Horror on the Hudson: New York’s $25bn architectural fiasco

State of the Nation

Source: The Guardian

It is a billionaires’ playground where haircuts cost $800 and high-rise duplexes go for $32m. So why do the angular towers of Hudson Yards look so cheap?

‘The hot mess’ … the Hudson Yards high-rises with the Shed and Vessel tucked in below and the High Line snaking round. Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy

‘One thing that’s always been true in New York,” says Dan Doctoroff, “is that if you build it, they will come.” He is referring to Hudson Yards, the $25bn, 28-acre, mega-project that he had a critical hand in originating while he was deputy mayor of the city under Michael Bloomberg in the early 2000s. He can now look down on his co-creation every day from his new office in one of the development’s towers and see hundreds of people climbing up and down Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel sculpture, like tiny maggots crawling all over a rotting doner kebab.

The first phase of Hudson Yards opened last month and people have indeed come – mostly to gawp at how it could have been allowed to happen. On a vast swath of the west side of Manhattan once earmarked for New York’s 2012 Olympic bid, a developer has conjured a private fantasy of angular glass towers stuffed with offices and expensive apartments, rising above a seven-storey shopping mall on an endless grey carpet, sprinkled with small tufts of “park”.

The surprising thing isn’t that such a development has happened. The real shock is that it’s quite so bad. Hudson Yards’ marketing hype is showered with superlatives: this is the largest and most expensive private real estate project in US history, a place bursting with “never-before-seen” retail concepts and “first-of-its-kind” dining destinations. It is billed as the ultimate in everything, a refined playground for discerning urbanites, with stores where you can spend five figures on a wristwatch and $800 on a haircut.

Yet it all feels so cheap. From the architectural zoo of convulsing angles to the apparent lack of care spent on the details, this is bargain-basement building-by-the-yard stuff that would feel more at home in the second-tier city of a developing economy. Stephen Ross, the billionaire boss of the Related Companies and driving force of the project, described it as a “museum of architecture”, which isn’t untrue. Walking through Hudson Yards feels like browsing a cladding depot, where panels of curtain-wall glazing, brushed aluminium and bits of stone collide in a wonky collage.

The hot mess starts on the skyline, way before you reach the elevated podium on which this self-contained city is laid out. The first megalith to come into view is 30 Hudson Yards, the larger of a pair of towers designed by stalwarts of corporate Americana, Kohn Pedersen Fox. It climbs up into the sky in ungainly lumps, with a triangular observation deck wedged into its side near the top, forming a pointy beak that gives it the look of an angry chicken. While this tower leans in one direction, its stumpier partner tilts in another, forming what the developer optimistically calls “a dance of sleek giants”. It is a tableau that almost elicits pity, like chubby fowl engaged in their first awkward mating ritual.

As you get closer, the pity dissolves into anger. Rather than inviting passersby in, the development turns its back, presenting a mostly blank frontage of service hatches and lift lobbies to the city, with an entrance at each corner to suck you up into the mall. Step inside and you find a shopping centre as prosaic as they come. With its plasterboard soffits and shiny fascia, it makes the likes of Dior, Fendi and Cartier look like discount stores.

Continue west and you are spat out on to the central plaza to be confronted by the mother of all novelty public art, like a mutant lovechild of New York’s two favourite snacks: the pretzel and the shawarma. Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel has been compared to many things, from a wastepaper basket to the expandable foam mesh for packaging fruit, but the designer prefers to cite the form of India’s ancient step wells. These great stone structures served a crucial purpose: to make it easy for people to reach water for washing, cooking and religious functions. Heatherwick’s basket of staircases, on the other hand, is the embodiment of selfie-driven spectacle, a lattice of 2,500 photo opportunities woven together in a vertical panopticon.

“Vessel TKA”, as it is officially known while it awaits the result of its public naming competition (entries to which include Stairy McStairface and Meat Tornado), has proved to be a magnet for near-universal ire, but it is by no means the worst thing in Hudson Yards. Traversing its landings and participating in the collective gawping is an entertaining experience, and the $200m (£153.4m) structure provides some good views over the surrounding architectural car crash.

