The northern end of New York’s High Line is now capped off by a massive $25bn mixed-use development called Hudson Yards. On its cusp is The Shed, a Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed arts building, at its heart is the Heatherwick Studio-designed Vessel and in its shopping mall is the Snark Park, by Snarkitecture
Words by Johnny Tucker
Photography by Wade Zimmerman and Iwan Baan
Where once there were just shunting yards full of trains spilling over from Penn Station on the west side of New York, there now rises a whole new area dominating the skyline with a series of gleaming, and mostly pretty ugly, new towers.
Hudson Yards is, in fact, the biggest mixed-use real estate development in the US — ever. Weighing in at an eye-watering $25bn (£19bn), the first phase of this 11ha development — from New York-based real estate firm Related — is all but complete. When totally finished in 2024, it will be home to 16 different structures. Phase one is made up of eight structures. A slightly odd word, ‘structures’, but one made necessary by the fact that one of the eight is the Heatherwick Studio-designed Vessel — and nobody is quite sure what it is, but it’s definitely not a building.
One that definitely is a building, is The Shed, led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) in collaboration with the Rockwell Group. On the very southern edge of the site, the brand-new arts building is not strictly speaking part of the Hudson Yards development, being built on city land, funded separately and run as a not-for-profit entity. Where it gets a little complicated is in the fact that the building is capable of moving at one end to occupy public space that is part of the development (you can see how over the next few pages) and at its other end nestles into the bottom of a massive new residential tower that is very much part of Hudson Yards and has also been designed by DS+R and Rockwell Group. More on these two structures later.
The view of Hudson Yards as seen from New Jersey, across the Hudson River, with the Empire State Building framed above Vessel. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
Hudson Yards was masterplanned by Kohn Pedersen Fox. It fits into a plot between 10th and 11th Avenues and is bordered by 41st Street to the north and 30th Street and the top of the High Line (it almost goes without saying, by DS+R) to the south. The buildings of the first phase all sit around the edge of the site with a 2.4ha public plaza, which is saved from total anonymity by having the Vessel in its centre, which was built at a purported cost of somewhere between $150m (£115m) and $200m (£153m). But even this gleaming copper affair cannot detract from the fact that this sterile glass canyon is not somewhere you’d choose to linger long, public space (moot point) or no.
Hudson Yards has created a whole new skyline, and includes one building reminiscent of the cartoon character Duckman, with a huge bill-like protrusion from the top set to open soon as NYC’s highest viewing platform at some 386m. This particularly ugly building, 30 Hudson Yards, is now the third tallest in New York and pretty hard to miss even from the Staten Island Ferry. Designed by Bill Pedersen and KPF, he reportedly imagined it as a ‘dance partner’ to 10 Hudson Yards, which is another KPF building.
Attached to the base of these two is a seven-storey shopping mall designed by KPF and Elkus Manfredi Architects. This generic shiny space that could be anywhere in the world is home to 100 shops, 20 restaurants and perhaps most interestingly Snark Park, a new art-meetsamusement- park attraction created by provocative artistcum- architect Snarkitecture.
Other big buildings to be found in the development include 55 Hudson Yards, by KPF and Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, 35 Hudson Yards (also known as Equinox Tower) by David Childs of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, and Foster + Partners’ 50 Hudson Yards. That’s the litany over with.
Owned at yard level by the Metropolitan Transport Authority, the Hudson Yards area has long been a site for speculation. In the 1980s, entertainment venue Madison Square Garden considered moving there, while in the following decade the New York Yankees baseball team thought it could be ideal for its new stadium. Both came to nought. In the Noughties it was earmarked as the site for a stadium for the city’s unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Olympics and would have subsequently become home to the NFL’s New York Jets.
As much as $4.6bn of public money has gone into areas such as the new Subway station in the foreground. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
Back in 1987, when the MTA created the yards for Penn Station, it was cannily very aware of the air rights — the ability to build above the yards — and deliberately left space for columns and supports to be built that could hold up a platform above. That is what the new Hudson Yards development now sits on.
The development so far has not been without its issues, central to which is the amount of public city money which has gone into it, despite this being a private development. Depending on which source you use and how you calculate it, there is between $1.4bn (£1.1bn) and $6bn (£4.6bn) of public money involved in one way or another, from tax breaks to infrastructure spending, including a new subway station.
