Architecture Review: 550 Madison Avenue

The redesigned ground floor lobby at 550 Madison Avenue.

The redesigned ground floor lobby at 550 Madison Avenue.
Photo: Frederick Charles

How do you protect the quality of strangeness? Eccentricity, like innovation, is absorbed and normalized, or else degenerates into self-caricature. Rarely does anyone or anything remain oddly endearing. And yet, four decades after Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 550 Madison Avenue was wrapped to reveal a pink stone standing stone with a fancy hat, the tower still radiates an ironic, obnoxious, and unmistakably New York personality. Fresh out of an attempt to give it some generic respectability, the 550 Madison (aka the AT&T Building, Sony Building, and “Chippendale Tower”) manages to retain its monumental awkwardness.

This result was not guaranteed. When the Olayan Group purchased the building in 2016, the company considered a more drastic renovation. Snøhetta architecture studio offered to remove the stone from the lower floors and exposing the steel braces to maximize daylight. This would have effectively given the building a Halloween skeleton costume, masking its street-level identity by displaying its internal structure. The design was met with contempt and alarm and quickly retracted. Instead, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, with support from Olayan, designated the tower in 2018, ensuring a more sensible approach.

The LPC is just beginning to take into account the legacy of postmodernism, but it is not always easy to take an ironic movement seriously. The commission declined to protect the AT&T Building’s lobby, interiors, annex, or public space, all of which have been repurposed (or eliminated) as a corporate headquarters into an rental property. The result is a mix of respect and betrayal, with the original concept forcibly split into its constituent parts. It’s a difficult compromise, but I can accept it. The building is more livable (and commendable) now, and while comfort has come at the expense of artistic coherence, it has also ensured an eccentric building for several decades of life.

Convention, law and economics often combine to divide architecture into exterior and interior domains. A firm designs the facade, a specialist maps the fittings and a third adorns the lobby. These divisions can be as arbitrary as having one baker responsible for the crust and another for the crumb. Johnson saw his building as a whole loaf of bread. The porthole window of the arcade corresponded to the circular opening of the crown. The whimsical yet heavy pink granite continues from the facade into the lobby, where it takes the form of a Romanesque archway. The interplay of black and white circles and squares on the lobby’s marble floor evoked the patterned floors of Italian Renaissance churches. (For the new iteration, Gensler tore them up and reproduced traces of them in cheaper terrazzo.)

Were all the sacramental touches – the porch, the arch, the nave and the aisles, with a sort of cloister at the back – an ironic reference to the ubiquity of AT&T in American life? Or did they more broadly represent a return to the fundamentals of architecture? The question is moot, since the link between structure and detail has been broken. Both the original lobby and the sky lobby are gone, and with them Johnson’s gloomy sense of grandeur. He had made the hall an antechamber worthy of a small empire: a modern hypostyle equipped with structurally superfluous columns. The high-ceilinged space, dominated by AT&T’s tall “Golden Boy” statue, managed to be majestic and claustrophobic at the same time. Gensler moderated the oppression while retaining traces of threat. The walls are lined with a bronzed wire mesh that could be mistaken for a coat of mail. The crown circle also yielded a new work by Alicja Kwade: a 24-ton bluish stone sphere suspended from the vaulted ceiling like a planet of Damocles. Kwade may not have intended the piece to represent a world on the verge of oblivion, but it certainly does.

On the seventh floor, in what used to be called the Sky Lobby and is now the club level – but still serves as an elevator junction – the Rockwell band made darkness a virtue that Snøhetta hoped to dilute. There are a few more windows now, but even so, bronzed steel, wood paneling, mood lighting, and a fireplace in a freestanding pod give the common areas a cocoon-like warmth. Johnson and Burgee’s version of this floor extended the lobby’s geometric games; telephone company employees changed elevators amid a profusion of freestanding stone portals, lintels and arches. All of this has been summed up in the circle, which appears everywhere, as ubiquitous as a logo. A mobile with translucent globes hangs from the ceiling. Dorothea Rockburne’s flame-colored sun murals are more at home than ever, flanking the cyclopean eye that opens onto Madison Avenue. The sliding doors close to form a circle bisected within a square. The atmosphere is semi-Masonic.

The sky lobby on the seventh floor before renovation…

Another view of the new Sky Hall.

The garden which replaced the annex of the central block.

Photographs of Alex Fradkin Jakob Dahlin

It’s hard to imagine now, but four decades ago the design came like a thunderbolt. Johnson had been one of the high priests of modernism, but with this building he signaled that decades of austerity had finally been lifted. All these thin, simple, flat and transparent structures belonged to the modernist moment but not to the inevitable future. Make way (Johnson seemed to say) for arches, columns, historical references and large blocks of lightly pitted, caressable, iridescent stone. The crown, a temple pediment with a cannonball hole in its center, was instantly recognizable against the horizon as an oversized steering wheel – proudly useless, retro, enigmatic. For some architects, this great permission was as liberating as the end of corsets. Many others hated it.

The critic Reyner Banham wrote that the spirit and style of the building, like those of the architect, concealed a work of deep seriousness. “AT&T is so intensely regional that it’s almost parochial, a Manhattan insider’s joke — or would be if Manhattan weren’t a global city and Johnson a global figure.” Michael Sorkin was more acerbic, calling the tower “a graceless attempt to disguise what is really just the same old building by hiding it in this week’s drag”.

Gags don’t age well, and the playfulness of postmodernism has proven powerful but temporary. The skyscraper as an icon influenced the generation of Gehry, Foster, Libeskind, Hadid, Nouvel and de Portzamparc. At the same time, however, the developers packed the New York skyline with ever-tighter, brighter, and cooler wands of crystal. Corporate modernism was coming back, like malaria. The AT&T building ushered in a new lane that almost immediately went out of style.

Perhaps this short-lived timeliness helps explain the building’s enduring appeal: it’s too distinctive to carry the weight of an ism. Architecture must survive its moment, and Johnson’s building, designed as a joyful tombstone for modernism, has presided over other passages as well. Like Craig Unger documented in New York in 1982, the temple of America’s ultimate corporation rises just as the company collapses, soon to be dismantled after an anti-trust lawsuit. Sony bought the building a decade later, during the CD-induced boom before digital file sharing ravaged the recording industry. For some time after this, the tower remained vacant. The latest rehabilitation as a speculative office building took place just in the future of the office and the business district began to look flimsy.

Our cover, 1982.
Photo: Christophe Bonanos

This kind of story can make a skyscraper feel disposable, so Snøhetta had to organize a rescue operation, which he did in part by returning the space to the public. The company’s most aggressive and successful move was to demolish the useless addition behind the street front, between Fifth and Madison, and expand the atrium at the rear of the house into an open garden. . It is a high-quality public space, where a canopy protects users from the rain and gutters collect it to irrigate the abundant plantations. Other arcs and circles proliferate: round tables, curved bars and benches, and a concave wall where water flows over faceted stones. Snøhetta has transformed what was a wide, almost empty pedestrian avenue into a collection of paradise, inviting nothing more vigorous than a stroll. A winding canopy houses a café and a set of public toilets, helping to restock the city center’s rarest commodity. The garden ensures the success of the project.

Conservatives are sensitive to fragility. Remove a statue, eliminate a door or update the lighting, they sometimes say, and you’ve undermined the whole aesthetic edifice of a design. But good architecture is robust; his ability to withstand a certain amount of punishment is a testament to his longevity. Johnson and Burgee’s big stone statement survived a clumsy renovation (by Gwathmey Siegel in the 1990s) and it will survive this one too.

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