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March 19, 2019
by Michael M. Samuelian, FAIA, AICP
Hudson Yards, January 2019. Image courtesy of Related-Oxford.
Hudson Yards. Image courtesy of Timothy Schenk for Related-Oxford.
Hudson Yards. Image courtesy of Timothy Schenk for Related-Oxford.
The Vessel by Thomas Heatherwick. Image courtesy of Michael Moran for Related-Oxford.
The Vessel by Thomas Heatherwick. Image courtesy of Michael Moran for Related-Oxford.
The Vessel by Thomas Heatherwick. Image courtesy of Michael Moran for Related-Oxford.
The Vessel by Thomas Heatherwick. Image courtesy of Michael Moran for Related-Oxford.
Estiatorio Milos Terrace. Image courtesy of Francis Dzikowski for Related-Oxford.
Estiatorio Milos Terrace. Image courtesy of Francis Dzikowski for Related-Oxford.

A small group of designers have played an important and unappreciated role in the development of Hudson Yards, the $25 billion new city-within-a-city opening in phases on Manhattan’s West Side. As one of the largest and riskiest projects to be developed recently in New York City, the Yards is an important case study of how a client selected the many architects and designers involved in this enormous undertaking. Planned and debated for many years, today Hudson Yards is beginning to make its dramatic mark on the city’s skyline, but it has long played a role for architects competitively vying to make their own mark.

Architect selection is one of the few arcane processes in the profession, so by revealing how both public and private clients select architects and designers, architects can be more sensitive to the seemingly subjective, and almost always secretive, processes by which designers are selected for large-scale projects.

Why do clients select certain architects in the first place?

Broadly speaking, there are three main reasons why clients select architects for projects: reputation, relationships, and resources. Each of these factors plays an important role for clients who engage architects to enhance their own reputation, provide relationships that improve the chances of a project’s success, and bring resources to reduce risk.

First planned as part of New York City’s failed 2012 Olympic bid, the project grew from a dream of the Bloomberg administration to extend Midtown Manhattan’s central business district, with much of the site sitting on a platform over the MTA’s West Side Yard, into the single largest private real-estate development in the city since Rockefeller Center. The project would engage dozens of firms and hundreds of design professionals along the way.

Related Companies was selected to develop both rail yards after a competitive developer selection process with multiple teams of developers, architects, and tenants competing for these enormous sites. KPF, Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), and Arquitectonica were on Related’s original team of designers, who quickly began to design and plan the eastern half of the Yard, called the Eastern Rail Yard (ERY). Since the first phase of the ERY’s development was predominantly commercial, KPF was the lead architect and planner for the site.

Surprisingly, KPF had never designed a building for Related, although their principal designer, Bill Pedersen, as the designer of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, had a relationship with chairman Stephen Ross. Related’s longtime architect-of-choice, SOM, had already teamed with Brookfield Properties for the RFP, their existing client for the Manhattan West project, a nearby and competing commercial development. Due to SOM’s relationship with Brookfield, Related had to pivot to another corporate firm, albeit one with extensive experience building large-scale mixed use projects in Asia and the resources to help ensure the project’s success.

KPF led the effort to plan the rail yard sites, taking full design control of the entire eastern half of the ERY known as the “superblock”, a massive 5.5-million-square-foot mixed-use structure, and buildings A, B, and C. But there were other buildings to be designed on the ERY. Ross himself believed that multiple architects should design the site to ensure that it looked like “the rest of the city” and not like a singular project. Related began to look for other architects for the remaining building sites on the Yards, specifically focusing on firms that were largely already known to them.

Ross also had a long-standing relationship with David Childs, recently retired from SOM; their work together on the Time Warner Center was the jewel in Related’s crown. It was baffling to most in the New York development world that Childs wasn’t involved in Ross’s latest venture. This conspicuous omission didn’t last long; Childs and SOM were engaged to be the designers of Tower E, soon to be known as 35 Hudson Yards, a 1000-foot-tall, mixed-use tower that Ross himself would ultimately occupy.

Building D (AKA 15 Hudson Yards) was a tougher problem.

There was one portion of the ERY that Related did not control, and it was slated for an ill-defined cultural use. The city-controlled site took up two acres of the ERY and was entitled to up to 200,000 square feet of development rights. After a city-led RFP process, a team composed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSR) and Rockwell Group was selected to take on the planning and design of the site and program. Building on their reputation as “architects of the arts,” DSR and Rockwell set upon planning for a new type of cultural institution that would lie at the “intersection of culture and commerce.” Its name, the Shed, reflects the changing role of cultural institutions in New York and around the world.

The problem with the Shed was that it made planning the ERY even more challenging. The site occupied prime real estate along the High Line and forced a lot of density to be deployed on the remaining portion of the parcel, compromising views of the other planned towers. The easiest solution (at the time) was to better integrate the two, so Related engaged DSR and Rockwell to design Tower D, with the Shed at its base. While Rockwell had designed many commercial interior projects for Related, it was the first time that the developer engaged a “starchitect” of DSR’s growing stature.

And perhaps the most surprising choice of designer came towards the end of the development process with the designer of the Vessel.

After multiple landscape architects were hired to design the large open space at the center of the ERY, Related ultimately selected Thomas Woltz of Nelson Byrd Woltz to design the large public plaza. Related had never developed a public space at this scale, and so struggled with how to approach this type of project. Ross himself decided that great landscape architecture wasn’t enough; he believed that the plaza needed a central organizing element to help draw people to it and make it a destination. After a secret design competition with some of the world’s most renowned artists and designers, Thomas Heatherwick was selected to design the Vessel, based almost entirely on his reputation alone.

Reputation, relationships, and resources are three factors for selection not typically taught in architecture school, even though they deeply affect the client’s decision-making processes. In the case of Hudson Yards, KPF brought the necessary resources to help the developer pull off a project of historic scale and risk. A long-standing personal relationship was central to the engagement of SOM, despite the fact that the firm was also working for a nearby competitor. Lastly, their reputations, which transcended their lack of experience with both the client and building type, was the main factor in the selection of DSR, Rockwell, and Heatherwick.

As we look in awe (or disdain) at the rising city on Manhattan’s west side and wonder how it all happened, architects should understand the factors that led to the selection of the designers who were fortunate enough to shape the project. While architect selection is a fickle thing, it is also a highly visible and lasting decision. Architects’ reputations rise and fall with the quality of their work and their alignment with the values of certain projects and clients. As Hudson Yards opens, as the reviews come in, and as the public begins to use its buildings and spaces, we will have to wait and see if being a part of the project strengthens the resources, enhances thee relationships, and propels the reputations of the architects of Hudson Yards.

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