The mixed-use development includes office, retail, arts, public space and residential and these last two are on the hot-topic list as well. As in many cities around the world there’s a major disconnect between the kind of housing being provided and the kind of housing needed. This is very high-end, super-expensive stuff and the required affordable quota follows the usual story of either being built elsewhere or, where in the same building, having different access points from the upmarket apartments.
Hudson Yards literally towers over the surrounding area. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
New York’s ongoing issues with privately operated public space continue. New Yorkers feel much of what is here is a financiers’ playground with a tourist magnet in the shape of Vessel (which actually has a very small footprint) and the public element has also been tainted by the gated-development feel of the space.
Although the two projects join up, Hudson Yards is a million miles away from the atmosphere and nature of the High Line, which is so very New York and so beloved by the city. This is more of a windswept glass canyon. The landscaping by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects wasn’t completed for the official opening, but this elevated park is just not the High Line and never will be.
New Yorkers are being resistant at the moment, but The Shed could be the thing that really brings them here and smooths off some of the shiny corners. Tourists are already coming in their droves and the fact that it’s going to become something of an architectural theme park — with the next phase including buildings by Santiago Calatrava, Herzog & de Meuron and Frank Gehry — will only bring in more.
Shed load of art
Looking up the High Line, The Shed appears at the top. Credit: Iwan Baan
From the lofty position of its 18th-floor office on the west side of Manhattan, architect Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) looks east over its High Line project that changed the very nature of this part of the city. Looking north, it can see the very first and possibly the very last large tower to ever come out of the practice (15 Hudson Yards) and a tiny bit of its new cultural centre, The Shed.
DS+R conceived The Shed with architect David Rockwell, who DS+R co-founder Liz Diller describes as a ‘soulmate’ during the project’s creation, and with whom she has often ‘concocted’ projects that haven’t come to fruition. The Shed however, has, and has been a fierce labour of love and belief for her.
From the outset when they won the public pitch back in 2008, Diller admits that it was a project that seemed ‘totally improbable as it was the height of the financial crash’, but she fought hard to make it a reality in her city which she believes is ‘defined by its art and artists’.
The brightly lit McCourt space under the deployed shell would normally be shaded for perfomances. Credit: Iwan Baan
The $404m Shed is an 18,500 sq m building dedicated to performing and visual arts and popular culture. It sits at the northern tip of the High Line, like the point in an inverted exclamation mark, and has the mass and visual strength to stop you in your tracks. It’s essentially a giant cuboid that looks like a quilted duvet has been draped over it. The duvet is a steel frame with ETFE panels sitting above a permanent structure and is the defining feature and moment of the building. Follow the structure down to the ground with your eyes and it tapers to touch the floor at six points, three on either side. Where it meets the ground you see giant industrial wheels sitting on two tracks.
The shell has two modes: it can sit above the main mass of the building, nestling back into the 88-storey tower that DS+R has also designed, or it can deploy, moving at one quarter of a mile per hour, out into the public plaza to basically double the building’s footprint and create a huge new performance space for The Shed. The bottom third of the building has guillotine windows which are raised for the move and can stay up to create a highly permeable space or be lowered to create a closed controlled environment.
Very literal models for the matchbox idea, complete with matches. Credit: Diller Scofidio + Renfro
When deployed the space is known as the McCourt — McDonald’s isn’t involved — and the idea of a moving architecture was pretty much in place from the creative outset, originally referred to as the matchbox. There are even very early models of the idea made literally out of matchboxes, three of them, sitting on a shelf in the DS+R office, next to 3D-printed versions on the frame showing the subsequent iterative design process.
It all began back in 2008 when the Hudson Yards Development Corporation, which importantly, was created by the City of New York to transform this area of west Manhattan, put out a request for proposals for the cultural use of only a 2,000 sq m plot on the southeastern edge of what would become Hudson Yards. That was the full extent of the brief: a cultural use and an outline on a map.
From the outset, DS+R — in collaboration with Rockwell Group — reacted to this slight brief by putting flexibility at the core, since it had so little idea of what the real end use, or even who the end users would be. They in effect evolved their own brief, talking to all the main cultural institutions and set about creating something that would have its own place, its own niche, in New York City cultural life.
