The Vessel
The Vessel
Image: Forbes Massie

Thomas Heatherwick is the British architect responsible for the design of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, and for the luxury hotel that abuts it in a revivified section of the tourist-rich Waterfront. Heatherwick has a distinct talent for manifesting spectacle: the structure he’s erected in Cape Town has been as instrumental in generating custom as the vast collection of African art it houses. It is a seamless – albeit strange – amalgamation of parts, a reconfigured industrial space that somehow manages to evoke both organic structures like anthills, and the imaginary landscapes of science fiction and fantasy. Consequently, Heatherwick’s repurposed grain silo is strangely indivisible from its contents: it is both home to art, and a work of art in itself, in spite of Heatherwick’s insistence that he shouldn’t be regarded as an artist.

By all accounts, Thomas Heatherwick is of that genus of creative visionaries that makes genius difficult to discern from madness: his ideas are frequently divisive, outlandish, and outside the sphere of what we consider possible (or desirable). He transacts in the visual language of continuity and circuitry, combining jarring elements with familiar infrastructure in a manner that is finally both disorienting and compelling. In the past, Heatherwick has silenced critics with improbable triumphs: the ‘hairy’ cube he unveiled in Shanghai, at the U.K. pavilion for Expo 2010; and his ‘cauldron’ composition, the moving sculptural stand-in for the Olympic flame that electrified spectators during the 2012 Summer Olympics in Heatherwick’s native London.

Now, under the auspices of billionaire property developer Stephen Ross, Heatherwick is making his mark on Manhattan, where a $200-million ornament is being erected in keeping with his design.

The ‘Vessel’, as it is currently known, is a grand-scale art installation at the heart of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards. It is – or will finally be, when construction is completed – a copper-encased, three-dimensional helix of sorts, comprising endless, interweaving staircases with no apparent apex or destination. It resembles nothing so much as an utterly evolved beehive, and, beyond its aesthetic value, the purpose of this mammoth edifice is anybody’s guess.

It might be used as an unconventional performance space, or simply rely on its indisputable novelty to sustain interest. People can, of course, walk the staircases ad nauseam, and probably will, in much the same way that tourists flock to the Statue of Liberty. But, unlike the Statue of Liberty – and the Eiffel Tower, which Ross is hoping, in his own way, to replicate – the ‘Vessel’ is strangely ahistorical, devoid of context and cultural currency. It simply is – or is shortly to be.

In strictly utilitarian terms, many of Heatherwick’s most brilliant innovations are purposeless. They are evocative and imposing, but also patently self-indulgent, a foil to the contemporary mandates of functionality and accessibility. Indeed, Heatherwick is reportedly intent on creating spaces that disrupt our purpose-driven propulsions through cities – spaces that invite pause, and reflection for reflection’s sake. But, while this is a charming sentiment, his disdain for pragmatism has provided ample fodder for his detractors in the past.

Heatherwick is like a latter-day Willy Wonka

His idea for a “Garden Bridge” over the Thames, for example, has been lambasted as little more than empty pageantry, a thoughtless exhibition of privilege – and, to the naysayers’ credit, the proposed overpass would actually exacerbate congestion, and prolong the duration of the journey over water. Still, there is something magical about a man who believes wholeheartedly in the benefits of erecting a tree-covered bridge in the middle of a bustling modern city. 

Heatherwick’s visions appeal to something childlike in each of us, in contravention of our collective cynicism; he is like a latter-day Willy Wonka, with the artistic and social resources to actualise the improbable. It remains to be seen whether cynicism or the innocent adulation Heatherwick engenders will win out, where the case of the ‘Vessel’ is concerned.

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