On Sunday, April 7, I walked from Battery Park in Manhattan to Dyckman Street (200th Street; the last Manhattan street is 218th Street). The walk took me all day. With zigzagging, I probably walked sixteen miles.
I walked uptown from Battery Park along the so-called Hudson River Park until I reached the 30’s, when I decided to take a look at the New Hudson Yards development. Hudson Yards has just opened. It was built over a railroad yard on the Far West Side.
Hudson Yards has not been getting good press from architectural critics.
from The Washington Post:
“Architecture critics have been almost unanimous in their hatred of New York ’s new Hudson Yards development, a generic pop-up landscape of soulless glass towers and high-end retail built over the wasteland of midtown Manhattan’s west-side rail yard. Longtime New Yorkers, and transplants with taste, are inclined to agree: It’s as ugly as Dubai, it reeks of greed and mammon, and it only exacerbates the worst tendencies of a city that seems hellbent on erasing anything distinctive or humane in its built environment.”
— “The Shed is the only reason to go to Hudson Yards, New York’s most hated new development.”, By Philip Kennicott, Art and architecture critic, The Washington Post, April 3, 2019
from The New York Times:
The first massive tower emerged at the apex of the High Line, looming over it, a shingled, spiky, reflective blue-glass behemoth [The Vessel], shaped by eccentric cuts and angles, as if sheared by a giant Ginsu knife.
The largest mixed-use private real estate venture in American history. …, it is called Hudson Yards. … at jaw-dropping magnitudes you can’t begin to grasp until you are actually standing there, Hudson Yards has sprouted a seven-story, 720,000-square-foot shopping mall. There are also four more supertall skyscrapers as well as a $500 million city-sponsored arts center called the Shed.
… [The Vessel, a climbable 15-story sculpture which stands out as a defining architectural symbol/motif is] a 50-foot-high, $200 million, latticed, waste-basket-shaped stairway to nowhere, sheathed in a gaudy, copper-cladded steel. …
For its advocates, the $25 billion development is a shining new city ex nihilo, a wellspring of future tax revenues and evidence of a miraculous, post-9/11 civic volte-face. …
It is, at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent.
A relic of dated 2000s thinking, nearly devoid of urban design, it declines to blend into the city grid.
It offers 14 acres of public open space in return for privatizing the last precious undeveloped parcel of significant size in Manhattan. But the open space looks like it may end up being mostly a fancy drive-through drop-off for the shopping mall, a landscaped plaza overshadowed by office towers and, for the coming western yards, a scattering of high-rise apartment buildings around a lawn — in effect, a version of a 1950s towers-in-the-park housing complex, except designed by big-name architects. … the whole site lacks any semblance of human scale. With its focus on the buildings’ shiny envelopes, on the monotony of reflective blue glass and the sheen of polished wood, brass, leather, marble and stone, Hudson Yards glorifies a kind of surface spectacle — as if the peak ambitions of city life were consuming luxury goods and enjoying a smooth, seductive, mindless materialism. …
Over all, Hudson Yards epitomizes a skin-deep view of architecture as luxury branding. Each building exists to act like a logo for itself. The assortment suggests so many crowded perfume bottles vying for attention in a department store window display.
— “Hudson Yards Is Manhattan’s Biggest, Newest, Slickest Gated Community: Is This the Neighborhood New York Deserves?” By Michael Kimmelman, Architecture critic, The New York Times, March 14, 2019
Kimmelman goes on to say, perceptively:
The obvious precedent here is Rockefeller Center, completed during the 1930s, the last comparable development in Midtown Manhattan. … [It was] an object lesson in urban design and a landmark of modern art and architecture, a development ingeniously, democratically woven into the fabric of the street grid.”
At a glance, Rockefeller Center looks unified because of all the masonry construction and Art Deco details. But the real source of its coherence is its plan. … All the parts work in harmony to create a singular place inseparable from the rest of the city.” [Raymond] Hood [Rockefeller Center’s chief architect] grasped the difference between scale and size — how a site with multiple entrances needs to be orchestrated from many angles, how architecture without urban design is just sculpture, how true art enhances the dignity of a place, and how the success of a neighborhood and its retail businesses come down to what’s happening at street level.
Hudson Yards barely acknowledges any of these things.
The sage observations of one Roger W. Smith (while walking on Sunday):
Hudson Yards deserves the criticisms it’s getting. From critics who know a lot more about architecture and cityscapes than I ever will.
Its stores are for rich people and tourists. The new concert hall/arts venue (The Shed) does not look appealing or inviting.
But the place is thronged (was thronged when I went there on Sunday).
With ordinary people. Congregating, milling about. Mingling. Gawking.
Sitting on benches on a spring day.
Because it’s a place to go. In what was a storage yard for railroad cars. The number 7 subway line has been extended to go there. A new urban space has been created ex nihilo.
People like to be in the midst of other people. People hate isolation, hate to be cooped up. (Pity the poor, inhumanely and cruelly treated inmates in our prisons.) This is very true of New Yorkers.
NYC invites its apartment dwellers OUTDOORS. On a beautiful early spring day in April. Streets and thoroughfares for walkers and bicyclists everywhere. People out on Sunday. Congregating in parks seemingly everywhere. Walkers predominating and defining the streetscape (on a lazy non-business day), like you see nowhere else in America.
Many interesting looking people. Snatches of conservation overheard. Attractive young women. Attractive young couples. People sunbathing themselves on the grass. People in crowded bars and cafes, jammed with customers.
Young ladies walking dogs. Parents with kids. A father free from work for the day taking his son or daughter for a walk, presumably heading to the park, or in the park. Mothers with strollers. Kids frolicking and kicking a soccer ball in the park, with the utter abandonment characteristic of kids at a play.
New York is wonderful.
Rockefeller Center is accessible in a way that Hudson Yards isn’t. Michael Kimmelman makes an excellent point. But Hudson Yards is another place to go. New York keeps changing, sometimes not for the better, but it’s hard to destroy its vitality and appeal to common humanity, despite cement and steel.
–– Roger W. Smith
photographs by Roger W. Smith