Vessel, the $200 million art installation at New York’s Hudson Yards, just won a major prize. Here’s what it’s like to climb it.

Vessel is free to the public. Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Before Vessel, a $US200 million art installation at New York’s Hudson Yards megadevelopment, opened to the public on March 15, Related Chairman Stephen Ross looked down at construction workers putting the finishing touches on a paved walkway.

He was standing at the very top of the installation, surrounded by a small contingent of developers and journalists – the first group to ever climb the structure.

“I hope it’s memorable,” he said.

At least one group seems to think so: On Wednesday, the installation took first place in its category at the World Architecture Festival, the world’s largest global architectural awards program.

“People engage with this platform in a new and innovative way,” the judges wrote. “It has clear structural innovation which offers all communities in the city the potential to devise new creative moments.”

The design – which has been likened to a honeycomb, a beehive, an urn, and a rib cage – starts small at the base and fans out to 150 feet wide at the top. It can hold 700 visitors at a time.

Some people climb the nearly 2,500 steps for a bird’s eye view of the Hudson River. Others hop on an elevator, or stop at one of the lower tiers to look out at Hudson Yards, the $US25 billion site for which Vessel serves as both centrepiece and symbol.

‘We’ll probably never design anything like this again’

When real estate development firm Related Companies set out to build the complex alongside Oxford Properties Group, the company knew it needed a signature that would capture the world’s attention. Vessel’s architect, Heatherwick Studio, was given no direction other than to create a “galvanizing moment.”

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The interior of Vessel, as seen from below. Michael Moran for Related Oxford

The challenge, though daunting, was somewhat familiar for the firm’s namesake architect, Thomas Heatherwick. He is known for building monumental structures like the 2012 Olympics cauldron and the Seed Cathedral in the UK. Though he’s a favourite among billionaire clients, Heatherwick has also been criticised for allowing ambition to supersede reason.

In 2009, a starburst-shaped structure he designed, called B of the Bang, began losing its spikes; it was ultimately dismantled due to safety concerns. Eight years later, Heatherwick’s plan to build a Garden Bridge over the River Thames was scrapped after costs ran too high. The anticipated cost was about the same as what it took to build Vessel, but that project drew partially from public funds. Vessel, on the other hand, was privately funded.

The installation allows for a steady flow of pedestrians. From the start, Heatherwick Studio envisioned Vessel as a series of staircases and landings that call to mind the stepwells in India. But it also had to gesture to its surroundings, which include nine major buildings in Manhattan’s Eastern Yard.

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Vessel under construction in 2018. Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

“Sometimes the blank canvas is terrifying as a designer,” Stuart Wood, the group leader at Heatherwick Studio, told Business Insider. “But in this instance it was a very liberating start point.”

For the material, his team landed on a reflective copper-coloured steel, which mirrors the ground plain of Hudson Yards’ public square. Wood said the warmth of the copper mimics a beating heart – a contrast to the shimmering blues and silvers of nearby skyscrapers.

Ascending to the top necessitates a mile-long climb, though the distance feels much shorter after stopping at various landings.

“We’ve never designed something like this,” Wood said. “We’ll probably never design anything like this again.”

Many of Vessel’s pieces were prefabricated and shipped from Italy, then assembled like puzzle pieces. Wood said this was deliberate so as not to “jam up” ground-level public space.

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Vessel is 150 feet high. Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Starting in March 2020, the best views from Hudson Yards will be found at the observation deck on the 30 Hudson Yards building, a sky-high office tower that’s taller than the Empire State Building. The deck hovers 1,100 feet in the air. But that will requires buying a ticket; Vessel’s major selling point is that it’s free to enjoy.

The installation is open every day from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Visitors must still present a ticket to climb onboard, though the development sets aside same-day tickets that can be picked up on-site. Tickets can also be reserved online up to two weeks in advance. Guests who claim a ticket are given an hour-long window to enter the structure, but their time to mingle and observe is unlimited.

Though the installation was panned in the New York Times – which called it a “waste-basket-shaped stairway to nowhere” – it seems to have fulfilled its creators’ vision of attracting both tourists and locals. Almost nine months after Vessel’s grand opening, photos of the structure populate Facebook and Instagram, and, on weekends, wait times to climb Vessel can reach two hours. Developers hope this popularity will endure.