In 2015, the Empire State Building’s owner, Empire State Realty Trust, began a spectacular reimagining of the building’s famed Observatory. The project arose from an opportunity to reclaim street-level space on the building’s 34th Street storefront to create, for the first time, a dedicated Observatory entrance. This opened the possibility to completely change the way over 4 million annual guests experience the building.
Winner- Global Future Design Awards 2020
Firm | Thinc Design
Architect/Designer | Tom Hennes
Category | Cultural Built
Team | Exhibition Planning and Design: Thinc Design; Design Consultant: Beneville Studios, Michael Beneville; Design Consutant: IDEO, Dominic Tan; Owner’s Representative: JLL, Bob Krizman; Media Designer: Squint/Opera, Callum Cooper; Architect: Corgan, Robert Duran; Lighting Consultant: The Lighting Practice, Al Borden
Country | United States
Photographer/Copyright | ©Tom Hennes, Evan Joseph
Research showed that people from around the world had immense affection for the building. They hungered for a deeper connection to it, were curious about its history, and thought of it as a starting point to get to know New York. But, though they loved the view, they experienced long queues and tedious wait times that diminished the experience.
The project would have to completely change both the reality and perception of the wait, while improving every aspect of the experience. It would have to be cutting-edge, while respecting the vintage Deco building.
The new entrance celebrates guests’ arrival and includes gracious ticketing and security areas, with the near-elimination of zig-zag queue ‘snakes.’ Its two floors are joined by a stainless-steel grand stairway that ascends around a spectacular, 24-foot tall model of the building, which now marks the spectacular beginning of the experience.
The second-floor queue areas were converted to immersive galleries that begin with the site just before the old Waldorf Astoria was demolished to make room for the building. The black-and-white scene comes to life through custom VR surveyor’s levels. The 13-month construction period becomes a surround-sound and video experience at full scale (4 floors a week!). Vintage elevator machinery is reanimated alongside a dizzying view of an open elevator shaft (is it real?). A multi-screen theatre shows movies, TV shows, cartoons, and comics that have featured the building, beginning with King Kong. And around the corner, guests enter a full-scale encounter with Kong himself, while the giant ape fends off circling biplanes and peers inside.
The 80th floor, once simply a queue between elevator banks, is now an Observatory floor in its own right. With views in all directions, it offers a chance to plan a digital itinerary of New York, developed with NYC & Co, New York City’s tourist agency. Another exhibit focuses on the lighting of the building at night. The building’s iconic binoculars, modified as high-resolution VR viewers, show far-flung attractions across the city—within a windowed corner that is wallpapered with a commissioned artwork showing the whole of New York, from famed memory artist Stephen Wiltshire.
The 86th Floor Observatory now includes more spacious viewing galleries, improved sightlines, glistening Art Deco details, and soft, violet lighting that improves night vision while supporting selfie photography.
A final adventure begins with a glass elevator rising through the inside of the building’s iconic mooring mast to the circular 102nd Floor Observatory, 1250 feet above the city. With new, floor-to-ceiling windows and the removal of every possible obstruction, this renewed crown jewel offers unequalled 360-degree views of New York City.