What You’re Really Seeing From the 100th Floor of One World Trade Center

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The view from One World Observatory.Photo: Spencer Platt/2015 Getty Images

On the dark afternoon of December 20, 1932, Berenice Abbott took the elevator to one of the highest man-made points in the world in order to chronicle a completely new sight. The Empire State Building was 19 months old, and from a very high floor, Abbott beheld the city of towers from above. She left her shutter open for 15 minutes during that fleeting stretch between sunset and 5 p.m., when she knew that office workers would start to click off their lights. Her wait in the cold, windless air yielded the famous Nightview, New York — the ultimate modern vision, blending stillness and movement, regimentation and sublimity. Hundreds of foreshortened towers shoot up toward the camera, each one a grid of luminous little squares, each square a person about to go home. 

I thought of that photograph when I stood on the 100th-floor observation deck of One World Trade Center, where the Empire State Building looks immeasurably distant and yet close enough for me to reach out and snap off its skinny little spire. Every vista comes with a point of view. To look out over a great, complicated metropolis is to give meaning to landscape, to press a panorama into the service of an argument. Think of the photographer Iwan Baan’s stunning helicopter photo of lower Manhattan darkened by Hurricane Sandy (taken for the cover of this magazine): It’s a parable of resilience, the 21st-century answer to Abbott’s celebration of modern existence. The bright city may have lost its gleam for a moment, but it will never completely flare out.

Legends, a company that manages skyboxes and stadiums and now runs the World Trade Center observation deck, has turned the view into a high-tech spectacular. Before you get a glimpse of an actual place, you follow a winding path through cheesy synthetic bedrock; ride an elevator where 500 years of an ever-changing New York unfold as if seen from a rising balloon — wooden farmhouses giving way to brick, cast iron, terra-cotta, and glass; and watch a two-minute multiscreen montage of cabbies, crowds, and subways. Then the screens lift like curtains, and voilà, behind all that razzle-dazzle, spread out before you in all its weighty three-dimensionality, is … well, on a foggy day, nothing much, actually. But I had the good luck to visit on one of those soft, perfect afternoons when a light haze purpled the Catskills and flattered the sharp contours of midtown. The theatricals serve to palliate the $32 admission and encourage people to feel they are doing something more exciting than just gazing out the window. They also help distract from the fact that this view is the one that people saw through shattered windows on September 11, 2001 — the one that dozens jumped into rather than face the flames.

Why will millions come here? Partly because a view is power, a form of majestic surveillance. To gaze is to own. If I were in a position to buy a $100 million view in a residential tower, I might be annoyed that the hoi polloi can rent one so cheaply. We also look at cityscapes for the same reason we study the heavens: to savor immensity. I found it comforting a few summers ago to lie on the still-warm asphalt of a desert road in Utah at midnight, trying to organize the swarm of stars with the help of an astronomical iPad app. I had a similar urge atop the World Trade Center, to caption landmarks with my own experiences. There is the rooftop terrace where I had a wind-whipped drink with a friend the other night. Far to the right is the section of Queens I lived in almost 20 years back. Below me, a human flyspeck is crossing the same street I crossed an hour ago. And somewhere out there where buildings dissolve into gray and brown smudges is my home.

A view gives the illusion of omniscience. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo brings the reader up to the cathedral’s roof to summon a view of Paris in 1482. “The spectator who arrived, panting, at this pinnacle, saw a dazzling abundance of roofs, chimneys, streets, bridges, squares, and clock towers. Everything drew to the eye at once …” Hugo leads the reader over a 30-page excursion, landmark by landmark, neighborhood by neighborhood, building up a virtuosically detailed portrait of a city that is simultaneously sweeping and minute. He lays out before the reader the glorious immensity of an ancient capital, in which every bird’s chirp and street-corner conversation accumulates into “a symphony that produces the noise of a tempest.” Hugo’s description reads like the verbal version of a CGI-enhanced movie in which objects moving deep into the background maintain their HD clarity.

Real life presents a trade-off between distance and detail. You can spot an upper-story window a few blocks away and gauge its height and distance accurately. Pick a point on the horizon, though, and you have no way of knowing whether it’s one, five, or 20 miles away. Your sense of depth disappears. There’s nothing quite like comparing a cartographic city view with an actual map to make it clear that both of them lie a little. From where I stand, the Empire State Building stands hip-to-hip with 432 Park Avenue. They are more than 20 blocks apart. But the view also tells me what a map neglects to mention: that you could practically string a zip line between the Woolworth Building and Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street; that the spaces between buildings are cushioned in foliage; that New York is a sublime assemblage of mostly ugly buildings; that the natural beauty of its waterways endures.

The urge to see everything at the same time has often intruded into art. Sometime around 1600, El Greco followed a mule track into the hills around the Spanish city of Toledo, watching the way its buildings spilled down the ravines. No one perspective corresponded to his ideal of his adopted city, with its ecstatic steepness and religious intensity. So he made one up. For his famous View of Toledo, he whipped up a divine lightning storm, switched the location of the Alcázar and the cathedral to heighten the drama of the composition, and invented a compound across the river as a monastic retreat for the city’s patron saint. The World Trade Center, too, engages in viewpoint multiplication. An extra $15 here will rent you an iPad mapped with 40 landmarks. Touch one, and the camera swoops low over the city, zooming in on, say, Zabar’s or Yankee Stadium, with a ten-second description by Jay McInerney. And visitors can stand on a circular “window” in the floor, and look past their feet to the traffic on West Street 1,300 feet below. Except that they’re really standing on solid concrete, looking at a live camera feed projected on a screen.

Yet I still need something more. At this altitude I want to feel like I’m still tethered to Earth, that I can connect with the sidewalks I have left behind. What I really crave is the physical equivalent of Google Earth, the ability to hover and then glide down, the updraft whistling through my hair, until I can touch a stone lion’s paw and smell the gyro frying. And then, immediately, I’d spiral back into the atmosphere, rocketing past the skyline while I keep my eyes glued to that block, that storefront, wanting to be at once aloof and present, to keep everything always clear.

One World Observatory at One World Trade Center opened May 29.

*This article appears in the June 1, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.