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New York City’s latest observation deck is peak architectural spectacle

At the top of One Vanderbilt, Summit is a four-story extravaganza complete with 2,500 mirrors and a scenic glass elevator. Have we reached peak architectural extravagance?

New York City’s latest observation deck is peak architectural spectacle

I visited Summit, New York City’s new “immersive experience and observation deck” twice. The first time was at night, two days before the venue opened to the public. The second time was during the day, about a week later. The nighttime experience felt like a fairy tale. The daytime experience felt like an overwhelming spectacle designed exclusively to be photographed and turned into an Instagram story.

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[Photo: courtesy Summit One Vanderbilt]
Summit spans 64,000 feet at the top of One Vanderbilt, the city’s fourth-tallest skyscraper, located in midtown Manhattan. On the 91st and 92nd floors, a 20-foot-tall room with views of lower Manhattan (and the Empire State Building only 10 blocks away) is at the heart of the experience. Said room, however, is clad in 2,500 mirrors, floor and ceiling included. There’s also a space filled with helium balloons. An external glass elevator takes you up to the equivalent of the 105th floor, and back down. A cocktail bar serves Danny Meyer delicacies. And there are two glass boxes for those who want to step out from the envelope of the building and watch yellow cabs stuck in traffic 1,000 feet below.

[Photo: courtesy Summit One Vanderbilt]
New York City is quite literally at your feet, so why would the developers invest in all the gimmicks and distractions? Turns out, a dazzling observation deck makes the building more attractive to tenants. Also, it looks good on Instagram. And if something looks good on Instagram—be it a maximalist furniture store or a museum designed for selfies—it provides free marketing, which leads to more ticket sales, which generates more revenue. In that respect, Summit is just the latest architectural spectacle abusing our Instagram obsession to create more value.

[Photo: courtesy Summit One Vanderbilt]
One Vanderbilt wasn’t always meant to have an observation deck on top. Seventeen years in the making, the building changed directions around 2012, when the Greater East Midtown area was rezoned to allow taller office buildings. “That’s when we realized we wanted to have something special,” says Rob Schiffer, managing director at SL Green Realty, Manhattan’s largest office landlord, and the developer of One Vanderbilt.

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The “something special” quickly grew into the start of an observation deck. Except New York City already has a host of those, many of them dripping with superlatives. One World Observatory, at the top of One World Trade Center, is the city’s highest observation deck. At Hudson Yards, Edge is the highest outdoor observation deck. Why build another one?

[Photo: courtesy Summit One Vanderbilt]
Based on research done by SL Green, 14% of tourists in New York City go to observation decks. That may not seem like a big number, but Schiffer notes that many observation decks, including the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock, are at capacity. “We knew there was pent-up demand for additional decks in the city,” he says. So Schiffer’s team toured decks around the world, from Dubai’s Burj Khalifa to Tokyo’s Skytree to One World Observatory. They all had one thing in common: “They are passive places, viewing platforms on a roof.” One Vanderbilt needed to stand out from the competition.

One Vanderbilt and Summit together cost more than $3 billion to build. How much of that can be attributed to Summit alone isn’t something Schiffer was willing to disclose, but I’m going to go ahead and assume it wasn’t cheap. So why pour millions into an attraction instead of leasing more office space? Could a jewel like this help attract tenants? “Certainly, we think it boosts the value of the building,” he says, noting that tenants are already vying to get their families—and their clients—through the door. Summit may well become a tourist magnet. The developers hope it could be a tenant magnet, too.

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[Photo: courtesy Summit One Vanderbilt]
Said magnet is a four-story extravaganza centered on a central experience titled Air. The space was designed by renowned architecture firm Snøhetta, which also designed the angular entry pavilion at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in lower Manhattan. Air was brought to life by local artist Kenzo Digital, who stunned the world in 2011 with his digital backdrop for Beyoncé’s Billboard Awards performance. At its core, the room is a reflective box accentuated by an array of lighting effects. This means two things. First: It feels like you’re stepping into a kaleidoscope (I spotted several people lying on the mirrored floor and staring up at themselves reflected in the ceiling).

“The mirror at that height, in that configuration, juxtaposes the city, sky, weather, and people in transformative, mind-expanding ways,” Kenzo Digital says. “The lighting is inspired directly by the colors of the sky and the weather you see out the windows, reinterpreting each in majestic fashion.”

Second—and this is where the drawback of a daytime visit comes into play—the mirrors end up refracting sunbeams right into your eyes. The organizers know this, so they offer you a pair of sunglasses in the lobby (along with slippers to protect the mirrored floor). When I visited around 4 p.m. one day, they appeared to have run out of sunglasses as I wasn’t offered any (the website does encourage visitors to bring sunglasses, but I forgot). So there I was, squinting my way through a dazzling space—quite literally—snapping photos of a spectacle that doesn’t care for my discomfort. When I finally get around to posting the images on Instagram, I know the photos will look stellar. But my experience right there and then left much to be desired.

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Ultimately, I wonder what Summit would have looked like before museums, stores, and experiences around the world took an Instagram-first approach. Forget about the mirrors for a second. Would Summit have been enough to attract tourists with just the view? When One World Observatory opened in 2015, its operators expected 3.3 million visitors a year, yet only 2.3 million showed up. So maybe the designers and developers of One Vanderbilt and Summit are just giving people what they want.

[Photo: courtesy Summit One Vanderbilt]
One Vanderbilt does have a significant differentiator. As Schiffer notes, indoor observation decks like at One World Trade Center or the Shard in London feature the same glass panels as in the office spaces below. That glass is coated with a film that helps cut the glare to improve worker comfort. “When you go to take a picture, you get a reflection of yourself instead of a picture of the view you’re seeing,” he says. Setting aside the irony that the mirrors are more than making up for the lack of reflection—and that the lack of film is likely contributing to the blinding refractions—the view out the windows is indeed crystal clear.

[Photo: courtesy Summit One Vanderbilt]
It’s too soon to tell whether Summit will attract the expected crowd, but if the throngs swarming in during the first week are any indication, Schiffer may have been right. Pent-up demand may indeed exist, despite the price tag. Tickets start at $39, go up to $59 if you want to go at night, and $73 if you want to ride the scenic elevator. If you want to visit during sunset, tack on an extra $10. That would make it almost $100 to stand on top of a building.

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[Photo: courtesy Summit One Vanderbilt]
The thing is, Summit didn’t need any of that. By virtue of its location, so close to the Empire State Building and a stone’s throw from the Chrysler Building, it had everything it ever needed for an unforgettable experience. At night, the view is so magnetic it renders all the gimmicks and distractions, however impressive, completely irrelevant. Like a moth drawn to a flame, I found my way to the windows and just stared out at the city. Then I turned around and snapped a photo. After all, this was designed for Instagram.

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