Within One Vanderbilt, Snøhetta realizes SUMMIT, an immersive attraction which includes Air, an art experience by Kenzo Digital

On Top of the World

Within One Vanderbilt, Snøhetta realizes SUMMIT, an immersive attraction which includes Air, an art experience by Kenzo Digital

The intensity of the reflections is paired with smooth, rounded elements in the support spaces. (Courtesy Snøhetta)

SUMMIT One Vanderbilt by Snøhetta, located at the top of a new office tower designed by KPF adjacent to Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan, provides an array of attractions beyond “just” a panoramic view. The four-story complex hosts four experiences: Air, an art experience created by artist Kenzo Digital; Levitation, two glass ledges above Madison Avenue (also designed by KPF); Ascent, a pair of exterior glass elevators; and Après, a food- and-drink concept with an outdoor terrace.

Throughout, glass plays an essential role in both opening a transparent portal to the city and, at times, mirroring an interior into an infinite regression of reflections. Anne-Rachel Schiffmann, director and senior architect at Snøhetta, told AN that “glass and mirrors [are] elements that shape the visitor’s perception of the interior spaces” while also maintaining visual connections, forming hand- and guardrails, and framing the overall perimeter of the tower. “In short,” she said, “glass makes SUMMIT One Vanderbilt possible.”

The journey to SUMMIT begins underground before depositing viewers atop a skyscraper. Kenzo Digital shared that “the elevator ride—both visually and sonically—serves as a palate cleanser and transition from Grand Central.” This movement allows “visitors to rise out of the hustle of trains and city to the elevated, calm transcendence of Air, which restores and reimagines visitors’ connection to both the city and the natural world.”

people standing in a mirrored observation room in a skyscraper
Within Air, viewers experience the mirrored infinity through floors, ceilings, column claddings, and circular openings. (Michael Grimm Photography)

The first room in Air is large, double-height, and fully mirrored. You probably have seen images of the space via social media. The reflective surfaces curve away, destabilizing one’s sense of floor, wall, and ceiling. Materially, it looks effortless, but the effect took the work of a dedicated project team. Kenzo said that once the concept was in place, “everything—from how the heat from the sun would be managed to the reflective edge details and where to hide sprinklers and speakers in the ceiling—had to be carefully evaluated with that vision in mind.” Snøhetta documented this coordination. Schiffmann said that the firm “put a lot of care and attention into the design of the light fixtures and speaker covers, the mirrored floor grilles for the HVAC, and the access panels for maintenance and care of the mirrored spaces so that these necessary details don’t feel like background noise when you are immersing yourself in the skyline.”

Sound design was also important. It “establishes—emotionally and psychologically—that visitors have entered another realm,” Kenzo said. Additionally, the lighting design has two distinct settings: day and night. To pull all this off, Schiffmann explained, “having an integrated and multidisciplinary team of designers, architects, landscape architects, technicians, artists, retail and food and beverage consultants, glass fabricators, and builders come together was necessary to achieve a seamless experience.”

exterior of a glass manhattan skyscraper
SUMMIT’s four floors, including its color- coded bathrooms, can be read from the outside of One Vanderbilt. (Michael Grimm Photography)

Subsequent galleries within Air showcase art by others (including Clouds, by Yayoi Kusama) before routing guests through a gift shop and depositing them in the upper-level eatery. Even there (and in the colorful restrooms), Snøhetta took a careful and integrated approach to lighting and materials. With the lounge’s wooden seating, the experience is meant to be totalizing—like the galleries, but instead “you are brought into something cozy and warm rather than into a somewhat existential mirrored infinity space,” Schiffmann said. “Here, you can envision yourself on a mountain summit, curled up around a fireplace, contemplating the view.”

With daily life slowly returning after the pandemic’s distancing, SUMMIT’s enthusiasm is timely and welcome. New York, as seen from 93 stories up, is a masterpiece, and Air’s immersive experience blurs the distance between viewer and city. Through the power of glass, the room brings the metropolis inside while giving us a chance to see the skyline— and ourselves—in a new light.

Interior architect/architect of record/ landscape architect: Snøhetta
Location: New York City

Base building architect: KPF (Kohn Pedersen Fox)
Construction: AECOM Tishman
Collaborating artist/designer: Kenzo Digital
Immersive MEP, FP, AV/IT: JB&B (Jaros, Baum & Bolles)
Structural engineer: Severud Associates
Lighting designer: Arup
Specialty glass engineer: Eckersley O’Callaghan
Acoustic consultant: Cerami & Associates
Specialty technology & integration: Tad.,Immersive Design Studios
Signage & wayfinding: Syndicate Sub Rosa, Pentagram
Glass manufacturer: Glassbe
Mirrors: Mistral

Catherine Chattergoon is a BArch student at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture. In 2021–22, she was one of three New Voices in Architecture Journalism fellows. The program was sponsored by Pratt and AN.