December 4, 2018
Just In: Snøhetta Unveils New Design Proposal for Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building
After its first design proposal for the now-landmarked Postmodern icon incited outcry from preservationists, the firm has revealed a pared-down revision, one that invites history and the public back in.
When Philip Johnson received a questionnaire from telecommunications giant AT&T in the early 1970s—a veiled RFQ for a new New York headquarters—he threw it away. In spite of this flippant gesture, Johnson and his partner John Burgee wound up not only landing a plumb commission, but designing what is now considered the world’s first Postmodern tower.
AT&T was a mixed bag critically (Ada Louise Huxtable dismissed it as “pastiche”; Albert Speer reportedly admired it) and practically (its base level arcades were dark and forbidding), but it earned Johnson, America’s original starchitect, the cover of Time.
Johnson’s building—renamed 550 Madison—now sits empty, but it’s still sparking controversy. Last October, Snøhetta unveiled a proposal to peel back the building’s lower level facade and re-sheath it in fluted glass. New York’s preservation community summarily rejected the plan and called for the building to be landmarked. Norman Foster weighed in. Even Robert A.M. Stern, unhampered by an orthopedic boot, hobbled out of his office to join a protest in support of the building.
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Last August, the preservationists got their wish: The building’s facade earned landmark status, becoming New York’s youngest landmarked building.
In spite of the backlash, Snøhetta and its partners, Olayan America and Chelsfield, were mum on their plans, declining interviews in favor of brief statements to the press. Today, more than a year since, Snøhetta has unveiled its revised design for the tower, one that, according to Snøhetta partner Craig Dykers, will “preserve and revitalize the building.”
New renderings reveal a significantly pared-back design approach—an expected move in light of the recent landmarking. In fact, according to the architects, 94 percent of the buildings original surface area will remain unchanged.
“It’s not the first time we’ve had to work with wildly different opinions,” Dykers says in reference to the firm’s work on New York’s 9/11 museum. “So we’ve tried to hear what everybody has to say, filter through the craziness, and get to the important stuff and respect that.”
Unlike the first design, Snøhetta has opted to retain the stone facade and restore the original 60-foot windows (a ‘90s renovation by Gwathmey Siegel covered them to conceal mechanicals) with minimal mullions. By reintroducing this glass and reorienting the building’s original elevators, passersby along Madison Avenue will have views directly through the building.
“We reevaluated the facade and gave respect to the masonry components,” explains Dykers. “But we also knew that wouldn’t solve the challenge either, because we want to bring people back into this building.”
That goal resulted in two major design decisions: the first, to glaze off the stone arcades and fill them with retail spaces; the second to open up the back of the building to create a public, open-air garden. This plaza is perhaps the redesign’s biggest selling point. The space, currently occupied by an empty glass annex, originally held shops. But like the facade, the space was transformed over the years with additional glazing and other ad hoc add-ons.
Snøhetta has proposed replacing the original enclosure with a minimal glass-and-steel canopy. This structure will shelter a landscaped plaza, complete with a fountain, lush plantings, and heated seats in the winter. Circular patterns in the hardscape are a direct nod to the circular motifs in 550 Madison’s facade and Philip Johnson’s love of platonic geometries. Crucially, the garden will increase the amount of public space on the site by more than 60 percent—enough to bring East Midtown up to the recommended allotment of public space in New York, as dictated by city planners.
“There are actually families living there [in East Midtown] now—it’s not just ad agencies and so on,” Dykers insists. “We’ll just be a welcome addition to the community.”
550 Madison’s owner, Olayan America, and developer, Chelsfield, meanwhile, are hoping to create a unique offering for would-be office tenants—a historic, yet contemporary, alternative to new commercial developments such as Hudson Yards. When all is said and done, the team says it will pursue a LEED Platinum rating.
But the new design still faces several hurdles, including the blessing of the local community board and the city’s landmarks commission. Designs also have yet to be revealed for the building’s interiors, including the office spaces and the lobby, which werre dismantled last January (those spaces were not landmarked). According to Dykers, “we’re been focusing on what is necessary to get approval so the design of those spaces is not developed.”
At the end of the day, Dykers hopes to bring people back to 550 Madison—a building for which he has a soft spot: “It opened up the door again to the common person because it’s something they could recognize,” he says. “It may not be intellectually vigorous, but it allowed people to like architecture again after having years of heavy stuff thrown at them.”
Johnson, for his part, would have likely embraced the suspense—and the accompanying spotlight. Defending AT&T in the New York Times, three days after Christmas 1978, he wrote, “We are entering an era that I don’t know the name of and even those that say they know the name of don’t know the name of. But it’s a great, adventurous pluralistic future.”
You might also like, “The Power and Paradox of Philip Johnson.”