The McCourt in use for The Shed’s opening performances of the Steve McQueen-directed Soundtrack of America. Credit: Iwan Baan
It wasn’t until 2014, some six years later, that the now artistic director and CEO Alex Poots was appointed and fully defined what the institution would be and how the building would need to operate to realise his vision. ‘From the time Alex joined, it was very collaborative,’ says Diller. ‘From here on, we had an extremely knowledgeable client that was able to work with us to evolve the design. He loved the building and how it operated and he didn’t dispute any of the elements such as the moving shed, the guillotine doors or the materials. He did, however, challenge us to be even more flexible than we already were.’
However, a year or so before this occurred, DS+R had had to submit construction drawings, because, although it is on a city-owned plot, it also sits on the platform that is Hudson Yards — and with construction beginning on that, the loads of the building and positioning of cores etc needed to be finalised and set, if not in stone, in steel.
As well as flexibility, or perhaps as a result of it, the main touchstones for this project, according to Diller, are the work of architect Cedric Price and his pioneering thinking from the Sixties: ‘The idea of a transformable building that doubled its footprint was written into the building a few months in. The only institutional model that really resonated with us was Cedric Price’s Fun Palace. He was forward-thinking and all of his ideas, like taking old industrial spaces and turning them into new institutions, was so very now, so ahead of its time. The Fun Palace was seared into my mind as a student.
The 500-seat, acoustically isolated theatre space in the main building. Credit: Timothy Schenck
‘It was a touchstone for me, but it was always thought of as this wonderful crazy idea that could never get built. The Pompidou used it as a reference and that was also a special building, but I also felt there was probably a better connection to the Fun Palace to be made. A lot of Price’s thinking was about designing for a future you couldn’t know — this great paradox — creating an architecture of infrastructure, and that also really resonated with our project.’
The Shed also strongly references the industrial heritage of the area, from the High Line that has been so significant, to the yards below the platform. It also nods to the piers that once surrounded Manhattan as the deployable frame is essentially a giant gantry crane (powered by the equivalent of a Toyota Prius engine, apparently).
‘The first movement was so incredibly magical,’ says Diller. ‘We decided to do it early on a Saturday morning, when there weren’t many people around and definitely no journalists! I was so nervous and the engineers were predicting it would creak a lot at the beginning. I told my team I don’t want to be there at the start — you have to tell me if it is working and then I’ll come straight away. I just couldn’t look, it was just too close to me, just too emotional.’
Looking from the main building to the McCourt space. These concertina windows can open up and raked seating will be installed down to ground level for large-audience events. Credit: Timothy Schenck
When the movement began, Diller was at home waiting for the call. It was moved 3cm, but that wasn’t enough for her. Then it went a metre. Still not enough. ‘They called again and it had moved 3m and they said with the very next movement they are going to go all the way so you’d better get up here,’ she recalls. ‘I dashed there from the East Village where I live, calling people on the way telling them to come! It was a moment I will always remember. A lot of hugging and tears. It was a very significant moment.’
The Shed goes further in linking into the High Line, a project that catapulted DS+R on to the global stage. In a self-referential moment, the main entrance on 34th Street opens into a lobby with a large glazed section in the middle of the ceiling, which looks straight at the bottom of the High Line.
The fact that the main entrance is on W30th Street is also very important. Despite its proximity to Hudson Yards — the McCourt deploys out over HY-controlled privately owned public space — Diller wanted it to be part of the city, rather than the Related development. So the building is accessed from a fairly nondescript street a level below the main building. Also, unlike what has been referred to as a gated world above in Hudson Yards, The Shed aligns with the city grid, east–west. An earlier iteration was also aligned, although north–south, and was actually a series of telescoping sheds. ‘This was just the first blush,’ adds Diller, ‘and we went from four sheds to three sheds to two as we got smarter.’
Looking from the main building to the McCourt space. These concertina windows can open up and raked seating will be installed down to ground level for large-audience events. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
A great deal of the drive to make this building a reality really came from DS+R — the practice didn’t have a contract for the building until 2012, some four years in. One of the main moments that changed this ‘improbable building’ into a ‘just maybe’ was being asked to present it to Mayor Bloomberg and his entourage: ‘I was told Bloomberg doesn’t have a long attention span, so do a 10-minute pitch. All I remember is, an hour and a half later, the mayor was still totally engaged in all the conversations,’ recalls Diller with a big grin. ‘You could see that the notion of making something really different happen, bringing visual art, performing arts and the creative industries together in New York was really important to him.’
