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NYC’s New Observation Deck Is Delightfully Disorienting

By Devorah Lev-Tov

Oct 19, 2021

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Go for the views, stay for the interactive art installations that challenge your sense of reality.

Courtesy of Summit One Vanderbilt

Go for the views, stay for the interactive art installations that challenge your sense of reality.

Opening October 21, Summit One Vanderbilt is full of multi-sensory experiences.

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New York City is getting another observatory at the top of a gleaming skyscraper. On October 21, Summit One Vanderbilt will join the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, One World Observatory, and the Edge in Hudson Yards as the latest place for unobstructed skyline views in Manhattan. But does the city really need another observation deck?

Need may be too strong a word, but Summit does bring something new to the observatory arena—and the city. In addition to sweeping views, Summit also offers several one-of-a-kind interactive art installations and multi-sensory experiences, making it a worthwhile attraction.

The 1,401-foot-tall One Vanderbilt, located just across from Grand Central Terminal, is a $3.3 billion building developed by SL Green that includes Daniel Boulud’s Le Pavillon restaurant and office space for companies like TD Bank and the Carlyle Group. The 93-story building is the fourth tallest in New York City (after One World Trade Center, Central Park Tower, and 111 W. 57th Street). Summit takes over four floors at the very top of the building.

“Almost all observation decks around the world are just about the view, they’re a way to see the city. We wanted to create an observation experience, pulling in immersive experiences,” says Robert Schiffer, managing director, SL Green. “So we built this canvas and then turned it over to digital artists. We wanted to bring the city inside and then create ways of seeing the city that you’ve never seen before.”

The view of Transcendence 1 and Transcendence 2 at night
To get to the observation deck, guests enter via the Vanderbilt Passage in the southwestern corner of Grand Central Terminal. After having their vaccination cards checked, guests are whisked up an elevator to the first part of the experience, called Air, designed by the artist Kenzo Digital. Air has multiple rooms, but things start dramatically as guests come through a narrow portal and into what’s called Transcendence 1.

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After turning the corner from the elevators, visitors are confronted with a massive room with floor-to-ceiling windows—as expected in an observatory—as well as mirrored floors and ceilings—an unexpected surprise that is delightfully disorienting. All of a sudden, the space doubles and triples in size, and it’s hard to tell where anyone is actually standing. The city’s streets and landmarks seem to be in the wrong place, until you realize you’re looking at the reflection and not the real thing. On either end of the room are circular openings, called portals, which provide more dizzying looks up or down where observers might wonder what’s real and what’s a reflection.

The selfie opportunities are endless and it will almost certainly become one of the city’s top Instagram spots. With all those mirrored surfaces—and people snapping photos—it’s important to dress accordingly: Bring sunglasses and avoid wearing skirts or dresses. Also, leave the stilettos at home since they can damage the floor. 

The views from Levitation are not for the faint of heart.

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From there, guests go through the much smaller Reflect room, which brings them out of the boundless illusion of Air and into a more intimate space with a floor installation by artist Yayoi Kusama, which allows for some, well, reflection. After that comes one of the best rooms in the whole experience—called Affinity—which is filled with dozens of large, round silver balloons that float around thanks to strategically placed fans. Anyone who has been to the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh will immediately think of his Silver Clouds, but the advantage here is more mirrored walls, ceilings, and floors—plus the view, of course.

If visitors can tear themselves away from Affinity, their next stop will be one floor up at Transcendence 2, which gives a bird’s-eye view into the mirrored space of Transcendence 1. Off of this room is Levitation, which features two all-glass extensions with glass floors where those not afraid of heights can observe the cars whizzing by on Madison Avenue way down below. A fourth room called Unity features a transportive video installation of clouds overlaid across the windows.

Enjoy a cocktail at the outdoor lounge at Aprés, or take an elevator ride to nowhere for even higher views.

One more level up is Aprés, which features a chalet-inspired café serving light bites and cocktails by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group with an outdoor terrace that wraps around the south and west sides of the building. From here, guests can spot other observatories, including the Empire State Building directly in front of them, as well as views uptown of Central Park.

Those who want to go even higher (and spend an additional $20) can climb aboard Ascent. This pair of glass elevators travels up the outside of the building to One Vanderbilt’s highest point open to guests, culminating at 1,210 feet above the ground.

Timed tickets are on sale now and start at $39 for adults ($33 for kids age 6 to 12; children under 5 are free), with $5 discounts for New York City residents. Per local regulations, proof of vaccination against COVID-19 is required for all guests over the age of 12.

>> Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to New York

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