On a day when the cold makes the skyline snap into focus as if you’re seeing it through new lenses, Hudson Yards seems more virtual than real. Jagged and reflective, the five new towers have a high-definition clarity that the physical world mostly lacks. At a distance, the tallest looks like a high-browed robotic duck with a beak so generous you could almost land a helicopter on it. That’s the outdoor observation deck, which juts out 65ft and comes to a point 1,100ft above the street. From here – or better yet, from the set of bleachers that allows you to peer over the glass railing – I can look down on the Empire State Building. I can behold the widescreen, high-res view of a New York more orderly and wondrous than the one most of us live in. The space won’t open for another year, but I can already see the overthe-top weddings in the party room upstairs, where guests can dance far, far above the stink and mess below. An adventurous few will be able to take a dedicated elevator even further up to the pointed peak, don a harness, climb out on a catwalk in the open air, and howl into the wind.
In March, after 12 years of planning and six of construction, the Related Companies (which is actually just one mammoth realestate company) opened the gates to its new USD25 billion enclave, an agglomeration of super-tall office towers full of lawyers and hedge-funders, airborne eightfigure apartments, a 720,000 sq ft shopping zone, and a gaggle of star-chef restaurants. When the rest of it is finished – when the remaining rectangle of exposed rail yards between 11th and 12th Avenues is covered by a deck and more residential towers – the whole 28ac shebang will be bigger than the United Nations, the World Trade Center or Rockefeller Center, and physically vaster, more populous, and more expensive than any private development in the country. Besides being big, Hudson Yards represents something fundamentally new to New York. It’s a one-shot, supersized virtual city-state, plugged into a global metropolis but crafted to the specifications of a single boss: Related’s chairman, Stephen Ross.
Each time I approach, I feel a volatile mix of wonder and dejection roil in my chest. New York can absorb even this, I tell myself. Offices will hum with necessary invention, the plaza will teem and the towers will settle into the accommodating skyline. The complex redeems an area that, until recently, most New Yorkers barely knew existed, a great pit full of resting trains opened to the sky. There will be jobs, yogawear, art shows, tapas, even some affordable apartments. New York isn’t done building towers, and unlike the skinny plutocratvilles going up on 57th Street, new office buildings are a necessity, one where tens of thousands of New Yorkers will spend their days (and some will work through the night). Who’s to cavil when the money flows? The asset-management team BlackRock signed up to spend USD1.25 billion in rent over 20 years. The retail complex will have at least six places where you can spend five figures on a wristwatch (Patek Philippe, Rolex, Cartier, Watches of Switzerland, Piaget, Tiffany). The 101st-floor party space, surely to be among the priciest available, will be the place to host the most ostentatious vodka launch in town. They’ve paved a parking lot and put up a high-rise paradise.
We’ve been headed here for a long time, as the city has become more moneyed and the only retail stores that seem sustainable are those of luxury labels. A crowd of gifted architects worked hard to figure out how gargantuan buildings and cliffs of glass could form a place – a stretch of city where human beings feel like they belong. Kohn Pedersen Fox designed 10 and 30 Hudson Yards, the faceted, shingledglass skyscrapers flanking their shopping mall, with interiors by Elkus Manfredi. Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Rockwell Group designed the tubular apartment building at 15 Hudson Yards and its conjoined performance venue, the Shed. Two more towers, 55 by KPF with Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates, and 35, an office-hotelresidential combo by David Childs and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, loom over the plaza by Nelson Byrd Woltz and a bucket-shaped latticelike objet by Thomas Heatherwick that is, for now, called the Vessel. Separately, these architects – most of them, anyway – came up with sensitive and sophisticated designs.
I’ve visited the construction site several times, and circled it many more, watching the towers lumber toward the sky and this improbable mirage take shape. Now, as workers rush to lay the final paving stones and finish wiring the lights, I tour it with Jay Cross, the project’s hands-on chief. I am in awe of the sheer managerial omniscience that allows Cross to grasp, predict and control every aspect of construction, from the colossal to the picayune. Even if the whole East Coast goes dark, he tells me, the site’s co-generation plant will kick in within milliseconds, so that multimilliondollar electronic transactions can continue whizzing around the globe without a hiccup. When the rains come and the waters rise, submarine doors will close around elevator machinery and fuel tanks. This shining city on a deck is built to withstand a wide range of plagues.
It’s possible to live a full and varied life here – to sleep, put in an hour at the gym, bring the kids to school, drop the dog off at day care, go to the office, shop, eat out, visit a museum and catch a show – without so much as crossing the street. That kind of total-service completeness has been a goal of smartgrowth urbanists for many years, but it’s one thing to apply those aspirations to a semi-citified development around a suburban transit station, in the hope that it won’t go dead after rush hour.
There’s nothing new about the idea of a blank-slate city. The Romans built their gridded garrisons at the edges of the empire. Chandigarh and Brasilia were designed as complete capitals. Rockefeller Center is an obvious predecessor. In the past few decades, advances in engineering and logistics, combined with a worldwide market for offices and high-end residences, have given real-estate companies and bureaucracies the ability to plan, finance, link, build and populate tens of millions of square feet all at once. Hudson Yards may stand out in New York, but it fits right into a global context where new cities and urban enclaves come on line with frightening rapidity and, at the same time, authorities set aside multidecade, multibillion-dollar budgets to urbanise on an ever larger scale.
