A Garden Opens in Midtown

John Hill
18. November 2022
All photographs by John Hill/World-Architects

Technically the covered open space at the rear of the 37-story office building at 550 Madison Avenue is a POPS, or Privately Owned Public Space, provided by the original owner in exchange for the rights to build more floors in the tower than otherwise allowed by zoning. The space designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee in 1984 was covered in a glass vault and open to 55th and 56th Streets on the ends, but the building's subsequent owner, Sony, enclosed the POPS and with it the arcades at the base of the tower. Snøhetta's design puts a new roof over the space, opens up the landscaped garden to the adjacent streets, and inserts a coffee shop and food kiosks beneath the new roof and within the arcades.

Seating areas and food kiosks are provided within the arcades.
The circular planters, tables, and paving pick up on the distinctive "Chippendale" top of the tower.

Although it is not climate-controlled, as its predecessor was, and was therefore almost completely empty when stopping by the day after it opened, the new garden designed by Snøhetta is a vast improvement over the previous iteration of the POPS, which was narrow and underused, as seen on my visits around the time Olayan Group bought the building in 2016. The open space is wider and taller, and therefore feels more open; and more importantly it is green, with trees, shrubs and ferns beneath the glass roof. Improving the public realm at the base of the building has been just one part of Olayan's work on the building, which also has involved revitalizing the elevations at the base of the tower (also Snøhetta), renovating the lobby (Gensler), and adding tenant amenity spaces on the seventh floor (Rockwell Group).

Trees and other plantings sit on the roof of the parking garage entry along 55th Street, where a coffee bar is also located.
The open space frames a view of the enclosed POPS at the base of the former IBM Building (590 Madison Avenue), which was designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes and completed around the same time as AT&T.

Snøhetta's project for the public spaces and facades at the base of the tower was met with controversy five years ago, when renderings were unveiled to remove most of the stone at the base facing Madison Avenue. Preservationists opposed the "disfigurement" of one of the most important examples of postmodern architecture; their efforts led to the building being designated a NYC Historical Landmark and the abandonment of dramatic alterations to the facades. But with its subpar predecessor, the public open space envisioned by Snøhetta remained intact, garnering the support of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and resulting in the creation of another go-to landscape — alongside Paley Park, Greenacre Park, and the MoMA Sculpture Garden — in Midtown Manhattan.

A new arched window at the rear of the lobby makes the garden visible from Madison Avenue — and Madison Avenue visible from the garden.
Clear glass and slender steel framing means views of the tower are easily had from within the garden (ductwork and other services in the previous iteration made the same difficult).
Snøhetta's work on the public spaces and facades involved removing windows from some of the circular openings at the base of the tower.

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