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Why the Vessel Should Remain Closed for Good

Earlier this month, a representative for Related Companies, the developer responsible for $60 billion worth of real estate including the glorified Manhattan shopping complex known as Hudson Yards, announced that it will reopen its Vessel after nearly three years of closure and four deaths by suicide. The 150-foot nest of interlocking copper-colored staircases will be equipped with floor-to-ceiling steel netting that will, the representative insists, preserve “the unique experience that has drawn millions of visitors from around the globe.” But after four suicides, an appalling disregard for human life by Related, and irresponsible design decisions by the structure’s designer Thomas Heatherwick, it’s time to shut down the Vessel for good. 

Having spent a couple of years researching and reporting on suicide barriers, while mourning the loss of three people I’d personally known who died from jumping off of California’s Golden Gate Bridge, I am wary of any solution that promises to preserve the Vessel, however “unique” an experience it may be. 

The netting approach might have been wise had it been taken four years ago, after the first death, or, better yet, eight years ago, when Audrey Wachs, an editor at the Architect’s Newspaper, took a look at the design proposal and immediately clocked the danger of the high drop and low railings. Wachs warned that the designer did not learn from the example of New York University’s Bobst Library, which installed plexiglass and metal fencing in 2012 to curb student suicide. Barriers like these and the ones proposed for the Vessel’s revamp can indeed prevent deaths. Research shows that safety nets reduce suicide attempts by 77.1% and vertical barriers, like the planned netting at the Vessel, by 68.7%, though people might still try a new method to jump off the site.

Barriers provide not only a physical buffer between a desperate individual and a deadly, impulsive act but also an existential one: They are a visual affirmation that someone cares if you live or die. Related Companies’ begrudging and belated implementation of this life-saving solution undermines its remarkable efficacy. The site is now inevitably triggering to those who may be contemplating suicide.  

Time after time, the developer has failed to protect the safety of visitors at the Vessel. After the first suicide in 2020, a local community board wrote an open letter imploring Related to raise the railings. After each subsequent death, more joined the call for higher railings or added barriers. Related declined these well-researched suggestions. After the third suicide in 2021, it opted instead to ban solo entry, slap up signs with information about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, increase security, and make visitors pay for it, charging $10 for entry. A message from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation was printed on the back of the tickets: “Each of you matter to us, and to so many others.” Less than two months after reopening with these changes, a 14-year-old boy jumped to his death.

Though the Vessel is marketed as a work of public art — a pretense that was done away with entirely by the paid entry — it is better understood as retail bait. The honey-comb-shaped attraction is conspicuously located at the entrance to an otherwise out-of-the-way shopping mall, also owned by Related. The developers are undoubtedly aware that the specter of suicide, which will be made glaringly obvious by the presence of netting, might lure fewer visitors to its $200 million tourist trap, or at the very least, make those who do visit less primed to indulge in the nearby “shopportunities.” Related has evidently made the calculation that after three years of closure, unsettled tourists are still more lucrative than no tourists at all.

The cut-resistant floor-to-ceiling netting may prevent suffering individuals from leaping from the gleaming stairs, but it will not prevent them from hearing the message echoing through every fiber of the negligent construction and affirmed by every step of the developer’s conduct: that their vulnerability is a public nuisance, and that their deaths will go unacknowledged, if not unnoticed, by the world they leave behind. It will not prevent visitors from carrying that message with them to unguarded heights.

Architecture speaks back, and the only way that the Vessel can communicate anything that affirms the value of human life over aesthetics or profit is by doing so explicitly, not with a Lady Gaga promotional pamphlet or a grand reopening, but with a good-faith structural change: Weld shut the doors, erect a plaque, and stop trying to make a quick buck off a death trap.

It’s time to acknowledge the Vessel for what it has become: a memorial.

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