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Just Look Up: Skygazing Viewpoints at Rockefeller Center

By The Center Magazine StaffJul 30 2021

Daily life in the city often centers around a perspective that’s roughly eye-level and human-sized. But with the tilt of your head, a different version of the city comes into view. This simple shift transforms the bustling streetscapes of New York City into a dramatic skyscape. At Rockefeller Center in particular, art and architectural details that may have gone unnoticed come into focus as tall buildings punctuate the atmosphere with rhythmic geometry and sleek edges.

Keep your head up, New York

Here are some of the best places around Rockefeller Center to turn your gaze skyward and rediscover the city with fresh, wondering eyes:

1. Atlas, 630 Fifth Avenue

Atlas is one of the most iconic sculptures at Rockefeller Center, representative of the Art Deco style of the complex. Follow your eyes from the chunky toes to the furrowed brow of this muscly bronze Titan and you’ll spot the skyward-reaching upper floors of 45 Rockefeller Plaza, framed in the openwork of his 21-foot-wide globe, whose axis points to the North Star. Trees on neighboring Rockefeller Center building rooftops and terraces sway in the breeze. Viewing this work by artists Lee Lawrie and Rene Paul Chambellan from the other side, the Neo-Gothic twin spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral across buzzing Fifth Avenue peek through the giant orb, like a living time capsule of mythological proportions.

2. Industries of the British Empire, above 620 Fifth Avenue’s entrance

Nine allegorical figures, solid and glinting like a box of gold-foil-wrapped chocolates, appear above the entrance at 620 Fifth Avenue, forming a panel titled Industries of the British Empire. Created by the atelier of sculptor Carl Paul Jennewein, the gilded cast-bronze figures represent the British Empire’s primary income sources: salt, coal, tobacco, wheat, fish, wool, cotton, and sugar, from India, the British Isles, Australia, Canada, and Africa, respectively, the result of colonization.

3. News, above 50 Rockefeller Plaza’s entrance

This massive bas-relief sculpture by Isamu Noguchi was rendered in gleaming silver stainless steel and set into the wall of a building formerly occupied by the Associated Press. News features five angular figures forming a tight cluster of journalistic motion, typing, scribbling, talking on a phone—you can almost hear the cacophony of their newsroom in the air.

4. Prometheus, The Rink

Like a precious object emerging from the sunken jewel box of The Rink, the Titan god Prometheus glides across the smooth form of Mount Olympus. Circled by a zodiac ring, he holds a fireball aloft in his hand, a gift for mankind that he stole from the gods, as the story goes. Even under a gray sky, the 8-ton, 20-foot-long gilded bronze sculpture by sculptor Paul Manship emanates a heavenly radiance. When dense clouds split apart and sunbeams break through, the scene lights up in a blaze of astonishing brilliance. No wonder it’s the most photographed monumental sculpture in New York City.

5. Wisdom, above 30 Rockefeller Plaza’s main entrance

This mystical allegorical work, featuring polychromed limestone and 240 cast-glass bricks, was made by Atlas sculptor Lee Lawrie with colorist Leon V. Solon. From a vantage point at the center of one of the pathways bisecting the Channel Gardens, the work is framed in a profusion of lush greenery, currently humming with summertime life. Drawn in by the imposing angle and stern expression of Wisdom, people pause on the sidewalk to snap photos. Up close, next to the revolving doors of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, a look upwards catches the figure’s chiseled gaze, haloed in gold-rimmed scalloped clouds, his squiggly beard flowing.

6. Intelligence Awakening Mankind, above 1260 Avenue of the Americas entrance

The stylish two-tiered marquee for The Tonight Show shines through the hubbub of Sixth Avenue with promises of imminent entertainment, backed by artist Barry Faulkner’s expansive glittering mosaic. Intelligence Awakening Mankind is a monument to the potential of knowledge to triumph over ignorance, thus fueling the progress of humankind. Designed in 1933, it’s one of the more intricate pieces of art installed around Rockefeller Center, with over one million pieces of hand-cut glass tiles, in 250 different colors. As mustard-yellow taxis zip by, vendors squeeze squiggles of condiments onto pretzels and hot dogs, and pigeons bob along the sidewalk, this piece stands proudly above it all, creating a magnificent backdrop to everyday New York City streetlife.

Feeling inspired to explore? Discover more artworks around Rockefeller Center’s campus.

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