Rockwell Group and LAB at Rockwell Group accomplish a feat of luxurious seamless storytelling “magic” for the Hudson Yards Experience Center using interactive technology—and powerful teamwork.
You may have heard something about Hudson Yards. The ongoing private redevelopment project is the largest in United States history and in New York City since Rockefeller Center, encompassing 28 acres of mixed-use space with planned commercial, residential, retail and park spaces. Part of the project’s appeal is that the neighborhood will be built entirely on a platform over a rail yard, utilizing new engineering techniques and technologies in what Related Companies, the leading developer on the project, calls the “first post-digital neighborhood.”
The first building to open was 10 Hudson Yards, which is home to companies like SAP, Coach and L’Oreal, as well as the Hudson Yards Experience Center. The Experience Center is the venue for residential sales for the 15 Hudson Yards building. Due for completion in 2018, 15 Hudson Yards will contain numerous amenities in addition to 285 luxury condominiums of the total 4,000 residences in the entire neighborhood plan.
The Hudson Yards Experience Center needed to be a show-stopping brand gallery to support sales of the multi-million dollar residences. Bloomberg.com reports Related Companies’ senior vice president of sales, Sherry Tobak, as saying, "We are selling here not just a building—we are selling a lifestyle, a new neighborhood. To get that message across to our buyers, it is important to bring them through an entire experience."
Related had worked with David Rockwell and Rockwell Group in the past, so they asked them to pitch a concept for the Experience Center. The pitch was selected and both the Rockwell Group and LAB at Rockwell Group studios were brought onto the project. The genesis of the project was a sales and marketing-related need to create a memorable first impression for potential residential real estate buyers interested in the new development, but also a desire to tell the larger story of Hudson Yards in a very dynamic way using the latest technology with a luxurious feel.
The project unfolded over two-and-a-half years, with six months spent on developing and distilling the dense and complicated narrative of Hudson Yards—no small task when the subject is not yet built. The project was comprised of three major components: the story, the space and the experience. Rockwell Group dedicated teams of architects, interior designers and a team from LAB consisting of motion designers, digital designers, technologists and producers to the project, in addition to a copywriter, who was critical to the strategic narrative development.
For the design team, it became critical that the processes of story, space and experience design went hand-in-hand. The team was highly cooperative, working through hurdles like narrowing and sequencing the messaging for maximal impact or technology incorporation, together as a unit. Atypical though it might have been, the seamless integration of concept, technology and finish could only come from all of the smaller teams coming together to make collective decisions.
During the research phase, the design team visited several different sales centers, working closely with the clients, Related Companies and Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, whose knowledge of their audience was indispensable and drove the overall tone of the customer experience. They wanted a journey that could be tailored to the individual customer by the brokers, within the larger context of the entire center.
“You’re essentially asking people to believe in something years before it exists,” Inessah Selditz, creative director at LAB at Rockwell Group describes the ask, “It’s a really big challenge.” Selditz brings a unique perspective to the project due to her experience working with luxury brands in the fashion magazine business; she clearly sees the emotional pull that great storytelling can create and has the skills as an interaction designer to bring those stories to life in the environment.
The design itself wasn’t exceptionally challenging for Rockwell Group, who’ve been designing brand environments for over 30 years. “The process of distilling the complicated story into its most important parts really unlocked the design of the experience,” says Selditz. “It was the momentum that was vital to this project.” The development of storylines for the project led to systemic and limited considerations, from flipping the entire floorplan to begin with a view of the city, to the type of glass used on the surfaces.
Iteration, testing and prototyping played a significant role in the project’s progress. The design team was hyper-aware of the fact that a weak link in design, finish or usability could bring the whole experience down, so they pored over decisions like the glare, weight and color of the glass and acrylic. Architects, technologists and interior designers sat down together looking at samples to ensure absolute integration of all elements of the experience.
