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From Graffiti in the Shadows to Designing an Observation Deck in the Clouds

For much of the pandemic, Midtown Manhattan has struggled. Office buildings have lost their buzz, which has affected local restaurants and other businesses.

But Midtown’s spiky skyline remains, and is even expanding. Now there’s a new way to appreciate it. This week, One Vanderbilt, a new construction at the corner of 42nd Street, will open its observation deck, SUMMIT. From floors 91 through 93, viewers can take in the Art Deco details of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, and if they peer north on a clear day, can catch a glimpse of Bear Mountain, in the Hudson Highlands.

Inside, there is an immersive experience called Air, with mirrors, lights and views of the city hundreds of feet below. It was created by Kenzo, 42, a digital artist known for his collaborations with Beyoncé. The native New Yorker wanted to trigger a deep, emotional connection to the city, he said. “It isn’t just an Instagram background or a spectacle,” he said. “It was built specifically to inspire.” (OK, but it does make for some pretty cool photos).

Ahead of the opening, The New York Times spoke with Kenzo about his newest project. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q. What is your earliest memory of growing up in New York City?

A. I must have been 5. I had locked myself in one of my parent’s friends’ bathrooms in their apartment in TriBeCa, and as a result, we were late to the opening of the retrospective of Nam June Paik, my grandfather’s brother, at the Whitney. I got out and then we arrived at the museum, the old one, and took this elevator that opened into this dark lobby that was covered in this massive 40-TV video installation. I’ve always thought seeing this alternative world after such a frustrating experience had a deep impact on me.

What other parts of the city shaped you?

In middle school, I was a graffiti artist, so I always explored the city in the weird hours between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. It takes you through the city in a different way; you are going through tunnels and train tracks and all these abandoned and forgotten parts of the city. I learned to see the city as an organism — how it moves and connects together — and that’s pretty incredible. I also started realizing how the city can be perceived differently at different times. When you are traversing the world at night and the next day you are part of civilized life going to school, you see all the different worlds in the same space.

You stayed in the city during the pandemic. Why?

I was working on Air. We built this prototype for it in Times Square, and I would bring my friends who were suffering there privately, and they would listen to the music and take in the lights, and they could just be there with their thoughts. I found that it gave them this hopeful, positive feeling, and that inspired me that everyone could feel that way, even on a cursory visit. The possibility of what Air could do for the city was what kept me going.

But even if I didn’t have a project I would have stayed because the city is my source of inspiration. In good times and in bad times I am always connected to it.

Air is at over 1,000 feet and offers the highest observation decks in Midtown. Why do you think skyscrapers are important to the city?

Skyscrapers are the DNA of New York City. They represent the advancements of technology and engineering and the human spirit. But more than that, when you get to see the city from the top of a skyscraper it changes everything. One Vanderbilt, for example, is dead center in the island of Manhattan; it’s like a bull’s-eye. You take that vantage point, and this elevation, and cinematically it’s akin to a static aerial shot of the city. This is the view they use in the movies, and seeing it in real life is really powerful.

In these skyscrapers you are in the middle of everything, and you get to watch a cloud roll over the city and see how that shadow affects people in Chelsea. If you are standing in Chelsea you have no idea you are currently standing in the shadow of a cloud but you can see it up here.

There are so many empty skyscrapers in Midtown. Did the city need a new one?

One Vanderbilt is different. When one of the board members approached me about this project he kind of assumed I wouldn’t be interested. He said, ‘It’s real estate and corporate, and it’s probably not your thing,’ but I was interested. From the top of One Vanderbilt you have a front-row seat to stare at the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building, and these things you’ve seen a million times get a new perspective. Especially at night, all the lights from Midtown and these buildings get absorbed into the space, and it’s romantic and futuristic at the same time.

Do you think Midtown can bounce back or change?

I think the entire city has the ability to come back. I do hope Air can help with that and inject a very aggressive, new energy into the city, but obviously it’s only one thing and one thing can’t solve all the problems. But I hope it can inspire an entirely new generation about this city and this neighborhood.

Where did your idea for Air come from?

Since middle school I started having these recurring dreams that took place in a fictitious skyscraper in Manhattan. I was there in my dreams after Sept. 11 and after really big personal events. In my dream it was Manhattan, but it was also mythological. I’ve been trying to express that idea for years, and when they asked me to do One Vanderbilt it clicked immediately. I tried to create a space, especially with mirrors, that pulls something out of visitors and is a metaphor for the dream canvas. Strangely, I haven’t had that recurring dream since I started this project, and it’s been about three years.

SUMMIT opens to the public on Oct. 21. For more information and tickets, visit www.summitov.com.

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