Tourists view New York from the One World Trade Center observation deck.
Connie Zhou Tourists view New York from the One World Trade Center observation deck.

The motto of One World Observatory, which opened in late May atop One World Trade Center, is “See Forever.” It’s a lovely sentiment. The view from the public viewing area that occupies floors 100 through 102 (admission price $32, or $90 if you want “expedited” entry on a weekend) is as expansive as you might imagine. But seeing isn’t exactly the point, not to the operator of the observation deck, Legends Hospitality, a concessionaire owned in part by the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys.

The business of observation decks has lately embraced the contrived concept of “experience.” One World Observatory, according to a case study issued by the project team—which includes the New York–based architecture firm Montroy Andersen DeMarco Group Inc. (MADGI), known for its work on “rooftop amenities,” and the Hettema Group, theme-park experts based in Pasadena, Calif.—follows an “experience pathway.” MADGI principal Richard DeMarco, AIA, describes it this way: “It’s a machine. You come in. You experience. You go through it. You come out.”

Monitors at One World display local landmarks
Connie Zhou Monitors at One World display local landmarks

A visit to the observatory goes like this: You work your way through a dense tangle of lines. You eventually enter through a glowing portal in one of the tower’s basements, go through security, wend your way past a video montage of workers describing the thrill of constructing the tower, commune briefly with bedrock, and enter the elevators, which are the complex’s most remarkable feature: As you rocket up you are immersed in a computer-generated fantasia of New York City’s development from the arrival of the Dutch to the present. (On the trip back down, you’re treated to a CGI tour of the new World Trade Center complex. It’s an oddly disorienting experience, because as you’re speeding toward the ground within an elevator shaft, you get stunning, simulated glimpses of the tower’s exterior. It’s a presto chango perspective that not even John Portman, FAIA, with his craziest glass elevators could conjure.)

Up top, the space is divided into three floors. You step off the elevator on the 102nd floor and are routed into a long narrow room, the “See Forever Theater,” where you watch your basic welcome-to-New-York-City movie: fast cuts, bright lights. When the screen rises at the end, you get what MAGDI principal Daniel Montroy, AIA, calls the “reveal”: a wall of glass. It’s the first view (predominantly of Brooklyn) on the pathway. From there you can ride the escalators down to the restaurant and bar, on the 101st floor, and the main observation level, on the 100th floor. Skidmore, Owings & Merill, the tower’s designer, had initially intended the 102nd floor to be the restaurant and the other two floors a double-height observatory. During the proposal phase, however, MADGI rejiggered that arrangement and crafted one triple-height space with the restaurant sort of hovering in the middle. Some areas of the deck have big, dramatic three-story windows, and some areas are squeezed above or below the dining. While the arrangement clearly maximizes the amount of rentable event space, it undercuts the architectural drama.

Conspicuously absent from the narrative at One World Observatory? The site’s previous buildings. As Phil Hettema, president and creative director of the Hettema Group, explained in the case study: “The Observatory had to tell the right part of the story. … This project, particularly the Observatory experience, is about looking forward.” But all I could think about as I walked around were the Twin Towers. The last time I visited Top of the World, as the former WTC’s observation deck was known, I reviewed a 1997 renovation that turned it into a New York–themed attraction featuring a cafeteria with subway inspired décor and a ride that simulated a Manhattan helicopter tour. “You can go anywhere and see a lot of buildings,” said one of the ex-Imagineers responsible for the renovation. “People are very sophisticated now. They’ve been to Disneyland, Universal Studios, and IMAX.”

The requisite photo op at One World
Connie Zhou The requisite photo op at One World

Fortunately, the compulsion to turn observation decks into themed attractions has diminished since the 1990s. The procession and “experience” of the deck remains carefully choreographed, and electronic gadgetry de rigueur. (Get your picture taken against a virtual skyline!) But the prevailing theory right now in deck management is that there’s a little Philippe Petit in all of us, a latent desire to test the awesomeness of these supertall buildings.

There’s a fierce competition among developers to build the highest observation deck—currently Dubai’s Burj Khalifa holds the title at 1,821 feet—and supply the most spine-tingling sensation. Some of this is simply because of the sheer number of skyscrapers that are being erected around the world, some of it is because of the profitability of decks. Charles V. Bagli, in a 2011 New York Times article, reported that the Empire State Building’s deck complex earned $60 million in profits in 2010, while the building’s office rentals “made little if any money.” Similarly, when it was announced in March that the Blackstone Group would be buying Chicago’s Willis (née Sears) Tower for $1.3 billion, the Chicago Tribune reported that one of the reasons was the Skydeck, which “reaped about $25 million in admissions revenue in 2014, an amount that has been climbing annually.” At One World Observatory, the anticipated annual attendance is 3.8 million. Multiply by $32 and you’ve got revenues of roughly $121 million on admissions alone.

View from observation deck in the One World Trade Center in New York.
Connie Zhou View from observation deck in the One World Trade Center in New York.

