A Death at the Vessel

John Hill
4. February 2020
Looking down from the top of the Vessel on opening day in March 2019 (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)

On the evening of February 1st, a 19-year-old college student jumped from the sixth level of Vessel, the Heatherwick Studio-designed climbable sculpture at the center of the Hudson Yards development in New York City.

The deceased was Peter De Salvo, a graduate of Ridge High School in New Jersey and student at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, as reported by the New York Times. According to an onlooker quoted in the Times story, De Salvo "put his feet up on the rail and dove out." The railings that line the stairs and landings that comprise the 150-foot-tall Vessel are about waist height. 

Although it received the proper approvals from the Department of Buildings, this typical guardrail height led to speculation even before the structure's completion that suicide attempts were inevitable. Audrey Wachs' piece from December 2016 in The Architect's Newspaper, mentioned in the Times article, clearly states: "As one climbs up Vessel, the railings stay just above waist height all the way up to the structure’s top, but when you build high, folks will jump." 

That jump came less than a year since Vessel opened to the public and just over a month after a court ruled the developer has to increase accessibility to the public attraction. With this latest sad news, Hudson Yards may even have to implement physical barriers beyond "guards [being] trained to look out for possible suicides." 

A precedent mentioned in Wachs' article, but not the Times piece, is the Bobst Library at NYU, which was designed by Philip Johnson and Richard Foster in the early 1970s with a large central atrium open to walkways and stairs. Suicides in 2003 and 2009 prompted NYU to install plastic barriers followed by a permanent, full-height screen designed by Joel Sanders to be in keeping with the original design. So just as Thomas Heatherwick is figuring out how to add platform lifts to the top of Vessel, he might have to be considering ways it won't become the scene of any more suicides.

Bobst Libary at NYU before and after "Pixel Veil" by Joel Sanders was installed in 2012. (Photos: david silver /  Elisa.rolle)

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