Q1 2023

Q1 2023 BUILD 15 article into a sharp new light, and brings up an important topic for discussion: when one designs a public structure, is it really ‘nothing to do with you’ what happens after it is complete? Is it the fault of the designer if tragedies occur as a result of their emphasis more on artistic vision than user safety? As Caitlyn Doughty from Ask a Mortician asks in her video on the subject, ‘what is [a designer’s] ethical duty through design choices to prevent such things from happening?’ With the Vessel being simply one piece of art nestled in the ‘museum of art’ sector of Hudson Yards, it stands as a testament to what happens when one views their role as a creator as totally separate from the results of people being allowed to interact with that creation; and it isn’t alone. Many great architectural features before it where aesthetics have prevailed over the safeguarding of human life have become similar hotspots for self-harm, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Elmer Holmes Bobst library at NYU, but both structures have addressed their issue regarding self-harm in different ways that can be compared for effectiveness both in harm prevention and retention of artistic integrity. With the Golden Gate Bridge, the railings were not designed for the safety of the crosser, but so that the designer could see over the top of them comfortably. Due to this one design choice, the Golden Gate Bridge has become a hotspot for self-harm, so much so that with 625 officially reported deaths and perhaps over 200 that have gone unseen and unreported, it is no wonder the construction has come under fire. Indeed, It became one of the first architectural marvels to inspire this discussion of ethical duty in architecture, as even in the face of all this death people still worry about obscuring the views and ‘experience’. However, it seems that in the case of Golden Gate, the side of the argument saying that yes, a designer and construction team do have a duty of care, are winning. Suicide prevention nets have been in the works for years now, slated for completion in 2023; whilst this for many is too little too late, for those who have been advocating for such measures to be taken, it’s a relief that the fight has ended in victory. Meanwhile, back in New York, we see another case study of an artwork that became the site of self-harm in the Elmer Holmes Bobst library at New York University. As the main library at New York University in Manhattan, the library was the site of 7 student deaths between 2003 and 2004, with the atrium being soaring levels of mezzanine flooring where the veranda-style barriers gave way to a higher and higher drop as the floors ascend. In response, the library erected barriers, but not just any barriers. NYU commissioned barriers that were aesthetically stunning, and work impeccably in tandem with the wider design of the library atrium, evoking ‘a digital waterfall’ of ones and zeroes that both safeguards visitors and gives a breath-taking visual effect, made entirely of randomly perforated aluminium screens. Spanning the 12 floors of the architectural wonder, these screen-like barriers are proof that barriers need not interfere with artistic integrity, they can add to them, resulting in a safer experience that is – if anything – more artistically poignant, not less so. Physical barriers, as shown by studies such as Pirkis et al., 2013, as well as those published in the British Journal of Psychology, and in findings by the CDC, are effective in the reduction of harm and the prevention of tragedy, and in the case of the Vessel, there have been higher railings involved in the plan since the beginning. However, the minds behind the Vessel are still loathe to install these, and so, the Vessel will likely remain closed into perpetuity until such a time where these are effectively installed. Stuart Wood, the architect, said upon its completion that they ‘didn’t want to design in fear’; but perhaps some fear, some sense of responsibility towards the users of their art, would have been a very good thing, and would have allowed the installation of higher barriers that would have saved lives. In essence, when it comes to answering the above question of if architects and designers have an ethical responsibility to prevent harm to the users of their word, the Vessel has been an incredibly important case study in why the answer is – and always should be – a resounding ‘yes’.