It was after this point that DS+R also started having meaningful meetings with deputy mayor and CEO and president of Bloomberg, Daniel L Doctoroff, who would go on to become chairman of The Shed’s board of directors, not only being instrumental in setting up the board, but also being seminal to pulling in the funding. In the US, public arts funding is minimal. Although there was seed funding to the tune of $100,000 (£76,650) from the National Endowment for the Arts to advance the project, the money has come mostly from private donations.
So by 2015 The Shed was on the move — DS+R had a contract and The Shed had a board and artistic director. The working programme that DS+R had evolved itself, was that this cross-discipline entity would be one-third newly commissioned work, one-third co-commissioned and then one-third for travelling shows and collection. But, Poots had a new vision: entirely new work, all commissioned by The Shed.
The gallery space in the main building was split into two sections for the Reich Richter Pärt collaboration (Steve Reich, Gerhard Richter, Arvo Pärt). This is Richter Pärt room. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
‘He was extremely pure in his thinking and he started putting new challenges to us, such as 108 decibel sound in the McCourt,’ says Diller. ‘We knew it was never going to be a concert hall, as it’s not designed like that but as soon as Alex put that on the table it was a game changer.’
The practice needed to look at controlling heavily amplified sound both inside the building and the extent of the bleed from it. Poots also changed the focus of the theatre space on the 6th floor, to have both a 500-seat theatre with acoustic isolation and a divisible space so that performance and rehearsal could happen simultaneously. Other changes saw the top-floor restaurant/event space become a rehearsal space. ‘It changed a lot of the construction documents as the M&E had to move and the staffing needed to increase, so more back of house was needed,’ says Diller.
The human-size bogies which the shell uses to deploy along its rails out over the plaza. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
Luckily, they had some wriggle room in the shape of an enormous residential tower in the Hudson Yards development. Originally distinct from The Shed by about 6m, HY developer Related directly approached DS+R and Rockwell to create the tower. You can tell that Diller is clearly still slightly uncomfortable with the idea of it, but adds: ‘Speaking for myself, I have to say we don’t do a lot of commercial work and the idea of doing a high-rise residential building was very, very far from my mind. I was ultimately convinced by some folks from the city because it would give us more control over the fate of The Shed. It was the smartest advice. I talked myself and our partners into doing it because we could then control the quality of our neighbour. Beyond that, if we moved The Shed back to the west we could have more deployable space in the east and as architects of both we could have an argument and always win!
‘We’re proud of the building and we were also able to do some really significant transfer into the tower from The Shed, including a lot of our mechanical equipment, a huge chunk of the office, back of house storage and the public restrooms. It then liberated what was The Shed’s small footprint to be totally cultural space.’
The matt ETFE of The Shed glows with the copper reflection of light from Vessel. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
So the building now had funding, a board, a creative director and a final programme. Diller and Poots talk about The Shed building as infrastructure. The final form is the fixed building starting at the lobby on West 30th Street.
Above this are four more floors. The first two are classic column-free windowless gallery space. The Griffin Theatre sits above these and at the top is the Tisch Skylights rehearsal and event space. All of the fixed floors above the lobby are encased by the moveable shell, which deploys to create the massive McCourt space. The moving structure rises to a deeply dramatic height of 37m and all of that can be rigged and used as fly space for productions.
The east ends of the two gallery levels also have concertina windows that can fold back and be brought into play as audience areas for the McCourt. Apart from the dramatic deployable moment, the rest of the form and materiality is underplayed, understated and left to be in the service of the spaces and those occupying them. White, black and concrete are the order of the day.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s residential tower appears to rise out of the centre of Vessel (it doesn’t). Credit: Wade Zimmerman
This building more than any other has to be looked at as something to be inhabited and brought to life by its use. Was the deployable shell fully necessary and just how often it will move are moot points. At the outset you feel it grew out of a need to make the idea coalesce and give it a unique identity when its purpose was still pretty nebulous. The Fun Palace was clearly a major driver and informed much of what has come since. Poots redefined The Shed’s role to a certain extent and now it’s up to him and the curatorial team to give it true life, purpose and relevance.