But what isn’t evident until you visit in person is quite how shoddy it seems. Heatherwick projects have had some practical hiccups in the past – Manchester’s B of the Bang had to be dismantled after a big steel spike fell off, while Newcastle’s Blue Carpet paving faded to grey and needs constant repair – but this structure takes it to a whole new level.

Ascending the ticketed selfie-scrum last week, on a single route of 154 possible staircases, I encountered a smashed glazing panel, chipped steps and several places where duct tape had been used to stick errant pieces of cladding back on – after the thing had been open for just two weeks. Some steps look as if they have been crookedly cut on site to fit, while handrails crash into parts of the steel structure as if no one thought about how the two parts might meet. The Vessel’s relationship with the privately owned “public space” around it is revealing, too. Try to sit on the stone steps around its base and you will be instantly shooed away by a security guard.

The outcome is all the more galling given that the one truly public element of Hudson Yards was intended to occupy this central space. The Shed, an arts venue conceived by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) with the Rockwell Group, was the result of a request for proposals issued by the city in 2008 for a cultural attraction for the site. “We only had two requirements,” says Doctoroff, who is now CEO of Google’s urban planning arm, Sidewalk Labs. “It had to be different than anything else in New York, and it had to keep the city at the leading edge of culture in the world.”

DS+R and Rockwell’s plan originally imagined four nesting shells that would slide out into the centre of the plaza, but the developer had other ideas. “In 2011, Related asked us to get out of the way,” recalls Liz Diller. “The deployable building was getting in the way of people being able to see their shops.” The Shed was shrunk and flipped 90 degrees, so now its events plaza fills a gap in front of an office lobby, while its entrances are tucked away like poor doors at the lower street level.

The physical result betrays the nature of the forced marriage. When I asked Diller about the lack of views from inside her sliding inflatable performance shell, on a site tour last year, she was frank: “The surrounding buildings are not so gorgeous, so we didn’t want to focus people’s attention outside.” As we approached the Vessel, she added: “Out here you have a view to … well, let’s not talk about that.”

Back on the plaza, the place has distinct echoes of the World Trade Center site, where a similar lack of joined-up thinking has produced an equally placeless place. Any sense of the local character has been obliterated. Hudson Yards is suspended above 30 functioning train tracks, yet they have been swept under the pristine grey matt. Perhaps industrial grit wasn’t compatible with a place for the “trendiest urban dwellers”, where a duplex goes for $32m and a two-bed starts at $9,000 per month.

How could one masterplan led by a single developer have created this, especially in a context that, according to the New School think-tank, benefited from almost $6bn in state funding and tax breaks?

“You have to remember that post-9/11 was a very different time,” says Doctoroff. “This was a totally new area and we had to encourage people to come out here and take a leap of faith. It was a frontier, so the bulk of the funding was spent on the provision of infrastructure and extending the subway.” He says that the criticism of generous tax breaks is “ridiculous”, claiming the city will earn back $20bn in tax revenue when the project is complete. But couldn’t they have insisted on a better deal than having only 10% of the 4,000 flats classed as “affordable”?

“Back in 2005, no one was talking about affordable housing,” he says. “And, if you include the wider area, the percentage is much higher. We were really ahead of the curve.”

Used as a freight yard for decades, Hudson Yards had a chequered history. In 2005, the city earmarked the area for its 2012 Olympic bid, and it was drastically re-zoned for tall buildings. The Olympic dream died, but the opportunity was there for a developer with a big enough backer. In the wake of the financial crash in 2009, Related swooped in with Oxford Properties Group, a Canadian investment company owned by the Ontario municipal workers’ pension fund, and bought the site for $1bn.

Their plans grew ever fatter. As a 2017 report by the Municipal Art Society of New York revealed, dozens of separate land-use applications have been approved since the environmental impact assessment of the initial rezoning, resulting in huge increases of floor area. They calculate the outcome represents a combined underestimation of the Hudson Yards development by the size of almost three Chrysler Buildings.

With this history in mind, the lack of care that has been spent on trying to make it a good place makes more sense. This swollen appendage to Manhattan is not a new neighbourhood for New York, but a blunt vehicle for making money, a strange offshore tumescence of global capital to service multitudes of Canadian public-sector pensioners, hundreds of miles away.

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