Dead Ascending a Staircase
In July 2021, a fourteen-year-old died at the base of the “Vessel,” a dazzling sixteen-story monolith of interlocking stairs at the center of Hudson Yards in western Manhattan. His was the fourth suicide at the site in less than two years, and a morbid protocol was already in place: shocked tourists were promptly evacuated, police taped off the plaza, coroners erected a small white tent around the body. After a few hours, a crew of janitors was deployed to scrub the pavement. Before the day was over, Related Companies, which co-owns and operates Hudson Yards with Oxford Properties Group, issued a wooden, lawyer-vetted condolence letter. But this time, the Vessel did not reopen. It had become abundantly clear that the crown jewel of Hudson Yards—what developers hoped would be “the new heart of New York”—is, in fact, a $200 million suicide machine.
Related’s chairman, Stephen M. Ross, had conceived of the Vessel as a quote-unquote “public monument,” but he commissioned and funded it himself as a gift to the city of New York. Consider it the billionaire’s version of a conciliatory bouquet to taxpayers who subsidized Hudson Yards—the largest nominally private development in the United States—to the tune of $6 billion. But Ross’s largesse also exempted the Vessel from the standard vetting processes that other public structures must undergo. Gifts, after all, are to be greeted with thanks, not hearings. When it was formally unveiled with the help of Sesame Street’s Big Bird in March 2019, the Vessel drew near-universal mockery and condemnation (including in this magazine) for its utter pointlessness. But mostly, it induced indifference: if some billionaire wants to make tourists climb stairs, then that’s their business.
The objections of architecture critic Audrey Wachs stood out among the scoffs and the shrugs. On top of her many acute criticisms, Wachs admonished the Vessel’s designers for not having learned from NYU’s Bobst library. Only three years prior, its main atrium, similarly nestled between Escherian steps, saw a string of student suicides which forced the university to install floor-to-ceiling barriers. The waist-level handrails at the Vessel were too low, she prophesied in 2016: “When you build high, folks will jump.” As Wachs’s warnings materialized—first in February 2020, again in December, for a third time less than a month later, and a fourth time in July 2021—each cycle of death, closure, condolences, and reopening added to the anger of critics and activists like Lowell Kern, chair of the area’s community board, who maintained that Related and Ross should be held accountable for the “entirely preventable” deaths.
It is true that the Vessel is not the first structure people have jumped to their deaths from. And, certainly, installing higher handrails—or safety nets, such as the ones that were reportedly tested this August—could help save lives. But such safety measures would only strengthen the impression that, given its remarkable lack of other uses, the shiny staircase to nowhere is the first structure in human history whose sole purpose is suicide. The erection of this eschatological monument therefore demands that we go beyond security protocols and protective design. If nothing else, the four victims of “New York’s Staircase” demand we descend its gilded steps and dig deeper when we ask: What is it about the Vessel, exactly, that makes you want to kill yourself?
In interviews, Ross repeated his hope that the staircase would be for New York what the Eiffel Tower is for Paris. He was not referring to the tower’s legacy of suicide (in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Vladimir laments not having been “among the first” to jump) but rather to the Eiffel keychains, prints, and selfies that continually affirm its iconic status; to its unrivaled ability to stand in for a whole city. But the comparison reveals the depth of the structure’s ambition—and Ross’s. When one looks out over the Parisian skyline, one sees a proof of concept for the modernist ideal of Man: with rational planning of materials and labor, the sky is the only limit. The tower, still breathtaking in its splendor, proceeds pyramid-like from the scattered and earthly many to their—our—single shared goal above. The tower dwarfed the city to offer a new, modern scale for life.
Each era presents new reasons to despair from living. And in each era, people must come up with new reasons to keep at it. The Vessel, like the Eiffel Tower, embodies its time. To do so, it takes the Eiffel tower’s pyramidic convergence of narratives, ideas, and projects—and turns it on its head. Starting at a singular center point at its base, it diffracts upward into a multitude of distinct yet identical planes, each levitating, free and lonely, above the abyss. At its core, and from its very inception, the Vessel provides an architectural dramatization of risk and reward, stakes and achievement, despair and elation. Far from some meaningless tourist trifle, then, the curiously vain structure that now punctuates western Manhattan embodies a set of existential values that did not, until now, find such an explicit form. Its lethality, too, should not be seen as a mere case of oversight or neglect. On the contrary, it is a grim product of the Vessel’s unprecedented and unequivocally successful design.
Artistic breakthroughs are initially difficult to characterize and articulate, and the Vessel is no exception. One of the three commissioned articles that compose The Story of New York’s Staircase—a slick coffee table book celebrating the structure (now available used from $2.54)—opens with a list of things that the staircase “can be, and is”: a monument, a sculpture, half a pineapple, a staircase, a giant woven basket, a beehive. Even its name, “Vessel,” was given with the hope that the public would adopt and rename it. Though a plan to crowdsource an official name never came to fruition, the internet appears to have settled on the “Shawarma.” But among the many things that the staircase “can be, and is” is a two-hundred-million-dollar-and-counting answer to the question: What do billionaires live for?
