Architect Thomas Heatherwick, a renowned English architect leading the Heatherwick Studio firm, designed the Vessel structure in New York City. This structure has become a highly visited tourist attraction in the Hudson Yards neighborhood, attracting both good and bad press alike since its opening just over two years ago.
This month, it’s become a hot topic in the architecture and tourism circles due to yet another unfortunate circumstance regarding a teenager’s suicide.
Standing at over 150 feet, the Vessel is an architectural and engineering marvel that expands from just 50 feet in diameter at its base to over 150 feet at its highest peak. The interior is composed of interconnected staircases made of bronzed steel and concrete that direct movement up, down, and around the structure via its 154 sets of stairs. Although not outwardly apparent, the Vessel is also made with wheelchair accessibility in mind. Ramps, and elevators are situated on all floors, making the entire structure compliant with accessibility code requirements in the state.
This $25 billion dollar investment has been described as a piece of furniture within a future city due to its elaborate and unique design that creates an experience quite like none other. Through its ten consecutive years in construction, it drew the attention of the public, as they eagerly awaited the new focal point in the Hudson Yards cityscape. Attracting attention from New Yorkers and tourists alike, the Vessel has welcomed thousands of guests daily since it’s grand opening in March of 2019. While visitors have enjoyed this new addition to the neighborhood, growing concerns have marred the perception of the structure from that of an architectural masterpiece, to one of indelible safety concerns.
Heatherwick Studio, the architectural firm behind the design of the Vessel, along with The Related Companies, the developer who funded its construction, have been publicly criticized since the building opened to guests. While the design is well regarded for its modern and distinctive appearance, public safety concerns have been a longstanding issue that the community has brought up on numerous occasions. To date, they claim that proper action to correct safety hazards has not been taken despite the multiple deaths that have occured in the structure.
The first suicide at the Vessel occured in February of 2020, just under a year after the structure opened its doors. Following this tragic event, the public raised concerns with the height of barriers throughout the staircases and requested action to be taken by public officials to increase safety protocols. Higher barriers, as well as improved security measures have been in talks since, but no significant changes have been implemented.
In early 2021, two more suicides occurred within the span of a month, prompting the structure to temporarily halt operations. Again, public officials and the developer were urged to re-consider raising barriers along the staircases, but opted against the action after further review. July of 2021 marks the month of the fourth suicide whereby a teenage leapt to his death from one of the Vessel’s staircases on an upper floor. Since then, the Vessel has remained temporarily closed, with talks of permanent closure due to the frequency of these events.
Needless to say, the public is enraged at the lack of action in instilling more tangible safety protocols to prevent any further tragedies in the building. But, this begs the question – are architectural modifications the right solution to this problem?
Architectural design professionals share a public responsibility for creating livable spaces with a high regard for safety. To further enforce this, building codes and regulations are in place to ensure compliance throughout the design and construction process. While architects can foresee dangerous circumstances and take actionable steps to prevent them in the design phase, not everything can be planned for. Adequate handrail heights were installed at the Vessel, satisfying conservative measures for safety, yet, tragedy still struck. In this specific instance, barriers were put in place to prevent accidental trips, slips, and falls. Yet, people still chose to intentionally misuse the space.
Article by Howarth Litchfield Architects in Durham, North East UK
The Related Companies have implemented safety protocols after their latest reopening in May of 2021 requiring visitors to travel in pairs. Single visitors are not allowed on the upper floors, and extensive visual checks are done by security personnel to identify people who may pose a safety risk to themselves. Based on the recent events, these measures have not been enough of a deterrent. What’s to say that slightly higher barriers or railings will stop people from intentionally crossing over rhem, and committing similar acts in the future?
The line is certainly blurred when it comes to what an appropriate solution to this issue would be. The future of the Vessel building is unclear, and serves as an interesting architectural case study for designers to be reminded of the impact that the buildings we design and build can have on the public.