(CNN) — In a December 2016 article for The Architect’s Newspaper, journalist Audrey Wachs pointed out a glaring problem with the Vessel, the 150-foot-tall tourist attraction set to open in New York City’s gleaming new Hudson Yards neighborhood. .
“When you climb Vessel, the railings remain just above waist height to the top of the structure,” wrote, “but when you build high, people jump.”
That warning was tragically prophetic. Last week, a 14-year-old boy died by suicide on the scalable structure, the fourth fatal incident since the monument was opened to the public in March 2019.
“We are heartbroken by this tragedy and our thoughts are with the family of the young man who lost his life,” Hudson Yards spokeswoman Kimberly Winston said in a statement. “We are conducting a full investigation. The Vessel is currently closed.”
It is the second time the Vessel has been closed due to suicides. In January, after the third death, the Vessel closed for several months and reopened in May with new security measures, including increased safety, a buddy system, and posters on mental health resources.
Now, the future of the Vessel as the Instagram centerpiece of the largest architectural development in Manhattan since Rockefeller Center is in limbo. Can it be saved?
Your corporate sponsors will undoubtedly give it a try. Heatherwick Studio, who designed the Vessel, said in a statement that it is working with Related Companies, the real estate firm run by billionaire Stephen M. Ross, to find “physical” solutions to the problem.
“Working with our partners at Related, the team extensively explored physical solutions that would increase safety and require more rigorous testing, and although we have not yet identified one, we are continuing to work to identify a solution that is feasible in terms of engineering and installation,” he said the studio spokesperson.
Raising the barriers several more centimeters would be one of those solutions. In fact, physical barriers or networks have long been used to try to prevent such tragedies in high-level structures. The Golden Gate Bridge in California, where more than a thousand people have committed suicide over the years, installed networks to minimize fatal injuries; the George Washington Bridge did something similar several years ago.
Still, adding a simple physical barrier or network addresses only part of the Vessel’s problem.
The whole point of architecture and design is that the built environment influences how we feel and act. And the Vessel, surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers of concrete, glass and crude commercialism, has a more fundamental problem, according to Jacob Alspector, a distinguished professor at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York.
“The Vessel is like an MC Escher nightmare,” he said, referring to the famous graphic artist known for his stairs to nowhere. “It’s a bit unforgiving. It’s very flashy, it’s really cold. It’s exciting … it’s not the most friendly, positive, inclusive type of space or structure. It’s a bit empty. What’s the point of this? Just walking up and down?”
He added: “People who feel alienated from the world may not be very well supported by an experience like that.”
How architects and designers try to prevent suicides
Alspector knows this challenge first hand.
More than a decade ago, he oversaw renovations at New York University’s Bobst Library, less than 2 miles from where the Vessel is located, which had a similar problem.
In 2003, two students died after jumping from the open atrium of the library. The school then installed a 2.4 meter high Plexiglass barrier to prevent such incidents, but another student managed to scale that barrier and jump to his death in 2009. NYU wanted to solve the problem once and for all.
The solution, which debuted in 2012, was the Bobst Pixel Veil, a series of laser-cut aluminum panels that enclosed space but also allowed sunlight to shine through in an intricate pattern.
“It is an example of how to do something positive rather than a barrier,” Alspector told CNN. “The trick is to transform something to make it look like you’re not in a cage.”
Wachs, the journalist who warned about the Vessel in 2016, specifically cited the deaths in the library as an example of what could go wrong. Stephen Ross and Heatherwick, wrote at the time, “seem not to have learned from Bobst, or from the city’s bridges and iconic tall buildings.”
Toronto’s Bloor Viaduct provides another relevant example of a possible solution. Hundreds of people had committed suicide on the viaduct, so local leaders commissioned the installation of the Shining Veil in 2003, a barrier made up of thin steel rods that also glow brightly.
“It is designed both as a suicide deterrent and as a kinesthetic field of reflection,” according to the RVTR architecture and design platform.
Dr. Mark Sinyor, a psychiatrist and suicide prevention expert at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center, studied the impact of the barrier in 2010 and again in 2017, and discovered an unusual result.
As expected, the Shining Veil worked as designed and stopped the suicides on the Bloor Viaduct. But nevertheless, the 2010 study found that in the first few years after the barrier was installed, the death rate when jumping across Toronto remained unchanged, suggesting that the suicides simply moved elsewhere. However, the 2017 study found that, in the long term, suicide by jumping had decreased across the city without an associated increase in suicides by other means.
“When people’s access to people’s methods is limited, you see fewer deaths in an area,” Sinyor said. “That’s because people who are suicidal can ultimately find other ways to cope if they don’t have a means to do it at the time.”
Taken together, the studies show that preventing suicide is more than a one-stop shop, Sinyor told CNN. In particular, he criticized the media coverage at the time that fueled the damaging myth that suicidal people are not worth saving.
“The lesson of the Bloor Viaduct is that a suicide prevention barrier is an effective suicide program, but it must be combined with safe public messages,” Sinyor said.
“Suicide never has to happen.” “It is preventable. And people who struggle should seek help, because there is help.”
The Vessel has a deeper problem
Secure public messaging was a key part of the Vessel’s plan when it reopened in May with new security measures. Instead of making physical changes, the Vessel charged a $ 10 fee for entry, required people to come with someone else, hired staff and security to be vigilant, and posted signs informing visitors how to get help.
Last week’s tragedy showed the failure of that plan without a physical barrier. The 14-year-old victim was with her family when she died, authorities told CNN affiliate WCBS.
Lowell Kern, chairman of the Manhattan Community Four Advisory Council, told CNN that raising the height of the barriers was the “obvious” solution.
“There is no reason to have a 1.2 meter high barrier that is easy for someone to overcome, either impulsively or planned. In terms of aesthetics, I think it is an easy solution,” he said.
However, the related companies did not, and the fatal incidents since then confirmed their worst fears. “I’ve never been so unhappy that he was proven right,” he said.
A higher barrier is not always necessary for an elevated platform. For example, the Guggenheim Museum also has an open area with a low barrier, but there has never been such a situation.
“I think it’s because the space is so beautiful, so magical, so affirming, so wonderful,” said Alspector, the architect and professor. “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard someone describe the Vessel as beautiful.”
He said he was skeptical that an eight-foot-high barrier at the Vessel would be sufficient given that it was not effective at the NYU library. Instead, he suggested a closed and continuous barrier.
“I would recommend that it be something human, that affirms life, not like a prison, not necessarily like a fish tank,” he said. “It is a difficult design problem.”
See here the lines of attention and prevention of suicide in Latin America, the United States and Spain.
Call 1-800-273-8255 in the United States to reach the National Suicide Prevention Line. Provides free and confidential assistance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for people in suicidal or distressed crisis. You can get more information about their services here, including your guide on what to do if suicidal signs are identified on social media. You can also call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone about how you can help someone in crisis. Call 1-866-488-7386 for TrevorLifeline, a suicide prevention counseling service for the LGBTQ community.
For assistance outside of the US, the International Association for Suicide Prevention provides a global directory of international resources and hotlines. You can also turn to Befrienders Worldwide.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism