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 night experience felt like an adventure. The day experience felt like an overwhelming spectacle designed solely to be photographed and transformed into an Instagram story.
Summit spans 64,000 feet on top of One Vanderbilt, the city’s fourth tallest skyscraper, located in Midtown Manhattan. On the 91st and 92nd floors, a 20-foot-high room overlooking lower Manhattan (and the Empire State Building just 10 blocks away) is at the heart of the experience. The said room is, however, clad with 2,500 mirrors, floor and ceiling included. There is also a room filled with helium balloons. An external glass elevator takes you up to the equivalent of the 105th floor and down again. A cocktail bar serves Danny Meyer delicacies. And there are two glass boxes for those who want to step out of the building’s envelope and see yellow cabs stuck in traffic 300 meters below.
New York City is literally at your feet, so why should developers invest in all those gimmicks and distractions? It turns out that a dazzling observation deck makes the building more attractive to tenants. It also looks great 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 sense, Summit is just the latest architectural play that abuses our Instagram obsession to create more value.
A Vanderbilt was not always intended to have an observation deck on top. Seventeen years in the making, the building changed direction around 2012, when the Greater East Midtown area was remodeled to allow taller office buildings. “That was when we realized we wanted something special,” said Rob Schiffer, CEO of SL Green Realty, Manhattan’s largest office landlord, and developer of One Vanderbilt.
“Something special” grew rapidly to the start of an observation deck. Aside from the fact that New York City already has a wealth of them, many of them are dripping with superlatives. One World Observatory, atop the One World Trade Center, is the city’s highest observation deck. At Hudson Yards, the Edge is the highest outdoor observation deck. Why build another one?
Based on research conducted by SL Green, 14% of tourists in New York City go to observation decks. It may not look like a big number, but Schiffer notes that many observation decks, including the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock, have capacity. “We knew there was an accumulated demand for additional tires in the city,” he says. So Schiffer’s team toured tires 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.” A Vanderbilt should stand out from the competition.
A Vanderbilt and Summit together cost more than $ 3 billion to build. How much of it can be attributed to the Summit alone is not something Schiffer was willing to reveal, but I will go ahead and assume it was not cheap. So why pour millions into an attraction instead of renting more office space? Could a jewel like this help attract tenants? “We certainly think it increases the value of the building,” he says, noting that tenants are already vying to get their families – and their customers – through the door. Summit may well become a tourist magnet. The developers hope it could also be a tenant magnet.
The said magnet is a four-story extravaganza centered around a central experience titled Air. The room was designed by the renowned architectural firm Snøhetta, which also designed the angular entrance pavilion at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in lower Manhattan. Air was brought to life by local artist Kenzo Digital, who amazed the world in 2011 with his digital backdrop for Beyoncé’s Billboard Awards performance. At its core, the room is a reflective box that is highlighted by a variety of lighting effects. That means two things. First: It feels like you are stepping into a kaleidoscope (I spotted several people lying on the mirror floor staring up at themselves reflecting in the ceiling).
“The mirror in that height, in that configuration, equates the city, the sky, the weather and people in transformative, mind-expanding ways,” says Kenzo Digital. “The lighting is inspired directly by the colors of the sky and the weather you see out of the windows, and reinterprets them in a majestic way.”
Second – and this is where the downside of a day 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 mirror floor). When I visited around noon. 16 one day, they seemed to have run out of sunglasses when I was not offered any (the website encourages visitors to bring sunglasses, but I forgot). So there I stood, squinting my way through a dazzling room – quite literally – snapping pictures of a play that didn’t care about my discomfort. When I finally get started posting the photos on Instagram, I know the photos will look amazing. But my experience right there and then left a lot to be desired.
In the end, I wonder what Summit would have looked like before museums, shops and experiences around the world took an Instagram-first approach. Forget about the mirrors for a moment. Would the 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 just give people what they want.
A Vanderbilt has a significant differentiator. As Schiffer notes, indoor observation decks like the One World Trade Center or Shard in London have the same glass panels as the office space below. This glass is coated with a film that helps cut glare to improve work comfort. “When you take a picture, you get a reflection of yourself instead of a picture of the view you see,” he says. Putting the irony aside that the mirrors are more than offsetting the lack of reflection – and that the lack of film is likely to contribute to the dazzling refractions – the view out the windows is truly crystal clear.
It’s too early to say whether Summit will attract the expected audience, but if the crowd that swarms in during the first week is any indication, Schiffer may have been right. Constrained demand can actually 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, you need an extra $ 10. That would make it nearly $ 100 to stand on top of a building.
The thing is, Summit did not 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 that it makes all gimmicks and distractions, no matter how impressive, completely irrelevant. Like a moth drawn by a flame, I found my way to the windows and just stared out at the city. Then I turned around and took a picture. After all, this is designed for Instagram.