At the heart of what Rockwell Group does is theater design, which gives their user journey work a sense of procession and emotion that is evident in the Hudson Yards Experience Center. As visitors exit the elevator, they enter a long corridor, walking through a grand set of double doors that expose an opulent reception space with sweeping views of the southern coastline, High Line and Chelsea. The vista provides visitors a relaxing moment of arrival, before they continue to further surprises.
The brand gallery, hidden behind a set of pocket doors, is what Selditz describes as a “ta-da moment.” The doors recede to reveal a beautiful room influenced by the luxurious urban interiors and chic art galleries of Chelsea’s cultural scene. Four stations tell the story, starting with a celebration of the “Cultural Coast,” dubbed as such by Related because of the relationship of Hudson Yards and the Culture Shed to Chelsea, the High Line, the Whitney and the gallery district.
The first station provides an overview of the Hudson Yards development. A large digital panoramic triptych mimics the horizontal of the coastline. At first glance, visitors discover a timeline of Hudson Yards on the water shot from New Jersey to custom-fit the panoramic scene. A model of the neighborhood complements the content on the screen, using buttons to cue lighting, video and generative content on the glass and LCD fitted table underneath the physical model.
The second area of the experience center, directly behind the triptych screen, includes an oversized site model that references the Hudson Yards master plan. The client group wanted to showcase how important the mix of creative excellence was to their goals, while celebrating the work of the talented individuals contributing to the community, so behind the model a large display introduces the renowned architects, designers and craftspeople that are working on the project, showing snippets of their portfolios. The interactive screen content is deployed using a custom web interface, connected to a central CMS.
The third section is the “Lifestyle Gallery” where visitors can discover some of the neighborhood’s features, services and residential benefits. The space is brightly lit, glossy and bedecked with framed mirrored surfaces, which can be activated by the touch of one of four golden objects on the central table. Each unlocks a different story about Hudson Yards, from dining and culture to shopping and wellness. This effect is achieved using kinect sensors and interactive graphics created in Cinder. “The room is completely transformed at the touch of an object—that’s not a typical way to tell a story, but we thought it was the most magical way to involve visitors,” remarks Selditz.
The last station is the “360 Room,” a round room entirely dedicated to the public green spaces of the development, which will encompass 14 acres. At the touch of a screen, the projection-mapped display is transformed from ambient mode into an active journey through video renderings of the various parks in Hudson Yards, from the connection to the High Line and center plaza to the top of the Heatherwick structure. The goal of this experience was to convey a feeling of being transported into the lush landscaping that will be an integral part of the Hudson Yards community in a few years.
The experiential voyage concludes with a trip through model apartments and to closing suites, outfitted with additional web-based content built by the LAB team. Throughout the space, consideration was paid to how brokers will lead customers through the space, including keeping storytelling options handy and content-related sound to a minimum.
The holistically designed combination of story, space and experience at the Experience Center has been a resounding success from both the client and design sides. Related Companies reported an inquiry list numbering in the thousands and months of fully booked walkthroughs. The design team is particularly proud of their work on a brand experience center, which they haven’t yet seen a parallel to.
Selditz says she thinks there is increasing pressure for businesses to become either more service-oriented or more engaging storytellers, forcing more creative collaboration. “If it’s not service, it’d better be story,” she continues. “I think a lot of industries are looking to incorporate elements of technology, experience and story into one space and the Hudson Yards Experience Center was an example of how that could work. It speaks to a certain team, communication, capability and the power of storytelling.”
Project Name: Hudson Yards Experience Center
Client: Related Companies
Location: New York
Open Date: September 2016
Project Area:18,000 sq ft
Interactive Experience Design: LAB at Rockwell Group
Architect: Rockwell Group
Fabrication/Digital Integration: SenovvA (AV), New Project (Fabrication)
Collaborators: Focus Lighting
Photos: Nikolas Koenig (photography); Brian Choi, Arthur Woo (videography); Related Companies (maps)