This is likely always to be a cusp point in New York. Without the Hudson Yards development The Shed would not have, could not have, been realised as it has been. South from The Shed, you are in New York. From the northern wall of The Shed going north you are in the netherland that is Hudson Yards — a corporate, sterile mass of glass, hard landscaping, shopping, offices and very, very expensive residential. It’s not the only space like this in New York for sure, but it’s not where the real, vital, absorbing modern New York is — that’s happening in the reclamation and repurposing of the old parts of the city, the polar opposite.
Despite the massive amount of steel involved, Vessel looks like a paper cut that could fold flat. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
Walking north along the Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) High Line in the morning New York sun is a paradoxically relaxing yet very urban experience. As you near the end, the giant matt-finish, pillow-like structure of DS+R’s The Shed hoves into view and as you get level with it, something altogether much shinier appears — Heatherwick Studio’s Vessel.
Where The Shed looks to blend in (despite its massive mass) and have a quiet muscular attitude that seems like an extension of the industrial nature of the High Line, the Vessel is more a part of Hudson Yards, which is an altogether much brasher affair. The Vessel demands attention. It shouts, ‘Look at me!’ and makes no pretence of blending in, trying to out-reflect its very reflective glass surroundings.
Before it has even opened for the day, a queue wraps around the base of the building. In the queue people can’t stay away from their phone cameras and SLRs snapping their reflection in the highly polished copper surface and burbling with anticipation. The route inside snakes around a helical ramp at the base of the structure, delineated by roughly hewn granite edges. Upon entering the arena-like base everyone stops, looks up and reaches for their phone again. There is no denying this structure is extremely dramatic from the outside and from within, equally from the ground and aloft at its upper rim.
154 interior and exterior staircases lead to 80 landing spaces. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
The crowd starts to disperse variously up the Initial four staircases and soon they are spread out all over the structure as they head, mostly, to the top. The animation the people provide changes the structure profoundly. It needs people and the people, judging from their reactions, seem to need it.
Gone are the barking security staff moving visitors around, which dogged it at the beginning. The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and at the top, just a little bit disconcerting. It may not be high by NYC standards — even in Hudson Yards there’s a viewing platform about to open that will be the city’s highest — but it’s high enough to give you a different perspective and, if you don’t have a head for heights, a strange feeling in the lower part of your body.
For the less physically able or those who just want an interesting experience, there’s a funicular railway-like lift. As the inside is curved like the exterior, it ascends the curve riding rail and cogs. It’s a theatrical punctuation to an already theatrical interior.
Although it could hold thousands, for comfort the capacity is limited to 700 people. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
That’s the experience and it’s a good place to start because that is exactly what this is all about — that and placemaking. This is about putting Hudson Yards, essentially a modern and unenticing mix of residential, hotel, office and retail designed to soar into the ether while financially making the very most of the developer’s air rights, on the map. Offsetting the development is the requirement for public space and that is where the free-to-visit Vessel sits.
‘They knew they needed something in the middle to give it a significance,’ says Heatherwick Studio group leader, Stuart Wood. ‘They didn’t say this, but our interpretation was that it risked being the left-over space in between buildings instead of something consciously conceived. That led us on an exploration of finding what was the problem that needed to be solved,’ he continues.
‘We started thinking about socialisation and social space. Is a corporate plaza just a left-over space or can it be something really social. We looked at civic spaces from antiquity in particularly three-dimensional spaces, like amphitheatres and theatres in the round and steps and stairs and serendipitously came across the step wells of Rajasthan with their lace-work of steps and geometry to get you down to the water. We knew we couldn’t go down, but thought maybe we could go up. One of our first thoughts was also that we didn’t want to do something passive. We are not artists, we are designers. For us that meant physical engagement. We also didn’t want to jam up the plaza so we thought it needed to have a small footprint.’
People just can’t stop taking pictures of it — and selfies reflected in it. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
This it does and gradually expands towards the top. In total, there are 154 different staircases connected to 80 landings. The Vessel has eight storeys, rising to a height of 46m and these split into 16 different levels as the stairs alternate between the outside edge and inside. Based on the comfort and the experience, 700 people are allowed in at any one time though structurally it could take thousands.
‘We worked very fluidly with the engineers to see what steel was capable of,’ says Wood. ‘The height came about because of the heights of the buildings around it and what was a natural height that gave you a compelling experience. Structure, physics, ergonomics and computer modelling started to describe this hexagonal cellular structure.
