Coinciding with the launch of advance ticket sales for its October 21 public opening, AN was invited earlier this week to ascend Summit One Vanderbilt, a vertiginous attraction located in the uppermost reaches of Midtown Manhattan’s tallest non-residential skyscraper. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), the terra cotta-clad supertall office tower opened in September of last year and is New York City’s fourth-tallest building overall with its antenna reaching 1,401 feet.
It’s easy to draw immediate comparisons between Summit One Vanderbilt and Edge, a cantilevered observation deck extending from the 100th floor of KPF’s 30 Hudson Yards that debuted just ahead (and then almost immediately shut down) COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Both are cloud-brushing, pulse-quickening Instagram meccas over 1,000 feet in the sky with similarly elevated admission prices (adult tickets for Summit One Vanderbilt range from $39 to $73 and there’s a $10 sunset surcharge).
However, the 65,000-square-foot Summit One Vanderbilt—billed as the “world’s most immersive observatory experience”—is an entirely different creature. The attraction is a multisensory, multilevel experience (Snøhetta executed the interiors) that’s either more entrancing or more terrifying than Edge, depending on how one processes extreme heights.
Similar to Edge, the panoramic views from Summit One Vanderbilt are stupendous, albeit different. Whereas the views from Edge, which floats above the far-western fringes of Manhattan in Hudson Yards, are no doubt expansive, One Vanderbilt is situated in the dense heart of Midtown, dwarfing nearby landmark skyscrapers including the MetLife Building, SOM’s 383 Madison Avenue, and, most notably, the Chrysler Building. In turn, visitors are afforded more intimate views of the city but at over 1,000 feet above the street.
The differences between the two attractions begin at their entrances. The journey up to Edge begins on the fourth floor of a luxury shopping mall, and to reach the elevator bank beyond the ticketing booth visitors walk through a winding corridor with sound and light effects that lends the queueing process with a distinctly Disney theme park-esque vibe. The rather enigmatic start of Summit One Vanderbilt, on the other hand, originates in a subterranean lobby space directly adjacent to a new 4,000-square-foot transit hall that connects Grand Central Terminal and its adjacent subway hub. (The transit hall, along with an adjacent street-level pedestrian plaza flanking One Vanderbilt, was developed as part of a $220 million transportation and infrastructure investment borne from a private-public partnership between One Vanderbilt developer SL Green and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority). Because the Summit One Vanderbilt experience begins underground amidst the hustle and bustle of a major transit hub with the rumble of subway trains clearly audible in the distance, the transportive nature of the experience is even more impactful than if it were to originate aboveground in the skyscraper proper.
Like at Edge, there’s a “pre-show” of sorts involved with the short journey from the ticketing area to Summit One Vanderbilt’s dedicated elevator bank. In this case, it was created by the artist Kenzo Digital, who leads the immersive storytelling studio of the same name, as part of a larger immersive art experience at Summit One Vanderbilt dubbed Air. As Kenzo Digital described in a press release, “Air is a living, breathing entity, expressed through its multisensory use of sound, lighting and production design. It’s a story that evolves with each successive space, bringing visitors deeper and deeper into the experience until finally, they become part of it.”
After visitors traverse a long corridor complete with pulsing lights and hypnotic sound design, and enter the high-speed elevators, it’s a zippy 43-second ride up to the 92nd floor.
The sense-resetting Air experience continues immediately once off the elevators. After traveling down another corridor-slash-light installation, visitors emerge into the main observation area of Summit One Vanderbilt: a soaring, bi-level space dubbed Transcendence where every structural surface save for the massive windows is clad in mirrors.
The spectacular space, a sort of high-concept house of mirrors perched high above Manhattan, manages to be both grounding and wildly disorienting at once. Kenzo Digital told AN that he envisioned the mirror-clad interior observation area as a “contemplative, meditative space.” And this is true—the whole heady experience, which is meant to bring “the outside environment into the space and then magnify it infinitely,” is humbling and does provoke a certain sense of introspection. Yet it’s hard to imagine truly deep reveries taking place within Transcendence as, at the end of the day, it’s a venue largely and beautifully designed for frenzied Instagramming.
This mirrored observation hall is the heart of the dizzying adventure, but also just the start of it. Other (non-mirrored) features include Levitation, a pair of glass-bottomed “skyboxes” that extend out from the skyscraper 1,063 feet above Madison Avenue and an outdoor terrace, described as the “highest urban alpine meadow in the Western hemisphere,” that wraps around the south and west sides of One Vanderbilt. There’s also a dedicated gallery space that will debut with a Yayoi Kusama exhibit titled Clouds.
For an additional $20 on top of the base admission price, visitors can experience Ascent, twin all-glass external elevators—the largest in the world, apparently—that creep very slowly an additional 12 stories up the side of the building before pausing at 1,200 feet before descending back down to the terrace level. It’s likely that some visitors will find Ascent simply too white-knuckle for their tastes; this is where a little liquid courage from Après, Summit One Vanderbilt’s Nordic-themed cocktail lounge and cafe from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Events, will come in handy. (As part of the Summit Ultimate ticket package, which costs a few bucks more, a signature cocktail by Danny Meyer is included in the experience.)
On that note, the attraction recommends that visitors wear pants, tights, or shorts to “avoid unwanted exposure on glass and mirrored floors.” Proof of vaccination is also required for entry.
Additional ticketing information for Summit One Vanderbilt can be found here. One percent of profits from ticket sales will be reinvested into the community through the attraction’s dedicated charitable foundation.