vesselrisingfi - New York's gigantic staircase

The Vessel is designed by Heatherwick Studios in London and the huge, Escher-like staircase is due to open in Spring 2019. Its essentially a huge public artwork which people can walk, climb, and enjoy the views from the top. People will be able to ascend it by any combination of stairs, choosing either the shortest route possible or the fullest extent of the various staircases which total a mile in length.

The $150 million Vessel forms a focus within the new development now rising at Hudson Yards above a rail depot. The public space surrounding the Vessel will include parks, piazzas, and fountains. When in use it will be spectacularly lit at night and there has been talk of it being used as an amphitheatre for concerts and events, so clearly it has enormous cultural potential.

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Hudson Yards is of course where the huge train depot belonging to New York’s MTA can be found and it consists of sidings for the Long Island Railroad. In many places land within a city is becoming a premium and sites such as these huge rail depots are now being built over to provide additional space for cities.

The MTA/LIRR’s West Side Yard is currently still partially in the open however this will eventually be built over and the entire depot will be underground. The eventual result will be a corridor of parks and landscaped leisure areas looking towards the Hudson River. This will stretch all the way from the Vessel to the river, giving visitors to the Vessel excellent views of City’s amazing architecture as well as views of the river itself and across to Weehawken and Union City.

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General view of the Hudson Yards development with the Vessel at centre. Part of the rail depot is still open area. Its clear the finalised development will be huge. New York’s High Line can be seen looping around the perimeter of the Hudson Yards. 11th Avenue crosses the yard itself just to the west of the initial development.

Construction of the Vessel began April 2017 and the main structure was completed December 2017. There are 154 interconnecting flights of stairs. 2500 steps, 80 landings. Its 150 feet tall and totalling one mile of vertical climb. The Vessel is expected to open in the spring of 2018 and already the free tickets for the sculpture’s opening week are almost fully taken up.

The Vessel is essentially a series of cantilever constructions, each section supports the next and the entire structure is extremely solid. The steel sections were manufactured in Italy and delivered to the US by ship, almost right to the site itself.

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Before after pictures from the same location on 11th Ave. Top: 2013 showing the rail yards. Bottom: 2017 showing the new development and the Vessel in place. Source: Google Streets

Many pieces of the structure were delivered by ship from Italy and then craned from the nearby wharves across to the working site. There was a delay when it was found the bridge carrying 11th Avenue across Hudson Yards wasn’t quite strong enough to bear the weight of the huge steel structural parts. 11th Ave bridge had to be modified before any of the huge pieces could be taken across it to the final work site.

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Great view of the Vessel with the Empire State Building behind. Source: Twitter

Some may well be curious as to how Heatherwick conceived his designs for the Vessel. Was it perhaps inspired by Escher’s famous staircase drawings? Far from it as Heatherwick himself says – it was an old wooden staircase:

“When I was a student, I fell in love with an old discarded flight of wooden stairs outside a local building site. It caught my imagination and I loved that is was part furniture and part infrastructure. You could climb up stairs, jump on them, dance on them, get tired on them and then plonk yourself down on them.” Source: Gothamist

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Thomas Heatherwick inspecting the new architectural design at Hudson Yards, New York. Source: YouTube

Although wooden staircases were the first inkling towards the final designs for the Vessel it turns out the primary influence came from India – for example the stupendous example at Chand Baori – this is an internationally renown well that goes deep down to the water table. It has flights of interconnection steps on all sides, somewhat like an upside down ziggurat. Heatherwick says of these:

“They’re mesmerizing. But they don’t go up. They go down. There was something almost like a mediation or a choreographed dance in how people must move to go down. And so we wondered, instead of going down, could you do something like that and lift it up?”

“How do you want people to use this? How do you want people to feel when they’re in this space? We’re not going to tell you what you’re supposed to do on it. Its for you to do whatever you want. But there’s an intermediate physicality to walking up 16 stories.”

“All of us like public spaces where you see people and are seen. When you look down here, its a moment to look up and your granny’s higher than you and you’re friend’s down there. We designed this as a human thing. Its a phenomenal piece… a different kind of public experience that’s free for everybody…”

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Although some say its looks like a pinecone, a maze, even a roller coaster, New Yorkers are apparently nicknaming it ‘The Stairmaster!’ Some say is Escher-resque whilst others suggest it could be New York’s Eiffel Tower and others say its a jungle gym. In the midst of all this confusion the New York Times describes Heatherwick as the ‘architecture’s showman.’ Its probably an apt term as without doubt Heatherwick’s designs are meant to entertain as well as function in more than one way.

Heatherwick’s unusual elevator design – how does it work?

One interesting aspect of the Vessel so far that’s hardly been written upon is the lift, or as they across the pond like to call them, elevators.

The lift will be quite an unusual one – during a recent visit to their studios Heatherwick Studios informed me their lift is the first of its type in the world. From the pictures I have seen it seems it will serve every other level to the top. It is specifically for disabled people or with mobility problems, and I assume would also be used in cases of emergency. Its not intended as an easy way of getting to the top of the Vessel.

