Is Hudson Yards Really the City of Tomorrow?

From left: Carl Swanson, Chris Cooper, Annabelle Selldorf, Daniel Sundlin, and Rafael Viñoly. Photo: Valerie Caviness/Michael Priest Photography

The day after Hudson Yards opened with a gigantic party including lots of champagne, a few celebrities, a Nieman Marcus selfie-station featuring the orphaned back end of a yellow cab evoking some idea of New York which actually at that moment in that location seemed really far away, I moderated the keynote discussion for the 92nd Street Y’s annual City of Tomorrow conference. And the topic ended up being of course: Hudson Yards. Was this massively ambitious bingosphere really the future of this or any other city? I was strangely emotionally hung over from the opening: I found it, completely, surprisingly alienating —somehow the public plaza in the middle of which the Vessel was plunked seemed a bit too much like a vast Uber Black staging zone, a too-orderly notion of urbanism imported from a car-first elsewhere — and I know I was not alone in that. As Annabelle Selldorf, one of the panelists, put it: “If the city of New York is just a bunch of skyscrapers with blue glass and mirror … that which Michael Kimmelman called a ‘semi-gated community,’ I’m very happy not to be a part of it.”

In the profile I’d written about the developer behind this lifestyle citadel, Stephen Ross, I’d tried to be strategically appreciative of how difficult it was for his company, Related, to build all these enormous skyscrapers on a platform over railroad tracks in a part of New York City New Yorkers had no reason to ever go to, even while acknowledging that what resulted was not for me, or people very much like me, people who have a sense of this city as something accreted over time and sometimes contradictory circumstances, and not declared by developer fiat. That said, in an age of increasing density and climate change, my idea of this city, where old and new coexist, is likely a bit out-of-date. And I recognize this form of everything-at-your-fingertips integration makes sense to both developers and, presumably, some itinerant global consumer who just doesn’t happen to be me. I’ve visited hygienic luxe variations on this aesthetic in Hong Kong and Las Vegas and downtown Brooklyn, not to mention the duty-free luxury brand obstacle courses in countless airports. Besides, all this oh-what’s-become-of-New-York keening seems rather pointless and the controversy, the backlash, and the backlash to the backlash, is arguably part of the marketing plan for the place.

We’re definitely talking about it. And so here we are — Selldorf, Rafael Viñoly, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Chris Cooper, and Bjarke Ingels Group’s Daniel Sundlin — talked about it. (If you prefer, you can watch the video here.)

This is the week that Hudson Yards opened up. And I wondered what you guys thought of it. Is this sort of the future of New York City, or how would you sort of describe that?
Cooper: Alright, I’ll dare to go first. I think as we talk about resiliency in the future of this city, we’ll probably talk about density, and we’ll probably talk about the growth of cities. And I think the question in New York becomes, where do you put that density? How do you increase the density in New York, and how do you do that? So I think what is impressive about Hudson Yards without critiquing the architecture or the actual master plan, is that it’s an unapologetic investment in New York City. There’s no question of whether or not they were saying that there’s future in New York City, we are going to grow and expand New York City, and we’re going to take a site that is a non-site and build vertically. And I think that that is something we all should look at as an impressive step forward. Now, it’s an experiment for sure, and did they get it right? I think we don’t know yet. I think that’s going to evolve, especially as the site continues to develop to the north. But it is truly an investment in density and an investment in New York City. And for that, I think it deserves sort of a round of applause.

Sundlin: I think that what everybody loves about New York is exceptions: we love Broadway, we love Central Park. And in a way, this is another exception in the city, in some vein, that people can kind of gather around. It’s a new public space. It’s a new connection in the city. And I think that the ambition to kind of limit cars and keep space for gathering spaces, cultural events, I think it somehow feels like that’s the future of New York.

