed into an anodyne, gutless shithole populated with places selling coffee at £15 a cup. Located next to St. Martin’s College of Art, the development is a public-seeming but actually private space so devoid of any evidence of creative spark that a stroll around can give you the uneasy feeling that you’ve arrived a day or so after some sort of brutal police crackdown.
And now we have the Vessel. Presenting itself as an urban playground for carefree fun and scrambling, it is, yet again, in fact a heavily policed, grimly regulated space. Hudson Yards controls access to the structure by ticket, and asserts in their terms and conditions the right to use any image of the structure taken by anyone granted access for promotional purposes in perpetuity. Following an outcry, the Yards have generously conceded that photos taken by people who haven’t even entered the yards themselves will be exempted, meaning that people who take photos of it from the safe distance of 11th Avenue will not be forced to sign over rights to their images forever. That this is a concession is telling in itself. This isn’t a playground: It’s an Instagram-friendly panopticon.
These forebears don’t bode well for New York’s upcoming Pier 55, which to date shows little sign of avoiding the mistakes of its predecessors. Like most cities, New York needs genuine public spaces where anyone can hang out and mingle without having to buy stuff, click online user agreements, or do anything more than stay within the broad boundaries of the law. With the Vessel and Pier 55, all it is getting is functionless corporate-driven architectural dingleberries. Everyone deserves better.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the Vessel’s cost was $200 million, a cost which in fact covers both the structure and the public square and gardens. The Vessel’s construction cost is in fact $150 million.