Does New York Really Need Another Spectacle of Pretty Public Art?


Who is Thomas Heatherwick and what is he doing to our city?

Poised to roll out two major public projects in Manhattan over the next several years, the British architect and designer has geared his increasingly successful career toward splashy ventures. He has become an on-call architect for this city’s deep-pocketed developers, commissioned to imagine a four-acre central square for the Related Companies’ Hudson Yards and to oversee design for the irreverent, organic-futurist Pier 55, the new pleasure island off West 14th Street backed by Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg and toting a price tag of $130 million or so.

Though the Hudson Yards design remains hush-hush, we have seen plans for Pier 55, and of this we can be sure: Both will be jaw-dropping. As Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art’s curator for architecture and design, told the Wall Street Journal on the occasion of the Hudson Yards announcement: “He’s so good at spectacle. That’s his ideal dimension.”

Spectacle may be Heatherwick’s ideal dimension. But is it New York’s?

Judge for yourself in the well-timed Heatherwick primer, “Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio,” organized by Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center and now on view at the Cooper Hewitt. The 40-plus projects here, represented by photographs, models, and videos, span the architect’s early student days up to the present and include designs both built and unbuilt. Heatherwick’s penchant for organic, modular form is a kind of intellectual showmanship that, if murmurs from exhibition visitors on a recent weekday can vouch, people really dig.

Nearly every Heatherwick story begins with Rolling Bridge, a movable pedestrian drawbridge installed in London in 2004 that “curls” up, like a pillbug when lifted. It is, in fact, an elegant solution worthy of the “oohs” and “aahs” it generates. Equally compelling is an Americans with Disabilities Act — compliant (but as yet unbuilt) arched pedestrian span for China that flattens, when necessary, to accommodate wheelchairs. And then there’s the cauldron Heatherwick designed for the bombastic opening ceremony at the 2012 London Summer Olympics, with 200-plus copper petals cradling individual flames that were distributed to participating countries. A brilliant stroke of commemoration, the cauldron is represented at the Cooper Hewitt by a model shimmering under dramatic light. Elsewhere, a maquette for Heatherwick’s ingenious U.K. pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, studded with acrylic rods like a porcupine, exerts real magnetism.

This city doesn’t need another diversion.

As for Pier 55, if the models and renderings on view here do it justice, the square set slightly off the city’s rectilinear grid will stick out like a funky diamond. Raised on concrete bulbs that look like gargantuan cousins of those Olympic cauldron forms, the pier will feature a massive amphitheater tucked into an undulating landscape with grade changes so radical that they may qualify as the city’s first hillocks below 59th Street.

Yes, of course we’ll visit Pier 55. And surely we’ll relish the views to Weehawken. Is there anything really wrong with Heatherwick giving us what we want? As Barry Diller told the New York Times earlier this year, “It isn’t going to cure world disease. But it’s totally worthwhile.”

The fact is, this city doesn’t need another diversion. It requires our undivided attention. Plenty of unsexy stuff has to get done ASAP: Just west of Hudson Yards, decrepit and oversubscribed train tunnels are in urgent need of care, and as Amtrak recently warned, a new tunnel is not just merely important, it’s imperative. Creaky infrastructure, urbanism that reinforces income inequality: These are the things that need us.

Heatherwick, of course, has nothing to do with this. Nor, really, do you or I. But for all the wonder and awe he brings, do we really need Thomas Heatherwick, man of fantasy, to avert our eyes from the rot that surrounds us?

Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
2 East 91st Street
Through January 3, 2016