By George Capsis
Oh, wow! There in the September 15th issue of the Times is an enormous half-page color rendering of a 15-story “theme edifice” for Hudson Yards by my nemesis, British designer, Thomas Heatherwick.
I say “nemesis” because Heatherwick is responsible for the design of Diller Island, the two-and-a-half-acre floppy concrete platform resting on bulbous mushroom piles, which has just escaped a court action to stop it by City Club of New York (they saved Grand Central Station). Unless there is a god with taste who will release a merciful lightning bolt, Diller Island will emerge, elevated 60 feet above the Hudson as the largest, most expensive, and ugliest structure ever erected in human history.
Heatherwick burst out as a design luminary with his design for the 2010 London Olympics with a mass of 204 towering gas-fed lily-shaped metal forms, which when lit offered a “cauldron” of fire (Later he was sued by another design firm, which claimed they had submitted the same idea).
But for us here in the West Village, Diller Island and now the towering “Vessel” in Hudson Yards are two examples of what is happening as the global economy has tilted and wealth is sliding into fewer and fewer hands. Those hands can command structures that will last centuries and look as ugly as their egos.
In the case of Hudson Yards, that ego belongs to Stephen M. Ross who is living on a loan from his mom and cooked up deals to shelter engorged wealth by having his clients take advantage of the overly-generous federal grants to construct affordable housing; he earned a surprising $150,000 in his first year. Once he discovered how to siphon federal money, he actually started to build and created the Related Company now worth over $15 billion.
But the inverted geometric giant spring, the “Vessel”, which is the Hudson Yards’ theme center is not such a bad design. I mean, how bad can geometry be? One of Heatherwick’s favorite tricks is making small things enormous. He created a gargantuan porcupine of fiber rods for the UK Pavilion (named Seed Cathedral) at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and got an unprecedented 73 million visitors.
“Everybody here thought I was nuts,” Ross blurted out to the Times reporter at his selecting the Heatherwick stairway to nowhere. Indeed, he boasted that he had paid one designer $250,000 and another $500,000 for designs he had rejected, demonstrating how much money an obsessed ego is willing to burn on the altar of “Hey, I am disgustingly rich so I must have good taste.”
Our Barry Diller was voted the highest-paid executive in 2005 when Nicholas Kristof of the Times anointed him the Michael Eisner Award, consisting of a five-dollar shower curtain, for corporate rapacity and greed.
The Guardian architecture critic noted that Diller selected starchitect Frank Gehry for his 16th Street headquarters only to get a weak parody (“his worst design”) and marveled at his selecting Heatherwick’s “avatar” island design.
Every time we read of Diller Island the cost goes up—it is now $130 million. But we, you and me, taxpayers, have to build out the facing embankment and two bridges to the box offices for Diller’s paid performances for like $30 plus millions.
How should public amenities be built? In 450 BC, after the Persians had destroyed a just-started temple on the Acropolis (the discarded column drums still lie about), Pericles, to make visible the new power of Athens, had acquired, as the leading state in defeating the Persians, the money of the league to build the Parthenon. He put the sculptor Phidias in charge; you can walk out your door and see the same Doric columns framing the front doors of West Village Federal town houses right now. I mean, good taste survives but unfortunately bad taste does as well.