The Mystery of Thomas Heatherwick’s Top-Secret Hudson Yards Project

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The Mystery of Thomas Heatherwick’s Top-Secret Hudson Yards Project
© Hudson Yards

The most ambitious real estate project in Manhattan will come with a captivating centerpiece.

The first thing to say about the 150-foot-tall centerpiece Thomas Heatherwick has designed for the enormous Hudson Yards project on the far West Side of Manhattan—which was the closest-kept secret in New York until its ceremonial unveiling this morning at the site—is that no one, including me, has any idea what to call it, because no one is quite sure what it is. It is sort of a building, but not really; it is sort of a sculpture, but not really. It is similar to a tower, but it isn’t quite that, either. It is a little bit like a vertical maze, but you can’t really get lost in it, so it isn’t truly a maze, either. What it is, or what it will be when construction is finished in two years, is something you can describe but not, as of yet, name.

If you can imagine 154 flights of stairs and 80 horizontal platforms all arranged in a crisscrossing, latticework pattern that rises to the height of a 15-story building, you begin to get somewhere, but that only begins to explain what Heatherwick has in mind. He claims he was inspired by the ancient stepwells of India, gargantuan wells built with staircases zigzagging down their sides to allow access to deep water. But Heatherwick has taken the stepwell and pulled it up to the surface.

It is, you could say, a vertical public space, and if nothing else it will force people to engage in a way that will probably drive the makers of monumental public sculptures crazy, since most of them—Richard Serra is a notable exception—try to emotionally involve people and all too rarely succeed at doing so.

Heatherwick has figured out how to combine the showmanship of a Ferris wheel with the architectural power of a monumental staircase. I suspect people will want to start climbing up it the minute they see it. There are 2,500 steps, and the latticework design means that there are an almost infinite number of routes you can take up and across and around and through it as you climb. When it is filled with people it will look like a giant beehive. […]