Do you think there are impediments to building well in New York City?
Selldorf: Sorry, I have to … respond to the commentary on Hudson Yards. Some thirty-plus years when I first came to New York, I remember that I took a taxi and the taxi driver boasted about how fantastically forward-looking New York was. And I’d only been there for a few days and I thought it’s such an old-fashioned place. And it’s old-fashioned because the subways don’t work and the street is full of potholes and this was, granted, late 70s early 80s. Buildings were falling apart, etc. This is kind of the reverse. Really, do we call this the city of tomorrow? If this is the city of tomorrow, I’m gonna leave New York. If the city of New York is just a bunch of skyscrapers with blue glass and mirror which Michael Kimmelman called a “semi-gated community,” I’m very happy not to be a part of it. I think it’s an unbelievably missed opportunity. And while of course the ideas of density, and live-and-work, and no cars, and all of that are perhaps laudable, I think the fact that a single developer calls the shots on how high, the rents are for KKR and whatever other financial institutions are, to me, is exclusive of what I think New York is all about. To me, New York is a place of diversity. To me, New York is a place where different scales come into being, where people from all over the world in a way find welcome. I have never seen such an unwelcoming place. Unless you’re in in those military-type exercise programs, and you want to try to get up those damn stairs of “The Vessel,” uhm, no. Count me out.

[Pauses] I’m probably not gonna get a job in Hudson Yards. Damn.

Cooper: This is getting good!

What do you think, Rafael?
Viñoly: One of the benefits of of being old is that you don’t listen very well. So I didn’t hear any of what these people said before. And we don’t have the benefit like the musicians have of a speaker this way for people like me. But um, I think that this subject is super interesting. I completely agree with Annabelle about the result. I think that the most interesting aspect of this whole operation — and there have been many like this before, perhaps not in this gargantuan scale — is the deficiencies and the mysteries of the planning process. Because this is the result of a non-planning process, which actually has more of an impact in planning in the fabric of New York, and in the skyline of New York, and many other buildings that have been tortured and cut off and sort of tamed in the way in which some people’s taste with some power at the city planning commission, were interested in doing, right? So this is like, totally off the charts. It’s an operation a 100 per cent at the state level, which could be fantastic but it just is not. And I think it’s not for a number of reasons. Number one is this question of the concentration of density in which argumentatively was a function of the cost of the platform. But when you think that the platform cost a billion-two, a billion-three, between the sculptures and the Shed and a couple other things … really those alone cost another billion and a half. The argument that you have to increase the density as a function of the cost of platforming the whole railroad tracks, I mean, goes down the drain. Because you know it’s really not the case. It’s also extraordinary that as I’m sure you’ve read before, it has more tax benefits than the proposal that was engineered by the same people, by the way, in the case of Amazon. In other words, Amazon negotiated with the same group, with the governor, a deal that was literally a tenth of what Steve got for his side. And this is like, fifteen years ago. So as long as we as the public — and I think that we all are part of it, even though we, you know, practice architecture and are part of the development process — what we should all learn is that the real question here is how do you deal in a city like this, which has this unbelievable quality of being limited in plan, and that has bet its life into high, and this is not from the last 20 years but is from the last hundred years … the question of how you design, and the question of what do you design, ought to be a little more — because it inevitably is — a matter of public policy. In other words, we should all be more educated and more versed on dealing with what I always say is the only media you cannot turn off. Because if you hate ballet, you just don’t go, right? You don’t like the television set, you know the programming, you turn it off. Architecture you have to suffer no matter what. And even if you’re blind, you suffer it. And it’s that kind of responsibility which I think necessitates a different type of dialogue between politicians that is a 100 per cent chasing the opportunity for the ribbon cutting, and planners that really have always shied the question of architectural quality, at least in this city. I mean you know, places like in Europe, I mean I have a lot of work in London, it’s a completely different type of approach to how you actually create a building. It’s much more open-ended.

Do you think there should be an architectural review board in this city? Who would be on it?
Viñoly: I wouldn’t be on it.  

Selldorf: Sorry, I don’t think they would have you.

Rafael, when you think about a building that you literally can’t turn off. A building you see everywhere from the city, like your 432 Park Avenue … is it possible, when you were making that building, did you think about that fact?
Viñoly: Very much so … I think is a marvelously well-proportioned building. And I don’t know. I think I got a lot of compliments for that.

