Artists Kris Moran and Martin Duffy Describe the Inspiration Behind “Buildings and Blocks”
All New York City dwellers, whether you’ve lived here a lifetime or a limited time, have a relationship with the skyline. Maybe you’ve seen it on a souvenir mug and made it your purpose in life to witness its beauty in person, or perhaps it’s always been your backyard. For millions, it’s been witnessed from the Weather Room at Top of the Rock, where 360-degree views from the 67th floor offer a literal bird’s eye view of the magic and majesty that is the (ever shape-shifting) silhouette of Manhattan.
It’s this grandeur that inspired artists Kris Moran and Martin Duffy’s vision for an installation in the cathedral-like space. “You can’t help but respect that architecture,” says Moran, whose set decoration and production design can be marveled in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, and most recently Todd Phillips’s Joker, which earned her a BAFTA nomination.
“What fills this space has to honor as well as compete with what everyone is seeing outside, often for the first time. It’s a tall order,” says Duffy, a creative director and designer whose penchant for graphic simplicity can be seen in global brands — like Halston, Reebok, and Cover Girl — as well as physical spaces.
BUILDINGS AND BLOCKS — on view in the Weather Room at Top of the Rock — is the result of Moran and Duffy’s meditation on interpreting cityscapes. The installation, which consists of three ceiling-height towers of black-and-white striped geometric blocks, leaves a towering impression (pun intended). “In interpreting the space and its surroundings, we had the idea to whittle down the iconic skyline down to its most basic, essential pieces: building blocks,” says Duffy. “It’s a nostalgic element.”
“From there, it got really fun,” says Moran. The singular monochrome pillars perfectly mimic the types of whimsical creations you’d dream up and construct as a child using Fisher-Price Baby Blocks or Lincoln Logs, though perhaps more sculptural and abstract. The base of each tower features a base guests can sit on while visiting Top of the Rock, and additional moveable, interactive blocks (“the pieces you’d scrap from your childhood block tower,” explains Moran) are available for relaxing and taking in the perch’s breathtaking views.
The impetus for making this installation interactive was due, in part, to the artists observing human behavior in the Weather Room, something they each know a thing or two about as designers of physical spaces. “Because people aren’t stopping in coffee shops as much during the pandemic; we wanted to give visitors a respite in their day while being able to take in these incredible surroundings,” says Moran.
“It’s also fun for us to watch people question the boundaries of interacting with these pieces and see the look of ‘can I actually pick these up?’ on their faces,” says Duffy. The striped cloth-covered towers, set against the pristine structure of the space evoking that of The Met just up the road, only heightened the experience of the installation, the artists noted.
For Moran and Duffy, who’ve known each other since college, BUILDINGS AND BLOCKS marks a major leap for their collaborative endeavors, which only began as the pandemic brought many creative industries to a screeching halt. “We speak the same [creative] language,” says Moran, adding that this project with Rockefeller Center marked their first in-person project after endless months of working over Zoom. “We have no fear of presenting ideas to one another, and that fearlessness is freedom,” says Duffy.
That freedom led the duo’s respective minds to reach as high as they wanted, so to speak, a luxury they say is not always afforded when working with clients or on projects with specific briefs and requirements. “When I’m working on a movie, I often have to think about a character’s needs,” says Duffy. For the Top of the Rock installation, however, the pair had the liberty to fill the entire space. And fill it they did, with the 2D graphic prints acting almost as a placeholder for the viewer’s imagination to run wild (Duffy’s influence) and the 3D blocks suspending one’s disbelief that they’re precariously stacked and, if provoked, could topple at any moment (Moran’s influence).
“It’s amazing to see people immediately run toward it with enthusiastic confusion,” says Duffy. “It’s working!” adds Moran.