the vessel via hewitt

Malls, Talls, and Pseudo-Culture Halls: Hudson Yards’ Failed Urban Forms

I remember the first time I looked into the canyons emerging on the West Side that would become Hudson Yards. I was retrieving my car from an impound lot on the West Side Highway and had to walk past the construction site. New Yorkers don’t get spooked by grand scale spaces—they are everywhere. But this was different—Oz-like, wickedly opulent, compulsively wasteful. I was agog.

Fast forward to this month’s spate of articles condemning the Related Companies and Oxford Properties, for building the biggest private development in the history of Gotham as an enclave for the rich. Give a developer an inch and he will take a mile; give him a mile and you get Hudson Yards.

Give a developer an inch and he will take a mile; give him a mile and you get Hudson Yards…We can’t pretend to be shocked. The city has been in bed with the Real Estate Boards for several decades now.

We can’t pretend to be shocked. The city has been in bed with the Real Estate Board for several decades now, and no mayor has been able to say no to the kind of tax revenues that accrue from increased FARs and taller buildings in fashionable areas of town. Throw in the 10% “affordable” housing that the law requires and you can’t be blamed for selling out to the 0.1%, as Mayor De Blasio has discovered in his second term. Never mind the acute housing shortage that isn’t being addressed.

Any socially progressive architect or urbanist will lament the loss of civic polity that has allowed developments like Hudson Yards to proliferate in global cities throughout the world, from London to Hong Kong. What many have missed is the mindless proliferation of urban typologies that long ago ceased to benefit the citizens of these metropolitan areas—shopping malls with boutique stores, museums for boutique collectors, and high viewing/living platforms for people with boutique incomes.

Advocates for sustainability and responsible urban development have criticized each of these building types, so we may wonder why they continue to crop up in both suburban and urban areas, especially in developing countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Internet commerce threatens to put mall developers out of business in the United States. Look at the bankruptcy statistics for mega-malls and the trend is obvious. There is even a popular website called “Dead Malls” that keeps track of the casualties.

But if middle class shoppers in America are abandoning the “public” shopping experience for the comfort of their own homes (and computer screens), the super-rich can apparently afford the leisure time to walk through sparsely populated mini-malls near their gated enclaves in Costa Mesa, Rancho Santa Margharita, and Del Mar. Perhaps when they are in Manhattan they will take an Uber to Hudson Yards to mingle with the oligarchs who purportedly reside there. They can grab a bite at Nobu or Thomas Keller’s latest gastro extravaganza.

The fate of the super-tall apartment tower is even more puzzling to contemplate. Following 9/11 many engineers and code officials questioned the wisdom of constructing skyscrapers over 50 stories, because these buildings required two or more stacked elevator banks, and their fire stairs were ineffectual in providing egress for those in the upper floors after the planes exploded and fuel ignited deadly blazes there. No one offered new technological or architectural solutions to these problems. Further, super-towers in Abu Dhabi and Malaysia required a number of mechanical floors at upper levels in order to provide cooling in hot climates. Manhattan code officials are now wondering how to accommodate such floors in new zoning regulations. In windy cities like Chicago the cost of structural counterweights is problematic, and in seismic zones like San Francisco both foundation and excavation costs are skyrocketing. Nothing suggests that constructing a “super-tall” will become economically viable for anyone but the super-rich. Why continue to pay architects super-high fees for doing so? There are many more pressing design problems that could fruitfully occupy the minds at SOM, HOK, AEC, OMA and KPF in the near future. (OMG, did I miss anyone?)

This brings us to the Shed, a culture hall for the over-privileged. A puzzling building by any measure, Diller, Scofidio & Renfro’s sliding roofed venue for concerts and art happenings has garnered praise from many critics for its daring design. I, too, was impressed. What, one may ask, is its purpose?

In high-culture meccas, such as Paris and London, new museums spring up like daisies wherever there are patrons with leisure time to spend looking at objects of desire. Frank Gehry’s obsequious Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne is now a “destination” in the Michelin guide, but visitors may wonder why they are there while walking through its lovely but superfluous spaces. With gas prices at record levels, the French won’t be among them. The fashion house that commissioned the building isn’t complaining—though its intended audience may never set foot in it—sales are increasing. The brand is what matters.

It is unlikely that partners in the Hudson Yards venture considered the potential uses of either the Shed or the Vessel before commissioning haute-couture designers to produce these baubles. The brand is what mattered to them.

It is unlikely that partners in the Hudson Yards venture considered the potential uses of either the Shed or the Vessel before commissioning haute-couture designers to produce these baubles. The brand is what mattered to them—both their own and that of the “Starchitects” they added to the list of advertised geniuses participating in their megastructure project. Phase II will have more of the world’s best paid brand enhancers: Santiago Calatrava, Robert A.M. Stern, and yes, Frank Gehry. Though buying culture from the architects who design most of the world’s museums, concert halls and theatres is not new to this generation of oligarchs, their attitudes toward culture itself have changed.

Steven M. Ross, the man in charge at Related, is unambiguous about his ambitions for Hudson Yards—to offer the most lavish, exclusive and outsized life style options for New Yorkers climbing the ladder to success. Having a shopping mall, a “museum of commodities,” attached to both housing and arts venues is an inevitable consequence of our conflation of money with culture. If both culture and knowledge about culture can be purchased like a commodity, we have crossed the Rubicon into decadence. Nero’s city in flames cannot be far behind. It is little wonder that the city’s most venerated institutions are being “acquired” by oligarchs: the New York Public Library, Frick Collection, the Museum of Modern Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art continue to be in the news for selling out in one way or another.

Will “the public” be able to enjoy the cultural wonders that are part of Hudson Yards, as they do the skating rink and Lee Lawrie sculptures at Rockefeller Center? Reporters have climbed the 150 staircases that make up the Vessel and their impressions are enthusiastic—new views of Manhattan and New Jersey will always be a draw. Though I haven’t yet had the experience myself, I can’t help but notice some painfully obvious resemblances between the Shed and the back of a garbage truck, and an even more disturbing image looking down into the bottom of the Vessel. Did Ross and his partners just pour $200 million down the toilet? Sadly, with all the money they’ll be making, it won’t matter one bit.  

Featured image via Wikipedia Commons.


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