Cooper: I think it’s a wonderful project. It operates at a scale that it has a different responsibility than a small-scale building. And it’s interesting, as we see these super-talls come along 57th street. And we see Hudson Yards hulk up vertically. Buildings at that scale have a whole other civic responsibility. And so we think of New York City and the skyline, and we have ideas about each of these buildings adding to the skyline and our identity. And certainly 432 Park now is part of defining that identity. And certainly Hudson Yards is, as well.

Selldorf: From New Jersey. It’s not part of the skyline. You don’t really see it unless you are approaching from the west.

Cooper: Or from the south … I’m not trying to defend the buildings at all. I think they should be judged in a city skyline, and judged if they are adding value to our identity. And I think they also have to be judged at their base, and if they’re adding street activity and life. And the same for 432 Park, is at the base and the height, it has a civic responsibility

Selldorf: But there is a very different thing at play with Hudson Yards. Because you are talking about an entire neighborhood. The civic responsibility that you talk about addresses any number of issues that have to do with the people who live there, the people who work there, the people who get there … and not just what the buildings look like. So when we talk about Raphael’s building, then immediately people talk about, is it a beautiful building, is it not a beautiful building … but it’s a singular building and even though there are some very tall ones there now, the footprint is quite small. And so the effect as a whole of that building, even though it’s very visible, is merely that. It’s not really … It doesn’t affect how things happen on the ground.

Unless you’re the developer’s ex-wife.
Selldorf: But my point is, in a way, that civic responsibility happens at a very different level. And you can say yes, there’s a little bit of shade 20 minutes in the day in Central Park but it doesn’t address at all the behemoth that exists there in Hudson Yards. And in Michael Kimmelman’s article, again, I’ll quote, it sort of talks about how there is four percent affordable housing. So I mean, let’s just keep the church in the village. It’s not a place for people. It’s a very very highfalutin community, if you can call it a community, that is there for the financial services industry because the buildings in Wall Street and the buildings in Midtown are no longer equipped to serve the markets in the same manner that new buildings in Singapore, Hong Kong or in London do.

Well it’s a kind of new international style, I guess.
Selldorf: Kind of.

Photo: Valerie Caviness/Michael Priest Photography

Let’s talk about the opposite problem from Hudson Yards: How you managed to figure out how to expand the Frick.
Selldorf: The process was super fun. No, I think that it’s a very interesting process. Some people are aware of the fact that the Frick at one time, not actually at one time, since 1965, considered building in that, which is the 70th street garden. Not very many people know that that garden is the result of the Frick purchasing three different townhouses and taking them down with the idea, not to create a garden, but to expand their museum. So in 1973 they added a small reception building because at the time funds were scarce and they hired Russell Page to do the garden. Then that garden became a fact. And I myself am very fond of it. I think it’s incredibly nice what that garden does to the ensemble of the entire museum building. But in very short order they shot themselves in the foot because they couldn’t add the … they couldn’t add to the building for services that they need to provide to the public. It’s been a long process and it’s an arduous process since it requires a great deal of thinking and deliberating how you can do just as little as is possible …

Anyway my point is, there’s a great deal of conversation with the various constituents, from the immediate neighbors who live on the Upper East Side who aren’t keen on having construction in their backyard. All of those things one can understand. But you go through a dialogue with landmarks and with all of the other authorities to get there.

Daniel, let’s talk about resiliency and the big plans your firm has been involved with to try to protect the city from climate change.
Sundlin: So it was a competition with different architects, it was called Rebuild by Design, and basically there was a conversation about how you can protect the entire coastline of New York City and we got awarded to look at the ten-mile stretch that sort of makes the entire southern tip of Manhattan, essentially. The financial district and up to Midtown. And basically in the beginning it was a lot of conversations about creating walls and basically shutting off the city from the waterfront. So quite early on we realized that we needed to do something that was adding a quality to the city and adding what we call social infrastructure. So we started to look at the first two and two and a half miles, East River park, lifting the entire park and creating new connections back to the city. I think we had probably 500 community engagement meetings since then. It’s been like a process where we really have been in the backseat and the community have kind of designed the park for us and now it is an archipelago of different ideas kind of occupying the coastline of New York.

