The conversion of 550 Madison into a next-generation office space is nearing completion, as Snøhetta continues work on its portions of the renovation at the Philip Johnson and John Burgee-designed Midtown Manhattan skyscraper that once played corporate headquarters to AT&T and Sony. At the building’s base, however, Gensler’s transformation of the lobby—much protested by preservationists when first unveiled—is finished, and developer the Olayan Group has selected an artist to fill the space with an appropriately monumental public installation: Polish-German artist Alicja Kwade.
On a press visit to the not-yet-open tower’s lobby, Gensler’s interventions became immediately apparent. Gone are the drywall dividers and interior glass of Johnson’s day. The space has been fully gutted and reorganized to create an almost cathedral-like experience, with the ceiling now reaching 70 feet to bring it level with the enormous glass arch at 550 Madison’s front entrance. The walls have been reclad in white marble, but to keep the space at a human scale, Gensler surrounded the perimeter with mirrors covered in mesh panels, a nod to Johnson’s love of atypical materials. The resultant reflections are scattered and dreamy, resembling passing clouds more than anything recognizable. Underfoot, Gensler crushed the removed pink granite facade panels into aggregate for a terrazzo thick with chips.
Kwade’s Solid Sky sees a 24-ton marble sphere of blue Azul do Macaubas suspended 49 feet from the lobby’s soaring ceiling, dangling on 10 stainless steel chains. The piece of quartzite, quarried in Brazil, is estimated at 1.2 billion years old and was rotated to match the Earth’s 23.5-degree axial tilt. It is, in name and presence, a piece of sky brought down to ground level, but at the same time, evocative of seeing the Earth itself suspended overhead, the swirls of the stone reminiscent of aerial photography over the ocean. The bottom of Solid Sky hangs 12-feet-by-11-inches above the lobby floor, putting it just out of arm’s reach but close enough to create a very tangible (and somewhat nerve-wracking) presence.
It also references the building’s other most famous feature, the broken Chippendale pediment. The sphere of blue swirls, according to Kwade’s proposal, could be seen as a piece of sky viewed through the pediment’s circular cutout, frozen and dropped down to ground level. The age of the stone helps contribute to the primordial and timeless nature of Solid Sky.
Kwade’s selection by Olayan Group continues the tradition of women artists at the former AT&T Building. First, it was the Spirit of Communication (more commonly known as Golden Boy), sculpted by Evelyn Beatrice Longman in 1914 for AT&T’s former headquarters at 195 Broadway in Manhattan. When the company moved into 550 Madison, so too did the 24-foot-tall Golden Boy, squarely to the center of Johnson’s lobby. While Snøhetta’s has created a smaller glass archway at the back of the building to allow views straight through to the rear covered garden, no such view way existed during the tower’s ownership by AT&T.
For that reason, Olayan requested a central piece of art that wouldn’t obstruct views through the lobby, requiring the approximately 30 artists in contention to submit works that could either be hung from the walls or suspended. Solid Sky, coincidentally, tops out at the same height as Golden Boy, creating a sort of ceiling for passerby and keeping the lobby from seeming too monumental and out of scale.
Balancing extremely heavy objects in tension is a familiar theme for Kwade. Her 2019 Metropolitan Museum of Art Roof Garden commission, ParaPivot I and ParaPivot II, suspended similar planetary spheres within steel scaffolding, creating both a “solar system” and frames for viewing the New York skyline.
Meanwhile, the fate of 550 Madison’s other astronomical artwork from a prominent female artist, Dorothea Rockburne’s massive frescoes of the electromagnetic fields above the building, will be given a new life just upstairs. The 30-foot-by-29-foot pair of murals, Northern Sky and Southern Sky, was commissioned for the second-floor lobby for Sony in 1993 and it was feared that they would be torn down during the renovation. Thankfully, Olayan is keeping the site-specific installation as-is and has pledged to fill the rest of the skyscraper with pieces from other women artists.