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General view of the Vessel under construction with the elevator shaft visible. Source: Internet Archive

The most striking aspect of the Vessel’s lift (elevator) is it follows what is basically a curved path. Ever since the Eiffel Tower was built the idea of having lifts that could change direction has been a huge technological challenge. Even in 1887 it was an enormous problem no lift company wanted to tackle. Ultimately the Otis Elevator Company managed to build the first ever examples in the world using curved path lifts at the Eiffel Tower. In the States there is the Gateway Arch whose lifts (or more affectionately ‘tram’) rotate 180 degrees in direction as they climb the interior of famous arch.

As these earlier structures show its not technically easy to have lifts that run along a curve and compromises have to be made so these are not technically exact curves. Heatherwick’s designs resolves a fair number of obstacles that have so far prevented the use of lifts running on pure curved paths.

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The newly built elevator shaft clearly visible. Source: Internet Archive

One defining aspect of Heatherwick’s elevator system is it runs through a reverse curve. Its not a huge part of the entire structure, being just part of the lower section – and for good reason as it is where the landing doors have to be other other side of the structure itself. This is exactly why it’s path curves the other way briefly.

Naturally I was very curious about this new kind of lift or elevator and wondered how it actually worked. On a recent visit to Heatherwick Studios they said they were not really at liberty to tell me as their design is, so to say, still under wraps. So I had to do a little bit of investigation combined with the knowledge I have of various elevator systems in use around the world.

The most unusual aspect of this new design is the landing doors on both lift and floors face each other exactly where the lift itself needs to follow its curved path. At the Eiffel Tower and the St Louis arch, their elevators’ landing doors are on the sides of the cabins, thus it gives the elevator cars a completely clear path as they pass through a curved section.

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Most of the elevator shaft construction can be seen. Source: Instagram

Thus there is a technical problem in terms of the new Vessel lift and one that had to be overcome. Yes this will basically follow a general curved path but the lift’s actual path profile will not be curved. This is because of the point I have just brought up, being that the elevator car’s doors and landing stages have to fit properly. If it followed a true curved path the elevator car itself would fall foul of the landing stages. So there has to be a means by which it can change its direction of angle from the curved path to one that is briefly vertical in order to either pass or properly stop at each landing stage. Either its that or the landing stages expand as the lift levels with the floors.

It follows thus this new type of lift is again not one that follows a true curved path. Upon examining the pictures its clear it follows a straight line most of the time and only uses zig zags where adjustment is needed.

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Diagram I created to show how the Vessel’s innovative lift works on part of the structure. Its not to scale or any exact representation of the whole operation.

The left hand side of the above illustration shows the general aspect of the lift structure. The red line denotes the rough path of the rack system as it climbs the structure. The illustration on the right side shows the elevator car and how it will actually work. I know its not an exactly brilliant or accurate representation but at least the mode of operation can be shown.

Although it can be seen the general construction of the structure is a continuous curve from bottom to the top of the Vessel, the lift doesn’t follow the curve at all but instead relies on a typical straight track formation with adjustments to take it through the curves. The following image illustrates this by showing the rack alignment as seen through the structure itself.

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In this view the rack alignment can be clearly seen. Source: Instagram

It could be almost a pure curve – if the landing stages were placed at the sides instead. However the construction of the Vessel precludes that – not only that if it had been done in this way this would have spoilt the visual impact of the whole structure.

The following image shows the elevator structure and one can see it is as I have described on the upper section. The lower section however works differently and this is because the angle of curve is quite shallow so cannot utilise the same system as on the upper section. Therefore it has to work differently….

It seems this is achieved by means of an expanding platform on the landing stage itself as shown in the following picture. One can clearly see the arrangement for lower and upper sections are completely different. Even the door arrangement differs.

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View taken early December 2018 showing the still incomplete elevator system. Source: Instagram

Its definitely a world first, this kind of elevator design. Its a most unique arrangement and one that I do not think has been attempted before. Companies can now build lifts that go up, down, even switch tracks and go sideways, but not around curves! These pictures shows no-one, not even Heatherwick himself, has to date achieved an elevator system that follow a pure curved path! Its not impossible but there are currently huge technical difficulties that prevent such an ideal system being built.

In terms of traditional winches/winding gear, the lift clearly doesn’t have any. What it does have are motors located underneath which includes the rack gear and stablisation equipment to ensure the lift follows its path and also engage with the different landing stages correctly. The other important aspect is there has to be a pair of guide rails to keep the car quite level and heading along its predefined path as the motors themselves wont suffice. This would take the form possibly of wheels on the upper car’s housing but so far no pictures have been seen to date showing this guide rail.

In terms of safety it must be that a fail-safe mechanism of some kind has to be provided to stop the elevator car falling. Its probably some form of regulator which would come into play if it senses the elevator car is exceeding a certain speed, and immediately cause the lift to lock itself to the rack rail. Its not a new system of course but that on the Vessel is probably the most advanced of its kind yet.