Hudson Yards is a notorious (and spectacularly badly timed) new "luxury housing development" in New York City: a massive, gated, privatized "neighborhood" in Manhattan, a city that has been literally hollowed out by runaway luxury real-estate speculation, to the exclusion of working people and mere millionaires alike.
Hudson Yards's capstone is a piece of monumental "public" architecture called "The Vessel" (also known by less flattering nicknames, like "the giant shawarma," "the beehive," "the pinecone," and "the wastebasket." The open-air structure is composed of staircases and landings that visitors can trudge up and down for the purpose of taking selfies. In true grifter capitalism style, the trudgers of the Vessel, agree, by passing under a series of threatening legal notices, that they are assigning a perpetual copyright license to the Vessel's corporate owners for any of those photos (this being an improvement on the original legal regime, in which visitors surrendered title to their copyrights, even to images taken later from distant places from which any part of the Vessel could be discerned). Oh, and you also "agree" to be recorded and to have the recordings retained indefinitely and used as the Vessel and its corporate managers see fit.
Enter Kate "McMansion Hell" Wagner (previously), the century's most acerbic and delightful critic of late-stage capitalism's architectural excesses. In a perfectly delightful column in The Baffler, Wagner lays out the case for The Vessel as a perfectly encapsulated symbol of all that is wrong with our economic moment and its intrusions into our built environments. Reading Wagner's takedown is like reading Lovecraft describe an elder god whose transdimensional being cannot be seen, but only perceived through the three-dimensional tentacles it extrudes into our dimension.
It is a Vessel for labor without purpose. The metaphor of the stairway to nowhere precludes a tiring climb to the top where one is expected to spend a few moments with a cell-phone, because at least a valedictory selfie rewards us with the feeling that we wasted time on a giant staircase for something—perhaps something contained in the Vessel. The Vessel valorizes work, the physical work of climbing, all while cloaking it in the rhetoric of enjoyment, as if going up stairs were a particularly ludic activity. The inclusion of an elevator that only stops on certain platforms is ludicrously provocative. The presence of the elevator implies a pressure for the abled-bodied to not use it, since by doing so one bypasses "the experience" of the Vessel, an experience of menial physical labor that aims to achieve the nebulous goal of attaining slightly different views of the city. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, to which the Vessel has been unfathomably compared, the Vessel is just tall enough to make you feel bad for not hiking up it. To climb the Eiffel Tower is equally pointless, but its sheer size makes taking the elevator the de facto, socially normalized experience. The elevators of the Vessel and their lackluster architectural integration belie the architectural profession's view of accessibility as a code-enforced concession rather than an ethos, a moral right to architecture for all. By taking the elevator up the Vessel, you are both inviting the judgment of your peers who insist on hauling ass up sixteen stories and confirming its sheer pointlessness as a structure; for, unlike the Eiffel Tower, which has a restaurant and shop, there is nothing at the top other than a view of the Hudson and the sad promise of the repeat performance of laboring your way back down.
Stairway to What? [Kate Wagner/The Baffler]
(via Naked Capitalism)
(Image: Hugo L. González, CC-BY-SA)