Can New York City’s ‘Vessel’ Be Saved?

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When Heatherwick Studio unveiled the Vessel in Hudson Yards in 2016, the 16-story honeycomb had its share of detractors. Some criticized its $200 million price tag, while others complained it blotted out views of nearby arts venue The Shed or joked it looked like “a giant shawarma.”

No one predicted the centerpiece of the five-acre Hudson Yards Public Square would become the site of repeated tragedies.

On Thursday, July 29, a 14-year-old boy plunged to his death from the Vessel’s eighth floor, the fourth suicide there in less than two years.

The attraction had just reopened in May, after being closed since January in the wake of earlier suicides. The first death at the Vessel was in February 2020.

Despite the repeated incidents, Related Companies, the developer that oversees the Vessel, declined to raise the glass railing, which is currently about waist-high on an adult.

In January, Curbed’s Audrey Wachs said raising the barrier above eye level was “the most straightforward harm-prevention tactic.”

It would save lives, she added, “but it also would have obstructed the view, the Vessel’s key selling point.”

Instead, a $10 admission fee was instituted with the May reopening and visitors were required to enter with at least one companion. Signs offering help were posted and security officers were trained in suicide prevention.

Those measures weren’t enough to stop the young teen from quickly slipping over the side rail last week, as his family looked on in horror.

In an op-ed Monday, Architectural Record editor-in-chief Cathleen McGuigan said it was time for the “150-foot-high folly” to be demolished, a sentiment shared by Curbed architecture critic Justin Davidson.

“Not only does the tragedy of four suicides mark the Vessel,” McGuigan wrote, “but the idea that this gargantuan chunk of shiny, copper-colored steel is a sculptural amenity for the citizens of New York is the biggest folly of all.”

Thomas Heatherwick

ThomasHeatherwick1.jpg

Thomas Heatherwick
Photo: Elena Heatherwick

While many have decried the hubris of Related’s billionaire chairman, Stephen Ross, McGuigan criticized the Bloomberg administration for allowing a private developer to oversee the development of Hudson Yards’ mandated public space in the first place.

“Taking down the Vessel would begin to correct this enormous error in which the public interest was pushed aside,” she wrote.

Longtime architecture writer Fred Bernstein suggested dismantling just the top half of the structure—“so it wouldn’t be such an attractive target and also wouldn’t compete so much with The Shed.”

Alternatively, he mused, “I wonder if it could be sunk into the ocean for scuba divers or as an artificial coral reef for marine life.”

For now Heatherwick Studios seems determined to find a structural solution that allows the Vessel to reopen without inviting future tragedies.

In a statement shared with AD, a spokesperson said the studio was “distraught” over the most recent deaths and, in conjunction with Related, “has exhaustively explored physical solutions that would increase safety.”

But such solutions require “rigorous” testing, they added, “and while we have not identified one yet, we continue to work to identify a solution that is feasible in terms of engineering and installation.”

Ross has hinted he’s considering closing the structure permanently, telling The Daily Beast, “We thought we did everything that would really prevent this.”

But Lowell Kern, chair of Manhattan Community Board 4, which oversees western Manhattan, is dubious. Last week Kern told The New York Times the boy’s death “was entirely preventable.”

“For Related to claim they did everything possible here is just not true,” Kern told the Beast. “They could have raised the height of the barriers, and that would have prevented this tragedy. For reasons unknown to us they decided not to do that.”

Now higher barriers seem all but inevitable.

“They put them up at Bobst Library,” Bernstein said. “It’s not attractive, but you do what you have to do.”

After two separate incidents involving students jumping from the open-air crosswalks inside NYU’s Philip Johnson–designed Bobst Library in 2003, the school installed Plexiglas barricades on every level and stairway.

The solution wasn’t perfect, though: In 2009, another student managed to scale the Plexiglas on the 10th floor and leap to his death. (After that, the school installed perforated floor-to-ceiling metal sheets to prevent future incidents.)

An unidentified Heatherwick employee told the Times the studio had developed higher glass walls “a while back.”

“It’s now time to install them,” they said.

A 2015 British report on preventing suicides in public places suggested a variety of tactics—including physical barriers. It also recommended boundary markers, special lighting, increased surveillance by trained employees and CCTV, and, yes, even “closing all or part of the site.”

Beyond structural changes, the report, from Public Health England, recommended installing free emergency telephones and creating “a staffed sanctuary” to aid people in crisis.

It also recommended that media reports of suicides at tourist attractions like the Vessel follow guidelines from prevention organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or the Samaritans in the U.K.

Personal memorials, vigils, and floral tributes at the site should be discouraged, and developers should even consider renaming or rebranding the location.

Researchers also suggest thinking proactively about other locations that might tempt similar acts.

“[Think] ‘Where else is like this?’” they wrote. “This preemptive approach should enable local authorities to prevent the emergence of frequently used locations.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest

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