The Vessel: Is NYC’s Newest Landmark Accessible for All?

The Vessel NYC: "Ableism often doesn't occur intentionally, but rather instictually and by virtue of ignorance."
Accessibility Consultant

When I first heard about The Vessel, New York City’s new interactive landmark created by Thomas Heatherwick and Heatherwick Studio, I was curious how they would incorporate principles of physical accessibility into the structure. Would they merely check the ADA box or would they make the structure truly inclusive? When it comes to physical accessibility, people often assume that as long as there is an elevator or ramp, that is sufficient. What isn’t thought about or addressed enough is the experience of using these accessibility features.

Before My Visit
While conducting my preliminary research, I read that The Vessel has “ramps” and an elevator in order to comply with the ADA. When I visited the structure, I found that the single ramp on the site surrounds the perimeter of the structure’s base, allowing access to the landmark and its elevator. Even though I expected this might be the case based on the images and video I saw beforehand, the disappointment started to sink in. I started to look for the elevator, and quickly became confused about where to wait due to the unclear signage.

The line for the elevator was broken into two, one on either side of one of the openings at the base of the structure, formed by 2 of the 154 the flights of stairs. There were only three signs indicating where the elevator was, the largest of which was on the elevator itself. The signs pointing out the waiting area were very small. They merely displayed the International Symbol of Access. My partner, Gaby, and I saw a small crowd in this area but we had to ask someone to make sure we were in the right place. As we waited, one of the siteworkers announced that “the elevator is for guests with ADA and mobility needs only” and that there is a 20-30 minute wait for the elevator. It struck me as odd that they would police the use of the elevator in this way. Both people with and without disabilities benefit from having access to an elevator. Not only could someone who uses a wheelchair or other mobility assistive device make use of an elevator, but a new parent with a stroller could as well.

Personally, although I am able to climb stairs without any problems as long as I am not carrying anything in my left hand and am able to hold onto the handrail, descending a staircase requires intense focus because my disability, Cerebral Palsy, causes issues with balance. Elevators also allow me to do certain chores more easily and effectively, such as carrying groceries and laundry, since Cerebral Palsy also causes limited functionality and strength in my right arm and hand.

Depiction of the Vessel's many winding staircases that are a featured part of the building's design.

The Elevator Ride
The elevator car itself was a a small glass enclosure with occupancy capped at six passengers. I imagine that if a wheelchair user were in it though, an even smaller amount of people would be able to ride it at once. The ride to the top of the structure was slow and shaky, at ten minutes, with riders only able to get on and off at the very bottom and very top, meaning only 1 out of the 80 total landings is actually accessible to visitors with mobility impairments.

Gaby observed a visible gap between the door and the car, which between that and the slow, shakiness of the ride, did not instill a sense of confidence in the elevator’s reliability. Getting off the elevator at the top, with nothing but open air above, a narrow landing below, and glass on each side was very disorienting. The entrance at the top was surrounded by staircases and the landing was very narrow. There would not be a lot of room for a wheelchair user to move around the one landing they are theoretically able to access with their chair. After exiting the elevator and stepping foot on that top landing, looking over the side, I experienced vertigo which made me nervous.

Due in part to these jarring sensations, as well as the user experience of the elevator, I ultimately feel like the way that the elevator was incorporated into the project took away from my experience at The Vessel. Wanting to hear the opinion of another person with a disability, I contacted Shannon Finnegan, a disabled artist who developed the Anti-Stairs Club Lounge, a hybrid protest and art installation advocating the idea that “the elevator is not an equitable means to experience the structure.” Speaking via video, she said, “something that’s been really wild for me is just noticing how powerful the term ‘ADA compliant elevator’ is. So many people read that text and they’re like ‘ok, great, it’s accessible, awesome. Don’t have to think about that, don’t have to worry about it.’ But just thinking about it a little bit more you’re like ‘oh wait, no, that really doesn’t add to The Vessel in any way.’ It just feels like it is such a powerful deflection tool.”

Although I wasn’t personally relegated to that singular, uncovered, narrow landing, as a disabled person it’s hard not to feel any disdain towards both Heatherwick Studio and Related Companies, the developer of the project. According to Shannon, “Lots of art works have access issues, but it’s always especially disappointing when work seems so intentionally designed for a nondisabled body.”

Despite Heatherwick taking inspiration from “climbing frames” (what Americans call jungle gyms) and indian stepwells, it’s not clear why that inspiration had to be translated so literally. He asserts artistic virtuosity by stating that the structure’s “job is to be the heart [of the Hudson Yards neighborhood] and I wanted that to be something that people could use and touch and not something that they just sort of look at,” “The irony is that one fifth of the population is disabled and will be doing exactly that — looking from a distance, unable to interact with the artwork” (Hyperallergic). He neglects to provide visitors who can’t walk or climb stairs a truly equivalent experience.

Not only is the use of the elevator monitored, but the form of the structure itself polices the types of people who are actually able to interact with it. “Vessel is only interactive if you imagine one charmed visitor-figure: the young, bipedal, non-suicidal, stroller-less, luggage-less climber who cultivates a group of similarly embodied climbers for the trek” (Avery Review). It’s clearly only technically accessible for the sake of meeting the legal requirement.

If Heatherwick is truly the artist he’s portrayed himself as with pieces like Rolling Bridge and UK Pavillion at Expo 2010, why didn’t he use his imagination and expertise to create a similar structure which incorporates a series of ramps rather than staircases? He could have thought about “access as an experience that isn’t just about being able to do the thing but is also about enjoying it or being a part of a community or participating in something,” says Shannon. For example, I think creating a similar structure comprised of ramps would allow people with mobility impairments to engage with more of the structure, but would still provide nondisabled people with the similar level of physicality that Heatherwick was aiming for.
As Gaby and I initially approached The Vessel, she overheard someone asking what the elevator was for. When we got inside the elevator and started chatting with the elevator operator, he awkwardly tried to insist that the structure wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for staircases. These expressions illustrate the idea that “stairs constitute the muscle memory of prototypical able-bodiedness” (Avery Review).

Ableism often doesn’t occur intentionally, but rather instinctually and by virtue of ignorance.

Final Thoughts
If I hadn’t been able to explore the other views visible from The Vessel and the landings that comprise it, I would have classified my time interacting with the structure as wholly negative. If a work of art which occupies physical space claims to be of the people and for the people, it should be representative and inclusive of all the types of people who also occupy that same physical space.

As human beings, we at times get so caught up in our own existence and experiences, that we neglect to look at the world from another person’s perspective. This, I suspect, is the case for Thomas Heatherwick and The Vessel. Although the use of stairs was very deliberate in order to promote interactivity, Heatherwick and his team could have invoked a greater level of interactivity if they had chosen to compose the structure of a more inclusive form.

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