'At certain points it was significantly more complex geometrically, but we hit upon this structure pretty early on in the process. We wanted steel because we wanted it to reference the heavy infrastructure that gets you on to Manhattan Island, the amazing steelwork bridges. So the steel is celebrated and then the counterpoint to that was the aspiration for warmth. We wanted to be complementary but a counterpoint to the buildings around which are typically grey. So we wanted to attach warmth and with a warm metal and we wanted reflectivity because we knew that looking up at this expanding structure would be an interesting experience to see the environment and movement reflected in it. We are also trying to connect back to the human.’
A counterpoint to what is around it certainly is — connected back to the human, probably not. From without, it’s quite difficult to know what to make of it. The form is interesting: the shiny materiality was a bold choice, too bold. If it had been allowed to patinate to verdigris it might have been more interesting, or if it had taken one of the muted Manhattan bridge colours. The interior is the most exquisite thing about it though. It has captured the geometry and beauty of the step wells and is captivating to behold.
Heatherwick Studio’s Vessel peers in at the Snark Park, through the mall windows. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
Like Hudson Yards itself (and possibly because of it), the structure is not without its detractors. One of the biggest issues has to be the ongoing privately operated public space argument that bedevils New York. This is a space that does not give any sense of ownership back to the community, and visitors feel separated from the city (The Shed has been very careful to put its main entrance at street level and not on this plaza.)
What you haven’t got here is space to linger. The High Line which leads up to it, invites you to stay a while with enticing nooks, seating and viewing spots. Hudson Yards doesn’t; it’s a harder, more urgent environment about experience and shopping. The Vessel fits the context and creates that Instagrammable placemaking moment. The other issue is the cost, which is not public, but is eye-wateringly purportedly somewhere between $150m (£115m) and $200m (£153m).
Going out on a limb, I have to say I still like the structure from within, with slight reservations without. Tourists are definitely part of the audience this is trying to talk to, but in the end it’s part of New York, so let’s leave the final word to the New Yawkers. From what I overheard hanging around the windy plaza, they seem to love and hate it in equal measure:
‘It’s so not New York.’
‘It’s so shiny!’
‘It is so strange to see something like that, which looks like it was just plonked down in the city. The High Line is so chilled and this is so weird. It’s a cool concept though.’
‘What an amazing thing to do…’
The inoperable, but choreographed giant claw machine dipping into the mound of Snarkies. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
Entering the edge of the giant shiny new Hudson Yards development in New York via the shopping mall entrance on 10th Avenue, you traipse along a gaudy marble floor and see not some alluring jeweller or upmarket clothier, but instead a giant claw machine randomly dipping and grabbing at the pile of white fluffy toys below. It’s a bizarre choreographed sight, particularly as there’s no visible way of working this mega machine.
Next to the claw machine, a brushed-steel counter backed by a moving billboard sign, looking for all the world like a cinema box office, will sell you a $28 (£21.50) ticket for the Snark Park plus merchandise and treats.
This is the latest offering from art and architecture purveyor Snarkitecture. The outfit is known for its playful monochromatic installations such as The Beach at various sites around the world. In 2018 the giant melting ice spheres of its Altered Sates installation in the historic Palazzo dell’Ufficio Elettorale were a stand-out moment and wonderful oasis of calm in the madness of Milan Design Week.
The entrance to Lost and Found looks as though it has been hewn from rock. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
But this latest intervention is very different. For one, it isn’t temporary — it’s a permanent space given over to Snarkitecture by Hudson Yards developer Related. I caught up with Alex Mustonen, one of the three members of Snarkitecture, along with Daniel Arsham and Ben Porto, next to the claw machine. As it deftly dipps to grab a Snarky, as the little characters are called, Mustonen explains that they see this space very much as an ‘incubator’ for their art: a place where they can try out new things and see what works and what doesn’t. Snarkitecture has a wonderfully playful and pragmatic approach to art and when I question him on what he means by ‘what works’, he replies that it’s all about making sure people interact with the work — and as many people as possible at that.
