Snøhetta Proposes Alterations to PoMo Tower

John Hill
31. October 2017
550 Madison Avenue, view looking west at updated façade (Image: DBOX, courtesy of Snøhetta)

Snøhetta has released renderings of their renovation of 550 Madison Avenue, better known as the AT&T Building, designed by Philip Johnson and completed in 1984.

The masterpiece of Postmodern architecture is known best for its Chippendale top, the antithesis of the Modernist glass boxes that prevailed in New York City and beyond for decades. The stone skyscraper with its sloped roof and round cutout galvanized the architecture profession in the 1980s. Loved and hated in equal parts, the AT&T Building, which was later sold to Sony, is not a NYC Landmark, so it is not protected from the proposed revisions. Although "the recognizable top of the tower will remain a fixture of the New York City skyline," per a statement from Snøhetta, "the new design will transform the base into an inviting street front."

Comparison of Existing building and Snøhetta's proposed design (Image: DBOX, courtesy of Snøhetta)

Snøhetta's client is Olayan and Chelsfield, 550 Madison Avenue's second owner since Sony sold it in 2013. (The Chetrit Group bought the tower to convert the top floors into residences for billionaires, but they abandoned those plans and sold it to Olayan and Chelsfield.) The developers want to modernize the primarily empty office building's "interior spaces to meet the contemporary needs of a variety of office tenants and [add] high-quality amenities, world-class retail and restaurants," per Snøhetta's statement. Furthermore, the design would nearly double the size of the adjacent public space, which was renovated by Charles Gwathmey in 1993 when Sony bought the building, converting it into a "lush outdoor garden for the public’s enjoyment."

Lobby Entrance Detail on Madison Avenue (Image: DBOX, courtesy of Snøhetta)

Snøhetta's design, which replaces much of the base's granite facade with wavy glass to reveal the structure and spaces behind it, brings ​the issue of preserving Postmodern architecture to the fore. Should the AT&T/Sony Building, one of the most important projects of Postmodernism, be protected from these or other revisions? Even though the proposd changes only affect the base, rather than its more recognizable top, these changes can be seen as a defacement. Andrew S. Dolkart, former director of Columbia GSAPP's Historic Preservation Program, described the building to Metropolis as "a key work in the history of American design" and "the most obvious contender for landmarking." That article, published three years ago, created a watchlist of Postmodern architecture in New York City, putting Philip Johnson's 1984 skyscraper at the top.

Overall view of 550 Madison Avenue with modifications at the base (Image: DBOX, courtesy of 550 Madison Avenue)

PoMo preservation aside, Snøhetta's statement puts a positive spin on their design and implicates the original design in the need for a renovation:

[Our] design approach stitches the life of the building back into the street. 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. 

Lounge with exposed steel bracing and view out to Madison Avenue (Image: DBOX, courtesy of 550 Madison Avenue)

Although no timeline for the changes was included in yesterday's statement, Snøhetta asserts, "The renovation is the first major project to be announced for New York City’s East Midtown since its revitalization plan was approved earlier this year."

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