Walk down most Manhattan avenues and your eyes rarely drift up beyond the first couple of stories; it is entirely possible to stride right past the Empire State Building and hardly notice it’s there. Hudson Yards confronts you with its ostentatious verticality. That’s because the plaza allows you the room to step back and look up toward the O of sky outlined by the towers’ tips. To temper that repetitive upward thrust, Ross demanded that the architects he hired forge a cogent composition out of disparate designs.
The problem is that each project has a separate set of ironclad givens and follows its own internal logic. William Pedersen, the co-founder of KPF, and Marianne Kwok, one of the firm’s directors, sit me down at a conference table with a scale model of Hudson Yards and make it clear that the glass façades, the massive floor plates, the distance from window to elevator core and the resulting form all flow directly from the tenants’ needs.
Still, there’s a community to build. “Tall buildings look like a bunch of people standing around a cocktail party. Everything we do is about creating gestures of connection,” Pedersen says. And so his firm nudged two of those isolated hulks, Nos 10 and 30, into a relationship of sorts. They angle in opposite directions, as if facing off at arms’ length in a stately tango. In its eagerness to communicate, the shorter of the pair, 10 Hudson Yards, gesticulates hectically in all directions. It’s an à-lacarte structure dictated by the varying desires of tenants: a huge floor plate for one, a more modest floor plate for another, a separate campus-within-abuilding for Coach, views all around. At its base, the building ducks and dodges at its chamfered corner as if to avoid being tagged out. It leaps out of the way of the High Line, which swings beneath it toward the soon-to-open Spur. At the corner of Tenth Avenue and 30th Street, the atrium sucks in its belly to leave room for a plaza out front. The result is a skyscraper that looks as though it were welded together from chunks of other skyscrapers.
Whether the development feels more like a high-rise island or a continuous patch of Manhattan will largely depend on the parts where there are no buildings at all. More than half the site is public space – or, to be precise, privately owned public space (POPS), the kind of hybrid that feels utterly open and democratic until a private security guard informs you that you’ve just violated one of the owner’s policies. As soon as the landscape-architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz got the job of stitching a bunch of glass hulks together, its leader, Thomas Woltz, began quietly resisting the rigid geometries, inhuman scale, perpetual shadows, hard surfaces and self-absorption. He has made the most of his minimal set of tools: pavers, plants, walls, and benches. From above – the restaurant terraces, say – the pavers form a series of variously shaped ellipses in degrees of grey, swooping like electrons around a nucleus. On one side, a dense miniforest borders on West 33rd Street. On the other, parallel rows of black-gum trees, their branches sticking straight out from the trunk as if they were doing calisthenics, line up along gently arcing granite terraces.
There is one grain of unpredictability in Related’s grand oyster, one hope for humanism at Hudson Yards: the Shed, a lavishly funded but endearingly weird headquarters of interdisciplinary art. When the city zoned the site, it held back one spot on the platform for a cultural building to be placed right on 30th Street, where the High Line jogs out toward the Hudson. Bloomberg wanted a new organisation that would add to the cultural life of the city, not just move it around. The architects Elizabeth Diller and David Rockwell, leaders of separate firms, came up with both the idea for the institution and the building’s design. A packed stack of galleries, theatres and performance spaces slips into the base of a residential high-rise, making efficient use of all those unsaleable lower floors. It’s not an easeful relationship. At the tower’s base, a great steel mouth gapes, as if to swallow (or regurgitate) the icy cube of the Shed. A puffy, quilted sheath slides over that glass-walled core like a box made of Bubble Wrap. Depending on the event, the outer layer can either be tucked away against the tower or roll out on great steel wheels to enclose a square of the plaza. The space opened in April with a five-night multi-genre spectacle surveying the history of African-American music, curated by Quincy Jones and directed by Steve McQueen. Whatever else it achieves, the Shed will draw audiences and artists who might otherwise never go near Hudson Yards.
In my more dyspeptic moments, I wonder what Hudson Yards portends for New York’s future. Today, it feels like the last spasm of the Bloomberg era, seductive and smooth and substantial, the home of some finely provocative art but fundamentally a grand gift of urban space to the global elite. Will it become a bastion of a Gilded Age that has already started to wane or the unavoidable model for the next mega-development and the one after that? Already the city keeps ratcheting up its scale. Today’s super-tall towers are being overtaken by even bigger ones. Lessons learned at Hudson Yards, if any, will be applied at Sunnyside Yard, which is seven times the size. These thoughts lead to darker questions: is New York ballooning into oblivion? If you don’t know how to code or what private equity actually is, does that mean your choices are panic, despair or flight? These musings seem almost reasonable when the new skyline glowers overhead. But then my mind drifts back to the alien separateness of Hudson Yards, and it occurs to me that could be its saving grace. Those who feel pushed away by it will never go there. It will keep hovering 25ft above the street, a spaceship that hasn’t committed to landing, while the rest of the city scrambles on, peculiar and perpetually discontented, sending its chorus of sirens and grumbles up to the party on the 101st floor.