So prompted, I decide it’s time to interact. Entering through big brushed-steel doors like a walk-in fridge, you’re in a lowly lit room flanked by two walls of curtains — the exploration begins. After some comical curtain swooshing, you eventually find your way into a light-bathed room with white material streamers hung densely from the ceiling, which at once both block your view and allow tantalising glimpses. A grid of white columns emerges and as you push forward they begin to mutate — some look for all the world like crumbled classical columns enhancing the labyrinthine feeling and making you wonder if there might be a white minotaur waiting for you further in.
A column reveals a shiny interior and a periscope that unexpectedly gives a view of a nearby seat. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
You pass the occasional black-and-white board game — chequers, backgammon — and the columns mutate further still. Some hang from the ceiling spewing out white material guts, others are hollowed out enough for you to get inside to find yourself surrounded by fur or polystyrene balls or mirrored material. The haptics varies between soft and harsh, visually shiny and matt. One column contains a periscope looking at a currently empty seat somewhere within the labyrinth.
Pushing on you eventually find a seat, maybe that seat, next to a mirrored wall, which as you follow it round reaches another mirrored wall at a right angle. Following that to its end reveals a curtain into a very dark, UV-lit room. There are people sitting on black bean bags and they are smirking as they have just been voyeuristically watching you through the one-way glass that you thought was a mirror. It’s a slightly darker turn on what had seemed a very benign journey of discovery so far.
Returning to the white room to explore, your trip is soundtracked by ambient music and disembodied voices of others in the space. You occasionally stumble upon people to be met by grins of acknowledgement or them embarrassedly scurrying away like small disturbed animals.
Entering a dark UV-lit room you become a voyeur looking through a one-way mirror into the main room. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
Eventually the journey is over and you empty back out into the unrelenting mall through big steel doors again, the brashness outside making you realise how soft and calm things had been where you’ve just come from.
‘This first installation,’ says Mustonen, explaining that it will probably change about three times a year, ‘is Lost and Found, and it has been a very interesting project. This is more abstract than Beach and there’s no set agenda.
Whatever references you may infer are certainly rather live and mysterious. There’s an architectural side where we have a field of columns and they change as you move through the space and then at the same time there’s also a natural angle of something like a forest and the idea of getting lost.
The stuff of nightmares: a hand pushes through from the other side where a fissure in the wall becomes soft and hairy. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
‘Discovery and exploration are important elements. There’s a sort of game condition to it. There is no pathway, it’s about exploration and discovering hidden and secret moments. But at the same time there are cues, such as a chair which you know is for sitting on, or a game like chequers is for playing, but then there are things that you don’t really know what they are for.’
The genesis of Snark Park was interesting. Initially Snarkitecture was brought in as a consultant — it has done design in the past for retailers such as Kith — to look at interaction on the second floor of the mall. ‘We proposed moments that would bring play and interaction into the space,’ says Mustonen. ‘It was a design project and the short version of the story is that none of that got built, but in the midst of all this we proposed to them this permanent space and that was the thing that stuck.’
The monochromatic palette of the experience extends to the staff uniforms. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
He continues: ‘We think of it as a big deal, because Hudson Yards is a massive project and it’s an expensive space so there’s a serious side to it, but at the same time, it’s very experimental for us. I feel the same way about this project as we did when we started up Snarkitecture. What is it? How is it going to work? Questions like that. One of the key things for this was to differentiate it from our temporary projects and semi-permanent spaces. We wanted to create a space that has durability and staying power even if the things in it are rotating and changing. It’s a shell and a framework.’
Lost and Found is the current iteration of a space that is due to change around three times a year. Credit: Wade Zimmerman
Is a permanent space in a shopping mall a bonus or does it hamper them, since their work is often about putting something incongruous into a situation and reacting with and against what is there? ‘With this first project it’s not designed to respond to anything that’s here. It could be said it’s devoid of context, but it’s not devoid of reference,’ says Mustonen. ‘I think that will be part of the question moving forward: do we work in parallel with an existing condition or do we respond directly. We have thought about things that have been a response or a play on the idea of being in a space within a retail building, but at the same time we are always going to be interested in taking those moments and pushing them in a different direction. I think the New York question and Hudson Yards is a very interesting question in whether we respond to it directly.’
This is, at the end of the day, a not-very-inspiring rectangular box, and the Lost and Found experience is lacking some of the contextual excitement of previous Snarkitecture outings not to mention engagement. To be mercenary, it also doesn’t feel like $28 dollars worth. Maybe bring the price down for us guinea pigs…
Feature image: Wade Zimmerman