Health, Safety, and Welfare: What Happens when Design Trumps Ethics?

Earlier this year, a fourth person tragically took their life by jumping over the edge of The Vessel, a monumental Escher-like structure that serves as the anchor of tourism to New York City’s Hudson Yards development. Many immediately called for the 16-story sculpture to be torn down, and others demanded further safety barriers to be put in place, even if it meant blocking some of the views and vantage points. For now, The Vessel is closed until officials decide what to do next. Unfortunately, it’s become an attraction loosely associated with death, especially as it sits silently while the hustle and bustle of Hudson Yards remains.

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via UC Santa Barbara

Jumping to the West Coast of the United States, the highly debated Munger Hall recently saw its architect voluntarily quit the project over claims that it was a “social and psychological experiment with unknown consequences”. The vision for the project came from Charles Munger, who donated 200 million dollars for the dormitory. The issue at hand is that many of the dormitory rooms lose out on access to light and fresh air in return for centrally located collaboration spaces and amenities. Some hailed it as an innovative approach to space planning, while others claimed that it completely ignores the health, safety, and wellness of its occupants. The dorm will be home to 4,500 students with two main entrances, and a singular main corridor on each floor that branches off into smaller areas called “houses”. The dorm would qualify as the eighth densest neighborhood in the world, falling just short of Dhaka, Bangladesh. While the plans to construct the mega-dorm are moving forward, many are now second-guessing its design and asking if students should be subjected to this type of experimental living.

While the debate over what to do with The Vessel is never-ending and often the centerpiece subject for many architecture critics, and the design of Munger Hall will remain a debate even long after students occupy their rooms, the deeper question lies in aesthetics versus ethics, and to what extent architects can be held completely liable when tragedies or mishaps occur in the public spaces which we design. Is too much lost in the ego of only being concerned by how something looks and can its function and danger be masked by well-articulated design?

In the instance of The Vessel, a 2015 report from England that studied how to prevent suicides in public places suggested a variety of tactics that could be implemented- including the use of high public barriers. It also proposed increased employee surveillance and CCTV recording that could be used to study safety issues in real-time. It also suggests 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 only two stories down isn’t significantly different? Or is it even necessary to go up at all when any surrounding building at Hudson Yards offers higher and more vast views?

These are the issues that we need to consider, especially since we tend to deem that as long as a design follows local building code, it can be considered “safe”. While some architects love to design tall buildings and others extravagant spaces, we must also work to ensure that they don’t create potential dangers in a way that doesn’t stigmatize a place. Protecting health and safety doesn’t have to mean that we sacrifice design experience as well.

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Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "Health, Safety, and Welfare: What Happens when Design Trumps Ethics?" 14 Nov 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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