Hudson Yards, $$$, by Brittany Dickinson
Question: What do you call “a large building or series of connected buildings containing a variety of retail stores and typically also restaurants”?
Answer: A mall… right?
Wrong, at least according to Related Companies, the developer behind the Shops at Hudson Yards. In a written statement by a representative of Related, the project—which will open in 2018 with a million square feet of retail including restaurants and cafes—favors the phrase “vertical retail center.”
I beg to differ. Hudson Yards is undeniably a mall in its fullest, most glorified form, a money-breathing, sky-scraping beast of a mall. “The future is rising in the heart of New York,” the website claims, yet I cannot help but feel disappointed in this predictable vision of shopping which is out of touch with the direction retail is heading.
I spoke with Joe Pine, author of The Experience Economy, who has done extensive research in the subject of retail innovation and the larger shift from a service-based to an experience-based economy. “Malls are not dead,” he says, “but they need to make experiences, rather than department stores, their anchor” in order to stay relevant. To this point, I am baffled by the decision to crown Neiman Marcus as the emblem of the Shops. Could it really be possible that not one of the key players behind the Hudson Yards project thought it might be a bad idea to center the Shops around a 107-year-old department store?
Hudson Yards is positioning itself to be a harbinger of America’s future, yet in actuality it is an exemplar of stale American aspirations to be bigger, better, shinier, newer.
Across America, abandoned malls are rotting away, dormant reminders of pecuniary aspirations gone sour. Even though New York tends to remain in its own bubble in terms of retail success, the word “mall” is still a collective taboo in the industry. Stores have gotten quite creative in the way that they are positioning themselves, favoring terms like “multi-brand retailer” and “concept store.”
In the case of Hudson Yards, the strategic use of language and avoidance of taboo mall-speak is fascinating. Fundamentally, though, they are not fooling anyone when they refer to their food court as an “urban food hall,” for example. Big businesses should know by now that you can call something whatever you want and tie it in a bow, but it still doesn’t change the essential character of that thing. Which in this case is a mall. With a department store. And a food court. Oh, and what will be the city’s highest open-air observation deck, an example of self-proclaimed “awe-inspiring design.” Because why not?
No matter how many pretentious phrases Hudson Yards uses to describe its development, there is no denying its true form. They have taken the horizontally land-consuming, skylight-dappled box and stretched it to preposterous heights in a Miesian glass wrapper, apparently presuming that people will be more apt to shop in a place that is brighter and taller and calls itself fancy names while essentially offering the same product.
The sheer height of the Hudson Yards buildings is just one of the many ways in which the development advocates the prevailing American mentality of quantity over quality. We unfortunately still live in an age where bigger is better, and for Hudson Yards to not only celebrate this wasteful idiom, but to call it progressive, is a joke. The Hudson Yards project promotes itself as “America’s biggest real estate project… ever,” as if the scale alone is supposed to entice people. I do not think New Yorkers are looking for “a literal penthouse experience” when they decide to go shopping.
Hudson Yards could take some lessons from SuperPier, a retail project that is truly forward-thinking in its design. SuperPier is transforming an abandoned pier, adjacent to the Meatpacking district in Manhattan, into a cultural space with pop-up shops in the form of shipping containers, a climbing wall, and an incubator space for start-up companies. Much buzz has been generated around this endeavor, showing that people are looking for a genuinely new experience in retail. The project’s developers also seem to be suffering a similar identity crisis though, replacing the “m-word” with their own choice term: “cultural piazza.”
With Hudson Yards, the jargon goes beyond retail and permeates the neighborhood on a broader scale. “Enjoy the best front yard in New York,” the website cheers as it shows a rendering of glass skyscrapers next to the proposed Hudson Boulevard. They then go on to tell us that “outdoor spaces refresh the mind and spirit,” as if this were news and not just a vestige of le Corbusier’s prescriptive city planning. They are merely exploiting the green space to justify the height of the buildings, an all-too-familiar tactic in this city.
Manhattan is an architectural cocktail, and to build upon its last frontier with a contrived utopia of coordinated skyscrapers goes against the eclectic nature of the city’s landscape. I see this as a missed opportunity, both for retail and the fabric of our designed city. This could have been the perfect opportunity for architectural innovation, yet instead we are getting a homogeneous mass of glass. Hudson Yards is just a bigger, fancier iteration of something we’ve seen before, something we already know.
Essay written in Fall 2014, for MA Design Research class “Contemporary Design, Architecture and Urban Issues,” instructed by Karrie Jacobs.