In terms of architectural design, is there something that — in terms of preserving a sense of what New York means or what New York is — is that something that you think about? What are the sort of discussions you have amongst yourselves and with your clients when you’re building buildings that are sort of larger than buildings that have been built since Stuytown. Anyone, I don’t care. You.
Cooper: I’m gonna speak to this since somehow I am now owning Hudson Yards. I think is true that nobody thought about how those buildings fit into the history of a legacy of New York City when they were designed as independent buildings. I agree with that. You know we try, we just finished a project on 61st and Broadway which is a residential tower, and we’re sitting directly face-to-face with 15 Central Park West. And we are in this funny part of town between Columbus Circle, Lincoln Center, Upper West Side, Midtown, Central Park, and there’s many buildings that came around Lincoln Center, residential towers, and then there was the 15 Central Park West that said, okay, we’re going to belong to the historic collection of Upper-West-Side buildings and relied on a historic aesthetic to do so. So here we were directly across the street and we tried to say a similar thing, okay, we’re going to belong to Upper West Side, the legacy of Upper West Side, the masonry, grand, brick building context, but can we do that with a different aesthetic? Can we do that with a fresh, forward thinking aesthetic? And so we embraced terracotta as a building material. It’s still almost a punched window building, it’s getting it’s language, let’s say, from the context but doing that as a modern constructed building and hopefully a modern language. And I think that some of this is aesthetic, as you’re trying to make these decisions, of how do you fit into a context of New York City, is there an aesthetic language that you try to develop that feels appropriate, but also how do you do that without looking back and trying to look forward? So I think absolutely it’s something we talk about in every project. And sometimes we’re more successful than others, let’s say.

What about you guys? Certainly VIA does not seem like a building that was thinking too much about other buildings that were there before.
Sundlin: Yeah. No. So we just finished twin towers next to the High Line actually on 11th street. A hotel and a residential tower.

These are the buildings that sort of twist.
Sundlin: Yeah, exactly. Somehow we released twisting buildings in the neighborhood nowadays, with Gehry [the IAC building] and Heatherwick [Pier 55] next door. No, but what I think was interesting there was that we pushed decline to create a public courtyard, so we create a completely new connection through that uhm, block. And essentially inviting the community to come inside and also giving new opportunities for, you know, different shops and things to happen in spaces that normally people are not allowed to enter so I think that’s kind of, I think, our thinking — what can you give back to the city when you do a big development like that?

Is this one of the discussions you’ve had, I know that you’ve been involved with Google and with what they’ve been doing. And that seems like it’s going through several rounds of processes. I mean what’s that been like, that client been like to work with?
Sundlin: It’s been really interesting. They obviously operate on a very big scale. They operate on a city scale, so yeah. It’s been a lot of conversations for how you become a part of the city but also kind of create your own culture and develop a company on that scale.

Do you think they think they’ve figured it out?
Sundlin: Uhm, I think we’re getting there.

Do you think they think they know what’s best?
Sundlin: I think they — yeah that’s a good question. I think —

For all of us.
Sundlin: I think they’re really trying to open up their buildings as much as they can, and right now we designed a kind of a dome structure. It’s nearly a million square feet, where we have a public route through the middle of the building. So once again really trying to find opportunities to invite the public and create a new type of interaction.

Should the city do something about mechanical voids, those extra-tall nonliving spaces designed into buildings to make them taller?
Cooper: You know the city is actually, for those who don’t understand what that is, sometimes in order to get more height and to get more value for apartments buildings, are built with big voids that we call “mechanical” in order to push the apartments up into the sky, which has been proven that there’s higher values and sales prices for higher apartments. So there are a few examples of that around town and the city actually has formally shut down that process. Has recognized that as a cheat of the system. And has made an active choice to prevent that from happening. And there are now maximum heights for mechanical space, drawings that have to be submitted. I think it is kind of a cheat of the system, and that’s —

Viñoly: Bound to be cheated.

