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Hudson Yards Is a Gilded City Straight Out of a Billionaire’s Fantasy

1 204 1209
19.02.2019

On a day when the cold makes the skyline snap into focus as if you’re seeing it through new lenses, Hudson Yards seems more virtual than real. Jagged and reflective, the five new towers have a high-definition clarity that the physical world mostly lacks. At a distance, the tallest looks like a high-browed robotic duck with a beak so generous you could almost land a helicopter on it. That’s the outdoor observation deck, which juts out 65 feet and comes to a point 1,100 feet above the street. From here — or better yet, from the set of bleachers that allows you to peer over the glass railing — I can look down on the Empire State Building. I can behold the widescreen, high-res view of a New York more orderly and wondrous than the one most of us live in. The space won’t open for another year, but I can already see the over-the-top weddings in the party room upstairs, where guests can dance far, far above the stink and mess below. An adventurous few will be able to take a dedicated elevator even further up to the pointed peak, don a harness, climb out on a catwalk in the open air, and howl into the wind.

On March 15, after 12 years of planning and six of construction, the Related Companies (which is actually just one mammoth real-estate company) will open the gates to its new $25 billion enclave, an agglomeration of supertall office towers full of lawyers and hedge-funders, airborne eight-figure apartments, a 720,000-square-foot shopping zone, and a gaggle of star-chef restaurants. When the rest of it is finished — when the remaining rectangle of exposed rail yards between 11th and 12th Avenues is covered by a deck and more residential towers — the whole 28-acre shebang will be bigger than the United Nations, the World Trade Center, or Rockefeller Center and physically vaster, more populous, and more expensive than any private development in the country. Besides being big, Hudson Yards represents something fundamentally new to New York. It’s a one-shot, supersized virtual city-state, plugged into a global metropolis but crafted to the specifications of a single boss: Related’s chairman, Stephen Ross. (You can read about him here.)

Each time I approach, I feel a volatile mix of wonder and dejection roil in my chest. New York can absorb even this, I tell myself. Offices will hum with necessary invention, the plaza will teem, and the towers will settle into the accommodating skyline. The complex redeems an area that until recently most New Yorkers barely knew existed, a great pit full of resting trains open to the sky. There will be jobs, yogawear, art shows, tapas, even some affordable apartments. New York isn’t done building towers, and unlike the skinny plutocratvilles going up on 57th Street, new office buildings are a necessity, one where tens of thousands of New Yorkers will spend their days (and some will work through the night). Who’s to cavil when the money flows? The asset-management team BlackRock signed up to spend $1.25 billion in rent over 20 years. The retail complex will have at least six places where you can spend five figures on a wristwatch (Patek Philippe, Rolex, Cartier, Watches of Switzerland, Piaget, Tiffany). The 101st-floor party space, surely to be among the priciest available, will be the place to host the most ostentatious vodka launch in town. They’ve paved a parking lot and put up a high-rise paradise.

Yet I can’t help feeling like an alien here, as though I’ve crossed from real New York, with all its jangling mess, into a movie studio’s back-lot version. Everything is too clean, too flat, too art-directed. This para-Manhattan, raised on a platform and tethered to the real thing by one subway line, has no history, no holdover greasy spoons, no pockets of blight or resident eccentrics — no memories at all. In the renderings that Related uses to market this new world, just about every one of the digital people strolling through the virtual cityscape is young, thin, able-bodied, and white. It strikes me as profoundly strange, this need to re-create an uncitylike city, so aloof from the porous, welcoming, spontaneous metropolis we like to think we inhabit. The suburbs have become more mixed, trafficky, crime-ridden, and complicated, and so, if you need exclusivity at all costs, an urban enclave with a quick elevator ride to the stratosphere looks especially appealing. I suppose this apotheosis of blank-slate affluence is someone’s fantasy of the 21st-century city, but it isn’t mine.

Again and again, I have wondered who wanted it to be like this, and when it became a foregone outcome. We’ve been headed here for a long time, as the city has become more moneyed and the only retail stores that seem sustainable are those of luxury labels. A crowd of gifted architects worked hard to figure out how gargantuan buildings and cliffs of glass could form a place — a stretch of city where human beings feel like they belong. Kohn Pedersen Fox designed 10 and 30 Hudson Yards, the faceted, shingled-glass skyscrapers flanking their shopping mall, with interiors by Elkus Manfredi. Diller Scofidio Renfro and the Rockwell Group designed the tubular apartment building at 15 Hudson Yards and its conjoined performance venue, the Shed. Two more towers, 50 by Foster and Partners, and 35, an office-hotel-residential combo by David Childs and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, loom over the plaza by Nelson Byrd Woltz and a bucket-shaped latticelike objet by Thomas Heatherwick that is, for now, called the Vessel. Separately, these architects — most of them, anyway — came up with sensitive and sophisticated designs. Together, they created the opposite of their intention. Instead of an organic extension of the midtown fabric, they produced a corporate city-state, branded from sidewalk to spire.

That brand is perfectionism. At a time when the most ordinary aspects of urban living, like taking the subway or steering past trash bags piled on the sidewalk, are so many frustration bombs lying in wait, Related promises a nuisance-free zone. Snow will not be permitted to accumulate on the sidewalks or humans to sleep in doorways. Door handles will be obliged to gleam at all times. If you wonder whether a real-estate company can be trusted to maintain those standards, consider that Ross himself is moving to a penthouse in his new fiefdom, and so is another top Related executive, Jeff Blau, the CEO. The company they run is coming with them too.

I’ve visited the construction site several times, and circled it many more, watching the towers lumber toward the sky and this improbable mirage take shape. Now, as workers rush to lay the final paving stones and finish wiring the lights, I tour it with Jay Cross, the project’s hands-on chief. I am in awe of the sheer managerial omniscience that allows Cross to grasp, predict, and control every aspect of construction, from the colossal to the picayune. Even if the whole East Coast goes dark, he tells me, the site’s co-generation plant will kick in within milliseconds, so that multimillion-dollar electronic transactions can continue whizzing around the globe without a hiccup. When the rains come and the waters rise, submarine doors will close around elevator machinery and fuel tanks. This shining city on a deck is built to withstand a wide range of plagues.

Cross is equally caught up in surfaces. He shows me the curved, Italian-made tracks for the elevator that snake up inside Heatherwick’s interwoven collection of staircases. He points out the custom steel joints sleek enough to be abstract sculptures, lighting strips embedded in handrails, pavers arranged in a mosaic of different grays. Architecture is composed of such minutiae, and, in a way, it’s reassuring to see a control-freak client at work, demanding equal levels of obsessiveness from a varied team of architects. As we walk through the lobby of 30 Hudson Yards, Cross reels off a list of sumptuous finishes as though he’s reciting the specials at an exotically unaffordable restaurant: fumed larch, book-matched Ombra di Caravaggio marble (smoky gray with ocher veins), a spritz of limestone, and bronzed aluminum. (Or is it anodized branzino? I forget.) The wavy walls of the lobby coffee shop appear to be clad in melted chocolate.

Ross wants his tenants to feel as though they occupy the best building in the best neighborhood in the best borough of the greatest city in the world. The bestness is all. Still, this is a privatized idyll, where the concept of public good stops at the property line. West 31st and 32nd Streets dead-end at the shopping mall’s forbidding wall along Tenth Avenue. When an architect agitated for a more lavish cladding, a........

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