During much of the pandemic, Midtown Manhattan struggled. Office buildings lost their hype, which affected local restaurants and other businesses.
But Midtown’s spiky skyline remains and even extends. Now there is a new way to enjoy it. This week, One Vanderbilt, a new build on the corner of 42nd Street, will open its observation deck, SUMMIT. From floors 91 to 93, viewers can admire the Art Deco details of the Empire State and the Chrysler Buildings, and if they look north on a clear day, can spot Bear Mountain in the Hudson Highlands.
Inside, there’s an immersive experience called Air, with mirrors, lights, and views of the city hundreds of feet below. It was created by Kenzo Digital, 42, a digital artist known for his collaborations with Beyoncé. The native New Yorker wanted to create a deep emotional connection with the city, he said. “It’s not just an Instagram background or a show,” he said. “It was built specifically to inspire. (Okay, but it’s Is make pretty pictures).
Ahead of the opening, The New York Times spoke to Kenzo Digital about their new project. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Q. What is your earliest memory of childhood in New York?
A. I must have been 5 years old. I locked myself in the toilet of one of my parents’ friends in their apartment in TriBeCa, and suddenly, we were late for the opening of the retrospective of Nam June Paik, my grandfather’s brother, at the Whitney. I walked out and then we got to the museum, the old one, and took this elevator that opened up to this dark hall that was covered with this huge 40-TV video installation. I always thought that seeing this alternate world after such a frustrating experience had a profound impact on me.
What other parts of the city have shaped you?
In college, I was a graffiti artist, so I always explored the city at the odd hours between 11pm and 6am. you go through tunnels and train tracks and all those abandoned and forgotten parts of the city. I’ve learned to see the city as an organism – how it moves and connects – and it’s pretty amazing. I also began to realize how the city can be seen differently at different times. When you travel the world at night and the next day you become part of civilized life by going to school, you see all the different worlds in the same space.
You stayed in town during the pandemic. Why?
I was working on Air. We built this prototype for that in Times Square, and I would bring my friends there who were in private, and they would listen to the music and watch the lights, and they could just be there with their thoughts. I found it gave them that hopeful and positive feeling, and it inspired me that anyone could feel that, even on a quick visit. The possibility of what Air could do for the city was what kept me going.
But even if I had no project I would have stayed because the city is my source of inspiration. In good times and in bad times, I’m always connected to it.
Air is over 1,000 feet and offers the highest viewing platforms in Midtown. Why do you think skyscrapers are important to the city?
Skyscrapers are the DNA of New York City. They represent the advancement of technology and engineering and the human mind. But more than that, when you get to see the city from the top of a skyscraper, it changes everything. A Vanderbilt, for example, is in the center of Manhattan Island; it’s like a target. You take this point of view, and this elevation, and it’s like a static aerial shot of the city. It’s the sight they use in the movies, and seeing it in real life is really powerful.
In these skyscrapers you are in the middle of it all, and you can watch a cloud roll over the city and see how that shadow affects the people in Chelsea. If you find yourself in Chelsea, you have no idea that you are currently in the shadow of a cloud, but you can see it here.
There are so many empty skyscrapers in Midtown. Did the city need a new one?
A Vanderbilt is different. When one of the board members approached me about this project, he sort of assumed that I wouldn’t be interested. He said, “It’s real estate and business, and it’s probably not your thing,” but I was interested. From the top of One Vanderbilt, you have a front row seat to look at the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building, and those things you’ve seen a million times have a new perspective. Especially at night, all the lights of Midtown and these buildings are absorbed into space, and it’s both romantic and futuristic.
Do you think Midtown can bounce back or change?
I think the whole city has the capacity to come back. I hope Air can help and inject some very aggressive new energy into the city, but obviously that’s only one thing and one thing can’t solve all problems. But I hope it can inspire a whole new generation about this city and this neighborhood.
Where did you get the idea for Air?
Since college, I started having these recurring dreams that took place in a fictional skyscraper in Manhattan. I was there in my dreams after September 11 and after very big personal events. In my dream, it was Manhattan, but it was also mythological. I tried to express this idea for years, and when they asked me to make One Vanderbilt, I immediately clicked. I tried to create a space, in particular with mirrors, which draws something from the visitors and which is a metaphor for the dream canvas. Strangely enough, I haven’t had this recurring dream since I started this project, and it’s been about three years.
SUMMIT opens to the public on October 21. For more information and tickets visit www.summitov.com.