Viñoly: The system is bound to be cheated.

Viñoly: The system is ridiculous. No but seriously, just let me pick up something that actually somehow unifies what these three guys have been talking about, which are buildings from the museum to your job on 11th Avenue to your job on the Upper West Side, are buildings that depend on the street. No matter how you slice it. And then somehow, they’ve been more or less attached to what made this town so amazingly incredible, which is the very simple planning principle, of rectangle as opposed to square, tall on the short side and low in the center, wide streets, and that’s it. That’s the whole invention of this place. It has created this experiment which is impossible to transfer. I mean you know, this Manhattan-ization that you know people in London were concerned about, and people in Dubai think they’re doing and so on, it’s just completely insane. I mean you know, this is irreproducible. The mistake of Hudson Yards is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the street. And that’s — this is irrespective of the architectural quality. You know this notion that Michael mentioned the other day in the Times about the gated community.

Okay this is a question from the audience: When do you say to a developer client, ‘no we’re not doing that.’
Viñoly: Sorry?

When do you say to a developer client, ‘no we’re not doing that?’
Viñoly: When he doesn’t wanna pay.

Anyone else? Is there something you refuse to do?
Cooper: Of course!

How does that work?
Cooper: I mean many times we’re acting as the hand of a developer, and it’s often the city that has to say no. And I think that’s part of what Rafael is pointing to with Hudson Yards, is that the city didn’t have that opportunity to say no.

Selldorf: What do you mean they didn’t have the opportunity? They were asleep or something?

Viñoly: They didn’t have the opportunity.

Selldorf: They did not?

Viñoly: It’s a completely different planning process. It’s in the state law …

It’s a profession where you’re in conversation with the client.
Selldorf: Well I think that when developers choose an architect, they’re likely to choose somebody who either has experience at something that they want to do, or who they are convinced of it. Nobody who’d be convinced by what you guys do for example, would ever set foot in my office. Because they’d be bored to tears. And, well, I mean, I wouldn’t be able to do twisting buildings. I wouldn’t know how. And I also wouldn’t want to, so that would relieve me from the obligation of saying no we’re not doing that.

Selldorf: But I think that is a little bit interesting and in some ways it is what creates a sort of dynamic atmosphere, is that, uhm … when I went to — I forget now, the name of the building that’s on 57th street.

Sundlin: VIA.

Selldorf: Yeah, VIA. I think that really fantastic experience, when you come in and you see that courtyard and the sort of diversity of the spaces … I think there’s so many fabulous things about it that I enjoyed seeing something that I felt was very far away from what I would naturally do. And I think that is really what I love about New York … I think it was really just about the ‘no’ saying. I think it’s all about relationships in the end, no? I mean, I’m sure you say no to —

Sundlin: We always say yes.

Selldorf: An artist friend of mine once said, from now on I’m only going to say yes. I should try that sometime.

Sundlin: No I don’t know where a “no” kind of … usually doesn’t lead you anywhere, but I think you can say no or like, yes but let’s see what it means to say “no.” If that makes sense.

I want to ask you a question, because you began this. One of the things that was interesting to me when it was said that you were the four people we were gonna talk to tonight, was it seemed you had very different practices. Is there something that you admire about one of the other person’s work?
Viñoly: Their clients. Their clients. No seriously, these three guys are fabulous architects. They have produced things, you know, it’s a tough business. You have to be fit for this and you have to have a … I mean, you’re too young. It’s mind-boggling. Every year. Each are chasing the first thing. Maybe you are not, because, you know, you’re part of the mechanism which are a mystery for me, which is the way you guys get work.

