Health, Safety and Well-being: What Happens When Design Triumphs Over Ethics?
Earlier this year, a fourth person tragically killed himself by jumping off the edge of The Vessel, a monumental structure and tourist icon for New York’s Hudson Yards development. Many called for the 16-story sculpture to be taken down immediately, others demanded that more security barriers be installed, even if that meant blocking some of the sights and points of interest. For now, The Vessel is closed until authorities decide what to do. Unfortunately, it has become an attraction loosely associated with death, especially since it remains silent while the hustle and bustle of Hudson Yards remains.
Jumping to the west coast of the United States, the much-debated Munger Hall recently saw its architect voluntarily abandon the project on accusations that it was a “social and psychological experiment with unknown consequences.” The vision for the project came from Charles Munger, who donated $ 200 million to the university’s dormitories. The problem at hand is that many of the building’s bedrooms lose access to natural lighting and ventilation in exchange for collaborative spaces and centrally located services. Some praised it as an innovative approach to space planning, while others claimed that it completely ignores the health, safety and well-being of its occupants.
The building, which will house 4,500 students, has two main entrances and a single circulation on each floor, which branches into smaller areas called “houses.” The construction will rank as the eighth densest neighborhood in the world, just below Dhaka, Bangladesh. As plans to build the mega student residence advance, many question his project and wonder if students should be subjected to this kind of experimental life.
While the debate over what to do with The Vessel is never-ending and often the central issue for many architecture critics, and the Munger Hall project remains up for debate even after students occupy their dormitories, the deeper issue lies in aesthetics versus ethics. To what extent architects can be fully responsible when tragedies or accidents occur in the public spaces we design. Is the ego lost when we are concerned only with the appearance of something and its function, and the danger can be masked by a well-articulated design?
If this report is true, this design is a grotesque, sick joke – a jail masquerading as a dormitory. No, design isn’t up to billionaire donors. How far UCSB has fallen since the days when it had architects like Charles Moore. https://t.co/ERFIzAz5jZ
– Paul Goldberger (@paulgoldberger) October 29, 2021
In the case of The Vessel, a 2015 report from England, outlining how to prevent suicides in public places, suggested a variety of tactics that could be implemented, including the use of high public barriers. The report proposed increasing employee surveillance and the implementation of CCTV recording, which could be used to study security issues in real time. Another element suggested that closing part of the site could save countless lives. Is it really necessary to go to the top of The Vessel, when the view from just two decks below is not significantly different? Or is it even necessary to climb when any building around Hudson Yards offers higher and more expansive views?
These are questions we need to ponder, especially as we tend to assume that as long as a project follows the local building code, it can be considered “safe.” While some architects like to design tall buildings and other quirky spaces, we must also work to make sure they don’t create potential hazards in a way that doesn’t stigmatize the location. Protecting health and safety does not necessarily mean sacrificing project expertise.