550 Madison Avenue, as reimagined by Snøhetta
550 Madison Avenue, as reimagined by Snøhetta DBOX

A plan by the design firm Snøhetta to remake Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building has sparked anger in the architecture world.

In January 1979, the architect Philip Johnson appeared on the cover of Time magazine, gazing at the camera over the cover line “U.S. Architects: Doing Their Own Thing,” and hoisting an architectural model like a trophy. The model was of a building that wouldn’t open for another five years. But when its design had been unveiled the year before, it had made the front page of The New York Times and led one critic, Paul Goldberger, to call it “the most radical skyscraper design of the 1970’s.”

This skyscraper, 37 stories high and clad in pink granite, would be entered on Madison Avenue through a 116-foot-high neoclassical arch. It would be topped with a massive broken pediment—a scaled-up version of an ornament familiar from Chippendale furniture of the 18th century. Clearly, this was not another Lever House or Seagram Building, those cool pillars of glass and steel in the style preferred by mid-20th-century executives (named “the International Style” by Johnson himself, in fact, when he was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s). It was something new, and very different.

Philip Johnson with a model of the AT&T Building in 1978 (AP)

The AT&T Building would come to be seen as one of the defining works of Postmodernism, a style that reveled in ornament, historic allusion, and playfulness, all of which Modernism shunned. Johnson and his partner John Burgee didn’t invent the style, but introduced it to corporate titans and real-estate developers via AT&T, spurring a global boom of Postmodern office buildings that lasted through the mid-1990s.

Now their radical skyscraper may get a radical and controversial overhaul. On October 30, the Oslo- and New York-based architecture firm Snøhetta announced a redesign of the base of the tower, which is currently owned by a Saudi conglomerate called the Olayan Group and goes by the bland moniker of 550 Madison. In a press release, Snøhetta said it aimed to “transform the [tower’s] base into an inviting street front,” and that it will almost double adjacent public space “to create a lush outdoor garden for the public’s enjoyment.”

Pulling street life into the building’s front arcade and adding a public garden is well and good. But exactly how the designers plan to do that has provoked criticism. From the press release:

Since 550 Madison was first completed, its fortress-like base created an uninviting street front, which was then further compromised by a series of ground-floor renovations that effectively closed the building off from its surroundings. With the updated design, the stone façade will be partially replaced at eye level by an undulating glass curtainwall. From the street, the reconceived façade dramatically highlights the multi-story arched entry while revealing the craftsmanship of the building’s existing steel structure. Scalloped glass references the sculpted forms of fluted stone columns, re-interpreting the building’s monumentality while creating a lively and identifiable public face for passersby. With this increased transparency, the activity within the lobby, atrium, and first 2 levels of the building will become part of the vibrant energy of the street.

Johnson and Burgee wanted their tower to lift off from the ground in monumental fashion. On either side of the deeply recessed entrance arch, they put rows of thick columns 60 feet high. The open areas behind these “would be given over to benches and cafe seating, thus providing the public amenities expected of a plaza,” wrote Johnson’s biographer Franz Schulze. (Zoning laws at the time required a plaza.) “The entrance was conceived as a mammoth, 116-foot-high round arch flanked on each side by three shorter 60-foot rectangular openings that create the effect of an arcade.”

Changes to the building since it opened have undermined this idea of an Italianate arcade. Sony, after purchasing the building from AT&T in 2002, enclosed the spaces and converted them to showrooms. Some of the building’s distinctive oculi (round windows) were blocked off. Acknowledging that past changes were unsympathetic, Snøhetta plans instead to strip a large rectangle from the stone façade on Madison Avenue and “partially [replace]” it with a wavy sheet of glass.

(DBOX)

The architecture world reacted angrily to the announcement. British architect and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman (whose own work draws on Postmodern influences) tweeted sarcastically: “Say goodbye to Philip Johnson, and hello to, um, glass...wayda go New York...”.  Mark Lamster, the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, tweeted: “this defacement of pj’s landmark att tower by snohetta is a travesty. i know att is controversial but this is wrong.” (Lamster is currently writing his own biography of Johnson.)

But not everyone was ruffled. Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of The New York Times, responded to Lamster’s tweet: “Why travesty?”

Kimmelman raises the point that despite Johnson’s aspirations, the arcade is not very successful as a public space. The gigantic scale of the columns and the arch make it appear forbidding. (Or in Snøhetta’s language, “fortress-like” and “uninviting.”) Increasing the level of transparency and improving the flow between building and street would seem like no-brainers to many people.

That shouldn’t come at the cost of the integrity of a major work of Philip Johnson’s, say opponents, who quickly rallied to launch a change.org petition and #saveatt Twitter hashtag. They also plan a protest outside the building on Nov. 3.

The debate over the appropriateness of the redesign comes down to priorities. What’s more important: the integrity of an important work of architecture, or how well it functions as part of the contemporary city? Behind that question lurk others. How important is AT&T, really? (One scholar described it as “banal” and “a mediocre building” in 2015.) And how well can we assess a building’s role in architectural history at a remove of only 30-odd years?

These questions are going to arise again and again as buildings of the late 20th century—designed in the Postmodernist, Late Modernist, and Brutalist styles—reach an awkward age. They haven’t been state-of-the-art or fashionable for decades. They look tired; their systems are creaky; their owners want to revive them. But they’re not old enough to be considered properly historic. Even some of the most significant of these buildings (including AT&T) lack landmark status, so owners and architects have free rein to modify them. (Thomas Collins, a preservationist who opposes Snøhetta’s scheme, has submitted a formal request for evaluation to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for both the building’s exterior and interior lobby—“one of the few intact postmodern interiors left in New York,” he says in an email.)

Snøhetta has caught flak for its approach to a Postmodern building before. Last year, some critics expressed disappointment at how the firm’s new addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art interacts with the museum’s 1995 wing, designed by Mario Botta. Whatever one thinks of AT&T, the architects’ suggestion, in their press release, that the Chippendale top is the building’s key Postmodern feature seems dubious. (“[P]erhaps the formal elements most illustrative of Postmodern sensibilities occur 647 feet below [the crown] at ground level,” as David Langdon writes in ArchDaily).

The redesigned lobby entrance on Madison Avenue (DBOX)

The AT&T flap echoes the recent controversy over the expansion of the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo. There, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture has proposed to insert a large, glass-walled “welcome hall” in a courtyard separating the museum’s Beaux-Arts main building from a Modernist 1962 addition by Gordon Bunshaft, a move many critics and local preservationists see as hostile to Bunshaft’s enigmatic black box, as CityLab’s Mark Byrnes reported.

Both OMA’s plans for Buffalo and Snøhetta’s for Madison Avenue reflect the credo that a bustling, visually connected public/commercial realm is the main thing we want out of urban architecture. Visual connection is achieved via the material du jour, a shimmering expanse of clear glass. There is no denying the importance of great public spaces, of course, but there are many ways we derive pleasure from the city besides strolling in a plaza or sitting in a glassy lobby. We might look up at a vast stone arch and feel a sense of awe, or duck into a cool, dark arcade for relief on a hot day.

Monumentality, solidity, and complexity are not sins, but different kinds of architectural virtues. “Glasswashing” landmarks that don’t match today’s norms ultimately does them, and us, a disservice.

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