One World Trade Centre, New York: Views to rival the Empire State Building

Lance Richardson contemplates an astounding view - and a new era for the Big Apple.

In the middle of 2011, I pulled on a hardhat and accepted an invitation to ascend to the 45th floor of One World Trade Centre, which was an open construction site in Lower Manhattan. At the time, that was as high as it went: a heart-stopping, windowless ledge surrounded by steel canyons of skyscrapers. It was hard to believe that the building would double in size during the next three years – or that when it was done, as a guide informed me, you would be able to see the the curvature of Earth from the top.

In mid-May, for Traveller, I accepted an invitation to ascend to the 102nd floor of One World Trade Centre, which is now a functioning office building in Lower Manhattan, home to much of Conde Nast, including Vogue and The New Yorker. It occupies the site where the Twin Towers stood before being destroyed in the September 11 attacks of 2001. It was strange to return. Things look very different now, a flawless assemblage of marble and glass that, if you look up just before you enter the lobby, appears to twist and recede into blue infinity.

I had come to see One World Observatory, a much-awaited eyrie that officially opened at the end of May, promising to rival the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Centre when it comes to views over the city. On paper, the claim sounds delirious: a lookout 381 metres above street-level, offering sight-lines on a clear day that stretch more than 80 kilometres to Princeton in New Jersey. One World Observatory occupies three floors of what is now the tallest building in the western hemisphere. It is reached by an elevator – or Sky Pod, I was directed to call it – that shoots up in 47 seconds, making it the fastest elevator, or Sky Pod, in the world.

But to reach this miraculous Willy Wonka machine, I first had to navigate through the security clearance, and then a "Global Welcome Centre," and then a "Voices" installation, and then a "Foundations" hallway. In other words, I had to endure a less-miraculous obstacle course designed to manage and mollify crowds, like a Disney ride queue.

One example? A great deal of money has been spent on a giant, dynamically generated world map that highlights visitors' hometowns as they scan their tickets. The value of this map is unclear. And while I enjoyed seeing glimpses of video interviews with construction workers and architects who helped build One World Trade Centre, the story they tell is uniformly and effusively positive – "It's about being at the top of the greatest building in America!". This sits at odds with the more interesting reality of the most controversial and complicated building in America.

Why not be honest? It makes the achievement all the more impressive. But back to the elevators, which, after all the opening pomp, are truly something. Three of the walls are screens and, as you step inside, the elevator appears to ascend out of bedrock into a computer-generated time-lapse of New York spanning 500 years (Watch for yourself in the video below). You lift above Native American settlements on a forested Manhattan, which give way to Dutch buildings, which – lifting higher in the elevator – turn English and then American, and then very tall, shooting up around you like fast-growing trees, until One World Trade Centre seems to construct before your eyes and encases you in the modern-day building. The doors spring open. You are left gasping.

Indeed, the ride is so compelling that I wanted to go down and take it again, keeping watch for a glimpse of the old Twin Towers, which appear in 1973 and then blink out, suddenly, in 2001, and are never referred to again anywhere in the entire observatory. "This is meant to be very forward-looking," a spokesman explained, justifying the omission.

Finally, having reached the actual observatory, I am ushered into a long, dark hallway full of moving spotlights and told to wait. Eventually a two-minute video plays that, according to the press material, "was edited and scored to a tempo based on pedometer data of the average New Yorker". Again, it is not clear what the value of this is. As street scenes flashed past I began to wonder, impatiently, where is the view?

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Suddenly, the screen lifted, exposing a glimpse of uptown. And just as your eyes adjust and you begin to look out towards midtown Manhattan, the screen descends barely 20 seconds later – an outrageous tease. You are pushed into another hallway of semi-transparent screens, revealing and concealing the city, which force you to move onwards as you try to see the thing you've paid $40 for and have not yet received clearly.

I mention the price tag here because it is a terrific amount of money, particularly if you're only planning on dining at the restaurant, which still requires the entry fee (a couple will drop $80 before they even sit at a table). The price is also the explanation for what is going on with this digital padding and welcome hoopla.

Fine, but what about the view?

Well, that is very good, I am happy to report, though the diagonal shape of the building in relation to Manhattan means some vistas are better than others. Looking directly uptown, for example, means looking through angled glass. The Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges appear like Meccano sets on the East River; you want to reach out and play with them. And the Woolworth Building, which, in my eyes at least, is somewhat diminished from street level because of recent construction, becomes once again an absolute standout, up there with the Empire State and Chrysler buildings as models of architectural grace.

When I visited this May, I stole away from the crowd and sank down on a windowsill to look out across the bay towards Liberty on her minuscule island. It felt like being inside a celestial control centre, hovering in the clouds. When I visited this building in 2011 and stood on the edge of the 45th floor, I was moved by the thought of what had happened in this place – the dark, besmirched memory of it. But it has outgrown that now. Finally left alone with the view, I was now moved by the thought of what will happen in this place, New York, its ever-changing present and future. It is worth admission for a glimpse of what began in that elevator, now continuing here in real-time. The rest is noise.

One World Observatory is open every day of the year, with extended hours during summer from 9am until midnight. Admission is $40 per adult, $33.50 for children and $38 for seniors. See oneworldobservatory.com.

The writer, who lives in New York, covered the visit at his own expense.

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