Carol Willis, director and curator of the Skyscraper Museum in Lower Manhattan, argues that what’s happening today is a replay of what transpired at the dawn of the skyscraper age in New York, when each new building had a novel spire and a viewing platform available to an enthusiastic public. “It’s far more prestigious to have a private space” atop a tall building,” Willis says. Consider the 1,971-foot-tall Makkah Clock Royal Tower in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which is topped by a crescent shaped prayer room available only to members of the Saudi royal family. But, she continues, “Buildings are businesses. They’re planned to be rent producers. If the value is the greatest at the top, monetize the top by mass tourism.” Willis does see a deeper value in allowing public access to such exalted space: “I think its best when everyone can go to the top. It’s a democratizing experience.”

David Malott, AIA, a principal architect at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) and chair of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, puts it this way: “If you’re going to build the tallest, or one of the tallest buildings in a city, there is a social or civic responsibility that comes along with that.”

Connie Zhou

For the sweet spot where contrived tourist magnet meets the sublime, consider Chicago’s Ledge, which SOM added to the Skydeck at its Willis Tower in 2009. Designed by Ross Wimer, FAIA, now at AECOM, and the engineering firm Halcrow Yolles, the Ledge is a series of glass balconies that jut out from the 103rd floor of the tower and appear—through structural sleight of hand—to more or less float. More than anything I’ve done since I foolishly climbed construction rigging to the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal, standing on the glass floor 1,300 feet above Chicago frightened me. The Ledge made me sense, physically, the extreme scale of the skyscraper. Or, as Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin told me at the time, the Ledge is a source of “frisson,” excitement commingled with pleasure. To step out onto the glass, he suggested, is “to dance with the possibility of structural failure.”

There is so much more frisson still to come. Indeed, Malott mentions one of his current projects, the Ping An Finance Centre, a 2,165-foot-tall insurance company headquarters in Shenzhen, China. “It’s a private building,” says Malott, “but we convinced them to put in observation decks. We cantilevered out triangular bay windows on each façade, with the glass-bottom floor.” The idea is to offer the same, unsettling experience as the Willis Ledge, but given the sheer number of glass-floored alcoves, “the observation experience becomes quite personalized.”

Meanwhile, the Shanghai Tower, by Gensler, is nearing completion and will have a deck 20 feet higher than the Burj Khalifa’s. And rising in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom Tower, designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture specifically to shatter records, has a 2,000-foot-high observation deck that cantilevers out from the insanely skinny tower like a giant serving tray. Closer to home, KPF’s 30 Hudson Yards, on Manhattan’s Far West Side, will have an observation deck on the 75th floor that, reportedly, incorporates a “thrill device.” Says Malott, “I can’t give too much detail on that, except that [developer] Steve Ross has said that it will be the most frightening experience one can imagine.”

One World's café
Connie Zhou One World's café

My most profound observation deck experience in recent years involved neither frisson nor a predetermined experience pathway. On the same trip to Chicago that took me to the Ledge, I decided that I also needed to visit another classic SOM tower, the 1,128-foot-tall John Hancock Center. The observatory there was lovely, with stunning views of an azure Lake Michigan and a south-facing wall that was nothing but open mesh; the view over the Magnificent Mile was accompanied by a pleasant breeze. Unlike the Willis Skydeck, which was jam-packed, Big John’s observatory was unexpectedly tranquil.

That changed, however. Gensler and a French observation deck specialist called the Montparnasse 56 Group have transformed the sleepy 94th floor into an attraction called 360 Chicago. Michael Gatti, AIA, a principal architect who runs Gensler’s lifestyle studio in New York, explained his redesign using an analogy to Burberry, the raincoat maker that’s lately begun to exploit its trademark plaids to sell things like swimsuits: “The view is the trench coat,” says Gatti. “Then we had to come up with the bikini, if you will.”

The “bikini” in this case is a moving glass box, engineered by Thornton Tomasetti, that allows eight people at a time to be gently angled toward the ground from the Hancock façade. It’s a bit like BASE jumping ... without the jump. Tilt, as it’s called, has replaced one section of Hancock’s open-air mesh wall. It’s been such a success, Gatti tells me, that the Montparnasse 56 Group is considering installing a second Tilt and getting rid of the mesh altogether.

The Sky Portal
Connie Zhou The Sky Portal

The sleepy, unmediated observation deck experience is, I’m sorry to say, a thing of the past. Or as Kamin wrote to me in a recent email: “You’ve got to be able to interact with the observation deck, to feel the danger associated with being more than 1,000 feet up.”

This brings up an obvious problem for One World Observatory, given the tragic events that preceded it. Any hint of danger is unacceptable. The single oddest aspect of the deck seems like an attempt to tackle this dilemma. There’s a round platform on the 100th floor called the Sky Portal. Basically, it’s a Ledge manqué, a glass floor that purports to show you the city directly below your feet. Only what’s directly below One World are the other 99 stories of the building. So the portal’s view is of a video feed. There is not even the illusion of danger. The tourists, as you might expect, tend to ignore the thing and do what they came to do: peer out the windows. The lesson here—that a genuine view still tops an ersatz experience—is, I guess, a heartening one.

The Sky Portal, which doesn't even offer the illusion of danger
Connie Zhou The Sky Portal, which doesn't even offer the illusion of danger