Ross answered this question at a 2016 presentation at the Harvard Graduate School of Design when he expressed his hope that the Hudson Yards project and the staircase would serve as his “legacy.” To that end, Ross personally commissioned presentations from the world’s most famous artists and designers, only to reject them one after the other. Proposals by Anish Kapoor, Jaume Plensa, Jeff Koons, and other such star artists were met with indifference: “Been there, seen that,” Ross said. It was all just plain, capital-A-Art—until that fateful day in 2013, when Ross met Thomas Heatherwick. Heatherwick, star designer, had already earned a reputation for eye-catching feats of innovation (The Seed Cathedral, 2010; The Olympic Cauldron, 2012), the occasional public scandal (London’s discontinued “New Routemaster”; the unbuilt “Garden Bridge”), and an unrivaled talent for getting funding from rich people. The developer and the designer clicked immediately, and within a couple of months, Heatherwick’s studio produced a model that went straight to the billionaire’s heart: “I knew it when I saw it,” Ross is reported to have said. “That’s what I wanted.”
What was it, exactly, that so ravished Ross? Perhaps it was what Paul Goldberger, writer of another article in the coffee-table book, saw: a “perfect metaphor for New York City.”
You make your way up and down and around it as you want; each stairway brings you to a landing where you choose between three others or the one you just climbed. You decide again and again whether to move up or down, clockwise or counterclockwise, forward or backward. It is utterly non-linear, a celebration of choice in which there is no right way or wrong way, and everything leads eventually to the top until you decide to turn back.
Forget the gritty indulgence of the pizza rat: New York City’s new “perfect metaphor” takes you straight to the top—and right back down to your shitty little life. But is it conceivable that the designers at Heatherwick Studio did not see how well such a “celebration of choice” illustrates a savage rat race? Did they not consider how their structure—which even Ross referred to as the “Social Climber”—reduces people to rodents?
Heatherwick himself demonstrates commendable wit, and not a little chutzpah, when he cites the ancient stepwells of India as a key source of inspiration for his gilded cyclone. These ancient broad, wide, dug-out wells—with walls composed of hundreds of steps—allowed people to rest and cool down, bathe, breathe, and socialize: to indulge in the passive states that the Vessel, seemingly disgusted by the very notion of rest, obliterates. The Vessel does away with chairs or benches altogether, forcing its visitors into a state of constant activity and “engagement.” Its idea of “choice” is composed of movement, movement, or still more movement. If you seek a respite from the climb, you can just lean on the surprisingly low handrails. This is not, after all, a sculpture to look at and consider—we have Art for that—but a “device,” as Heatherwick referred to it. A device for what, you ask? That, he said, is for people to decide for themselves. He hoped that they would get creative.
A press release for the Vessel states that, as a student, Heatherwick “fell in love with an old, discarded flight of wooden stairs.” But if a more prosaically inspired designer was searching for a key to Ross’s heart—or checkbook—a quick look at Related Company’s business portfolio could have led him to a similar design. The company subscribes to the cringey slogan “health is the new wealth.” That doesn’t mean that they choose well-being over profit, but rather that there’s a swelling $87 billion wellness market ripe for the taking. It also explains why Ross’s Related Companies took over Equinox, the high-end fitness brand, and opened a flagship Equinox hotel, spa, and club opposite the staircase. Related also owns the subsidiary spinning company, SoulCycle, that operates a gym in the same building. This is how the new wealth gets made: keep people moving.
But working out, too, is an expression of the ways we seek to live. Barbara Ehrenreich was right to characterize the exercise craze that rose to prominence in the latter part of the twentieth century as a defense mechanism, a “part of a larger withdrawal into individual concerns” in the wake of the curdling of communal fantasies of the 1960s. Her understanding is that, in an unpredictable world, exercising offers something that feels like agency: “I might not be able to do much about grievous injustice in the world,” Ehrenreich concedes, “but I can decide to increase the weight on the leg press.”
Although fitness signals a social decomposition, it still functions socially. A fit body is a sure sign of self-discipline—and therefore, says Ehrenreich, a testament to one’s capacity for scaling the ladder of success. That might have been true until recently, in the epoch leading up to the Vessel’s construction. But today’s fitness vanguard is more creative than disciplined. Rather than self-possession, people hope to become possessed, to get rattled out of the comfortable drudgery of living.
Each SoulCycle session is a climb. There’s a warm-up, a high-intensity ascent, and then a fast spin on the way “down,” before the cooling off. The instructors cheer the group through changing rhythms and challenges, putting their fixed bicycle to creative use. Their job is not to help you fight the limitations of your body. It is to help you forget you ever had them. In their world, to be happy is to stay thirsty. As emissaries of Related’s purported raison d’être, they embody the paradigm of wellness without end. No longer attached to a gold standard of balance or comfort, Related seeks to unleash the potential of fitness and aim it at the open skies above Hudson Yards.
