The common good: Ran-ki-Vav, Patan, Gujerat; and the Vessel, Manhattan, NY


The Queen’s Stepwell (Rani-ki-Vav), Patan, Gujerat, India, late 11th century. 



Among the things to remark about India is her sacralization of many of the relationships  – familial and communal – of the lives of her people.


One of the expressions of this sacralization was the stepwell .


This stepwell  (vav in Gujerati and baoli in Hindi) is a water conservation system.  It was designed as an inverted temple to designate the sanctity of water. 







Water is sacred. The site, a gathering place for a large section of the community, was not.


This structure is the material expression not only of the sanctity of water but also of the importance of the community’s joint participation in its use and conservation.



The Queen’s Stepwell was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 2014. 






The words below are UNESCO’s.

The photos I took in 2010.   The reflected light off this stone on a brilliant day was golden as is the memory.








“Rani-ki-Vav, on the banks of the Saraswati River, was initially built as a memorial to a king in the 11th century AD.

“Stepwells are a distinctive form of subterranean water resource and storage systems on the Indian subcontinent, and have been constructed since the 3rd millennium BC.






“They evolved over time from what was basically a pit in sandy soil towards elaborate multi-story works of art and architecture.

“Rani-ki-Vav was built at the height of craftsmens’ ability in stepwell construction and the Maru-Gurjara architectural style, reflecting mastery of this complex technique and great beauty of detail and proportions.







“……it is divided into seven levels of stairs with sculptural panels of high artistic quality;



“The fourth level is the deepest and leads into a rectangular tank…” (now dry)












“More than five hundred principal sculptures and over a thousand minor ones combine religious, mythological and secular imagery, often referencing literary works…..















“The figurative motifs and sculptures, and the proportion of filled and empty spaces, provide the stepwell’s interior with its unique aesthetic character.”














The Vessel, Hudson Yards, New York, 2019 – the present

All photos of the Vessel are from the net







Hudson Yards is a development on the west side of lower Manhattan.   It is the eastern half of the old rail yards.

This is the last large piece of undeveloped land in Manhattan. The western half awaits development


Hudson Yards is the largest mixed-use private real estate venture in American history. It was opened in early 2019.


It comprises eight structures and a six-acre plaza and green space:

four very tall office buildings, a hotel, a luxury seven story shopping mall and a semi-gated condominium development. 


The city and state provided significant tax incentives and billions of public dollars in new and renovated infrastructure.  


And the city built an arts center, the Shed, at a cost of  $500 million.


The anchor of the public plaza and garden of almost five acres is the Vessel which sits in the center of it.







The Vessel was designed by the British architect, Thomas Heatherwick, at a cost of $200 million.


It is situated at one end of one of the most successful conversions to public access of defunct infrastructure: the High Line.


This greenway, whose plantings were designed by the master gardener and landscapist, Piet Oudolf,  covers an elevated spur of the old New York Railroad.  Now it stretches from the Vessel to the Whitney Museum of (North) American Art.




The High Line, New York, June 2015-34

The High Line, NY

The High Line, New York, June 2015-19

Adults and children building with white Lego at the invitation of the architect, Olafur Eliasson, in an open ‘square’ of the High Line.  Summer 2015




Thomas Heatherwick has pointed to three sources for his design of the Vessel:

the stepwells of India;

the climbing frame found at gyms;

and a childhood memory of a broken staircase.








The Vessel’s name is a reference not only to its shape but also to the water-collection and conservation function of stepwells.





Looking at the Vessel through the windows of the store, Nieman Marcus




The Vessel is 15 stories high, weighs 600 tons and has 2,500 steps. It has 154 interconnecting staircases and 80 viewing landings.   








The Vessel offers nowhere to sit. There is one elevator that provides rides to a platform at the top but to no other level.






Not only has the company which operates the Vessel taken to itself the right to use “any photos or recording created by visitors for any purpose whatsoever in any…media,”   but the the company that oversaw development of Hudson Yards collects fulsome data on all visitors.






There is no purpose to this structure  –Stairway to Nowhere is one of its nicknames – other than its experience and the panoramic views from the top.


It stands, with the development of Hudson Yards, as an example of the taking of public land for overwhelmingly private gain.


And of the imbalance between private interest and public benefit.


Hudson Yards is now the second most expensive quarter in Manhattan to inhabit.





View from the top



The Vessel is an example of the delusion by which a very few people – here Stephen Ross, the developer of Hudson Yards – can be the facilitator  of  a “transformational, monumental”  – his words – experience for us, the hoi polloi.

It was he who had sole say over the Vessel’s existence and final design.


We pay for this experience.


He was our well-paid high priest and general poobah for this venture.


The Vessel is a compliment in form but not in any other way to the stepwells of India.




The Vessel is an evacuation of the possibility of creating, expressing, experiencing, or marking the value to us of a part of our communal lives.


Instead, we have empty, glittering form and a momentary wow! 

worthy of a billion selfies destined for oblivion in meaningless ‘companionship’ in the dark half-life of cyberspace which awaits them.



Four suicides of young people have occurred at the Vessel since it was opened.

In January 2021, the Vessel was closed to public access after the third suicide had occurred there.


It was reopened in May 2021:

the security staff was tripled;

an entry fee of $10 was charged each person above 5 after the first hour;

each person was required to be accompanied by at least one other person;

exploration of the interior structure was banned

and notices about help in the event of suicidal feelings were posted. 


For reasons unknown, however, the height of the barriers was not raised.



On July 29, 2021, the Vessel was closed again when a boy of 14 threw himself from the 8th floor; and died.  He was with his family. 


A year later, netting was installed below the Vessel


Access to the the Vessel remains closed.












4 thoughts on “The common good: Ran-ki-Vav, Patan, Gujerat; and the Vessel, Manhattan, NY

  1. 200 million dollars for an empty gesture – indeed an empty vessel; and masquerading as public art! What’s not to make one very angry. And then to somehow legitimise the vacuous creation by allusion to Indian stepwells. Some days I think humanity has completely lost its mind. Your photos though, Sarah, are wonderful, as is the structure itself – in all senses.

    1. I am entirely with you, Tish. This is but one example of what our economy permits. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Thank you, Sarah, for some wonderful photography of both structures and then for pointing out the startling comparisons and contrasts. The sunlight on the ivory stone catches its eternal endurance and the holiness of its purpose. The stone acquires lightness; whereas the Vessel’s grey glass and steel overhanging almost glowers with foreboding. No wonder the young suicides. Reminds me of the Minotaur at the centre of that labyrinth!

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