Cooper: I don’t know if I’ll answer that. Absolutely, so, I’m a part of big firm that’s 83 years old. I’m like the fourth generation of partnership, so I’m standing on the shoulders of giants that helped put me here. Absolutely. An answer to your question, absolutely there’s things that probably each of us respect, hopefully about each other’s work. It is very hard to do good architecture. And you look around town. And that becomes obvious, right? And there’s a small percentage of really good work, and work that is notable, and worth discussing, and where there has been the right relationship of architect and client. That they were in sync with each other, and got somewhere, and ended up through all the budget cuts and through all the regulations and through the whole process ended up with something of quality. That’s a wonderful part of being an architect. You hope that you get there. And I think that this group certainly demonstrates that. And I think that hopefully that’s why they’re up here. And that we’re part of that as well. But I think that, for sure, we all appreciate that and concede that, even if stylistically, we’re doing different work.

Selldorf: I think that’s completely beautifully said.

Another question from the audience: How are you integrating health and wellness into your designs? “Wellness,” that’s a buzzword right now.
Viñoly: That’s the spa. Forget that. Actually, danger and surprise is a lot better.

Cooper:  Okay, I’m gonna give a different answer. I think that there’s a new attention on this. And you say it’s a buzzword, but there’s absolutely a new attention on a realization that we spend all of our time in these buildings. We live in these dense urban settings that are maybe by nature unhealthy, or the quality of air etc. So, there’s absolutely an attempt. We have a huge focus on trying to chemicalize the materials that we use in buildings and build environments that the air quality is appropriate and that abide a new sense of wellness. There’s new well ratings that people focus on, and it’s surprising to me how many people are interested in this. And certainly in the workplace or, you know, the workplace is changing fundamentally for a younger generation that actually says I need an environment that is healthy for me. And there’s a greater voice for that. And so, it comes to us as a demand, actually. It is a large part of our internal conversation right now.

Do you think that the city could become too dense?
Viñoly: Very much so. Very much so.

How close are we to that?
Viñoly: 80 percent.

Selldorf: I highly recommend that you take the number six subway at 8:30 in the morning at Union Square. You actually cannot go down the stairs, because there’s so many people. And there are no Japanese porters pushing people in the right place. Now, people push each other and I think one fears for one’s life, because the station is also very narrow. I think when you talk about health and wellness, I think looking at New York City’s infrastructure and the terrible disrepair in which it is and apparently will remain for a long time. Then I think there’s a real lack of health and wellness. It’s shocking, in fact, that we talk about density and at the same time that we’re not able, willing to address infrastructure as we’re talking about density.

Cooper: Exclamation point.

Viñoly: It’s a failure of the public sector. I mean, you know, this town is the way it is because two guys that had this idea in the 19th century of bringing the water from the aquifers upstate. And, you know, has reached the limit. Infrastructural collapse is really pretty close. It’s sort of like the carbon problem.

Selldorf: Though it has to be said that there’s also a very long period when everybody said, “We don’t need to fix this. It’s just gonna be fine.” I’d like to use the example of the subway, because the subway station at St. Mark’s Place is a super beautiful station. If only somebody bothered to clean it and maybe repaint the steel and from time to time hose that thing down and repair the lights, it really wouldn’t be so bad. But there is a general malaise that has to do with any kind of public service of that kind. And so, the longer you push that out, the less it is possible to pick it up, expand it, or something. I dunno. I took a train the other day and I am not kidding, it took five minutes from the moment that I got off the train until I saw the light of day. Because there were just so many people and you simply wouldn’t be moving. I felt very claustrophobic and it’s a very, very unpleasant situation for people. And so, I’m reluctant on advertising density.

Cooper: I agree completely. And we have infrastructure challenges that have to be addressed. I would maybe say an optimistic spin is that I think that New York City now, more than ever, really is all five boroughs. And that, typically, or historically, we’d say New York City referred to Manhattan. And we have these issues of density in Manhattan that are challenged to grow. But we are starting to see a full embrace of the outer boroughs, and I think places like downtown Brooklyn are natural locations for a new node of density, sitting on top of all the subway lines.

It seems like someone’s thought of that, yeah.
Cooper: Yes, but I think that it can handle. It’s okay to see that density. And I think that Sunnyside Yards, or there are other places that we can see nodes of growth that might help bring density to New York City in a different way than just saying that Manhattan has to keep going up, and up, and up.

Is Hudson Yards Really the City of Tomorrow?