The Vessel gives a literal shape to this grim vision. It’s not just that the structure sells the drudgery of climbing stairs as a creative and playful activity. It’s not even that the open-ended, airy cone of stairs functions as an architectural logo for a “yes-and-more” lifestyle. There is, beyond these aspects, an uncanny anthropomorphism in the Vessel: its lean, bronzed beams stretch out into the plaza like tanned ligaments of an Instagram influencer. The narrow waistline builds gradually to culminate in strong, broad, high shoulders. It isn’t alive, exactly, but it clearly has been working out. There is nothing soft in its dominating musculature—and nothing playful, either. Dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers, it seems aggressively defensive: a short architectural bully, acting out in a futile attempt to silence its own gnawing sense of inadequacy. That would have been bad enough as a sight to behold, but the staircase’s ingenuous conceit is to disseminate its status anxiety onto its visitors—and beyond.
It works like this: a steady stream of tourists and workers flows between the Highline and the new subway station to the north. The staircase yokes this flow, “creating a tremendous amount of energy,” as Ross puts it. It pulls people by a centripetal force through a small shaft, a penstock at the bottom of the metal vortex. Thus pressured, the centrifuge pushes them up and around its staired arteries, where their phones invariably take over. Posted images continue the movement upwards and outwards, occupying virtual clouds, generating even more energy, more attention. Therein lies another veritable innovation of the Vessel: to have been the first major monument of the data-harvesting era. Under the glossy, exquisite beams that were packed and shipped from Italy like industrial bonbonniere, its real building blocks are those manufactured by UX/UI or so-called product designers.
“Likes,” “shares,” and “clicks” are to the staircase what wrought iron was for the Eiffel Tower. It is simply impossible to see the Vessel without snapping and sharing it, without “interacting” with it. The sparkling beams cover your phone’s screen from edge to edge, filling it with an irresistibly stable and satisfying rhythm. “Evolutionary psychologists have documented that human beings long to ascend,” reads another panegyric in the Vessel book, this one penned by Jeff Chu. And sure enough, the structure celebrates the free climbing of numbers, the open-ended flight of benchmarks ascending into viral bliss. Here, then, is another thing the staircase “can be, or is”: a magnificent hall of and for social comparison. In and around it, climbing people look at climbing people looking at more people climbing. On each level, the climber is asked: “How creatively can you climb?” The architectural interface provides four options—climb up, climb right, descend right, descend left—but within them, people are cajoled to express their most creative selves. The staircase clearly inherited the antisocial dynamic and pseudo-authentic one-upmanship that is indigenous to social media. It thus gives our era’s defining technology the shape we never knew it needed. Like its progenitor’s meta-space, it is a hollow structure that barters life for projections.
Perhaps the only thing the staircase cannot be, and is not, is what Related says it is: “a twenty-first century public space” that asserts “movement as monument.” On the contrary, the structure proves that our era has little use for the public and consequently, no need for monuments. In the past, monuments gathered and shaped publics by evoking a shared idea or memory. By agreeing to consider a monument and assign it a meaning, people cohered to form what was known as a public. “A public” thus unites under a shared article. It has shared interests, sometimes even a will. But the multitudes who are sucked in, swirled up and spit out from the Vessel do not constitute a public. Rather, they are what Stephen Ross, like his friend and beneficiary Donald Trump, refers to simply as “people,” or “many people.”
These unarticled, public-less people rent offices and apartments and climb up and down the Vessel. But look beyond their human frame and behold their fundamental unit, their essential kernel, their atom: data! Each person carries within them an infinite number of measurable preferences and aspirations, an abundance of data points to be mined and refined and repackaged and sold. Hudson Yards developers use on-site sensors and a designated app to, as they put it, “harness big data to continually innovate, optimize and enhance the employee, resident, and visitor experience.” That makes them, as they rightly boast, the world’s “first quantified community”: the first community made entirely of sleeping, eating, and, of course, climbing data.
Perhaps this, finally, is what the useless but obviously ritualistic device at the Hudson Yards Plaza is. On this copper altar, this inverted pyramid, we transform into an enhanced and optimized—or at least optimizable—version of ourselves. By climbing up and down the Vessel, we are hollowed into becoming people, just people. The Vessel introduces us to our own transparency, our data-quality, but it doesn’t do so by symbolizing it. Rather, it trains us into it, one climb at a time. Granted, there are challenges on the way. But we, the Vesseled, know that shame, loneliness, self-contempt, envy, anger, and despair are not matters for contemplation. They are merely challenges that people overcome, midway upon the ascent of their life. And in our age, the age of the Vessel, suicide is just something people do.