Reimagining The Empire State Building Observatory

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  • 2021

  • Architectural
    Interior

Designed By:

  • Thinc Design (Experience Design)
  • Beneville Studios (Design Consultant)
  • Ideo (Design Consultant)
  • Corgan (Architect)
  • The Lighting Practice (Lighting Design)

Commissioned By:

Empire State Realty Trust

Designed In:

United States of America

In addition to singular views of New York, the spectacular reimagining of the Empire State Building Observatory now boasts state-of-the-art exhibits about the World’s Most Famous Building and the city around it. The Observatory’s goal was to deliver an authentic, Instagram-ready experience grounded in the building’s history and inherent optimism.


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The new Observatory entry celebrates guests’ arrival at the iconic building. This 24’ high model, nestled in a new grand staircase, marks the beginning of the experience. Model by Archbox. Photo copyright © Evan Joseph
A broad queuing boulevard, flanked by historic and prize-winning photos of the building, provides a gracious way in to ticketing and security. Photo copyright © Evan Joseph
The Observatory Galleries begin with a trip through time, back to 1929 and the original site of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building. Immersive imagery and media by Squint/Opera. Photo copyright © Tom Hennes
The 13-month construction period, which began in April of 1930, comes vividly to life in this surround-sound, scenic and immersive video installation based on famed Louis Hine photographs. Bronze sculptures by Studio Ice. Immersive imagery and media by Squint/Opera. Photo copyright © Evan Joseph
The World’s Most Famous Building shows a sampling of the thousands of films, TV shows, commercials, video games, and comics from all over the world that have featured the building. Media by Squint/Opera. Photo copyright © Tom Hennes
In a vintage 1933 office, high in the Empire State Building, guests have a face-to-face (and hand-to-hand) encounter with Kong himself, who roars at circling biplanes and peers inside. Immersive imagery and media by Squint/Opera. Photo copyright © Tom Hennes
Beneath a sparkling compass rose, guests look through the building’s iconic binoculars, converted to VR stereo viewers, to explore far-flung sights in New York City. Photo copyright © Tom Hennes
The most dramatic change is the 102nd Floor observatory. The elevator and shaft were replaced with glass and the small, historic windows were replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass. Photo copyright © Evan Joseph
  • CHALLENGE
  • SOLUTION
  • IMPACT
  • MORE
  • In 2015, the Empire State Realty Trust began to reimagine the building's famed Observatory. The project would reclaim a street-level storefront on 34th Street to create a dedicated Observatory entrance and change the way over 4 million annual guests experience the building. Research showed that people loved the building and hungered for a deeper connection to it. Long queues and wait times 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 Art Deco building.

  • Working with design consultants Beneville Studios and IDEO, we transformed the least popular part of a visit-the queue-into an immersive museum experience with cinematic-quality films, 360º digital environments, interactive screens, models, photographs, and artifacts depicting the building's history and mystique. Dwell times in each gallery would deliver a measured rate of arrivals at the elevators, reducing and often eliminating a perceptible wait. The 80th floor has been transformed from queuing to an additional observation floor in its own right, delivering spectacular views before arriving at the 86th and 102nd floor observatories, further relaxing the pace of the visit.

  • The reimagined Observatory makes New York's first observation deck the city's most advanced and most desirable, even in the context of increasing competition from other observatories that have entered the market or are about to do so. Studies have shown that visitor appeal has increased significantly, while frustrating wait times have measurably reduced. Prior to Covid-related shutdowns, there were strong indications of growth in the business. In keeping with other modernization throughout (the Empire State Building is among the most energy efficient buildings in New York), all lighting, show, and building systems were converted to highly energy efficient technologies.

  • All Observatory signs and media offer nine languages. The second-floor galleries feature an immersive environment of the building's construction, the movies and media that have featured the building since King Kong, and a full-scale, 4-D encounter with Kong himself. The 80th floor is a transformed Observatory floor in its own right, with digital and physical exhibits to complement its views. The 86th floor now includes improved sightlines, Deco-inspired directional guidance, and new lighting to reduce reflections and improve night vision. The circular 102nd Floor Observatory, newly accessed in a glass elevator, has new floor-to-ceiling windows and vastly improved, unobstructed views.