The front page of the March 31, 1978, edition of the New York Times deemed Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 37-story, granite-garbed tower for the AT&T corporation an instant monument. Modernism was out, and history—or some starched-collar version of it—was back on the agenda. Paul Goldberger, fizzing over the proposed design, volunteered up-market comparisons: The yawning, goofily pronounced entrance portal recalled Alberti’s Basilica of Sant’Andrea, and Johnson’s concealment of rooftop venting within a grandfather-clock garland so that steam emanated from the circular notch would somehow make good on Boullée’s mist-veiled premonitions. As a matter of architectural “daring” and “radical” urbanistic intent, AT&T, Goldberger noted, followed in the steps of the Chrysler Building, another skyclimber preoccupied with playing headsie. A marketing coup, the project had acquired a patina before the ink on the design drawings was dry.
Another round of upselling is underway. A January 22 feature in the Times’s Real Estate section detailed salient features of the tower’s Snøhetta-helmed renovation, including a contemplative plaza and fitness-forward amenities, meant to counteract the WFH effect. Tenants have yet to move in, but the property’s stewards are already speaking about the “health and wellness” of the ranks of analysts, strategists, and consultants that will someday report to 550 Madison (as AT&T is now known) for work. Or will they? Speaking to the Times, the head of real estate for Olayan America, the US branch of Saudi conglomerate Olayan Group, seemed both certain and not, concluding, “There are a lot of challenges in the office building [post-COVID], and I would tell you that this is the type of office building everybody I think in the city would hope to have.”
The remark seems to suggest a combination of status-signaling and ethical pleasures. All this time later, Johnson and Burgee’s tower still prompts bemusement. Not that its creators helped clarify things. Asked to comment on its design in 1978, Burgee cryptically replied that he and his collaborator were looking “for a way into the language of stone.” In the publicity photos, a falsely stern Johnson took to cradling the scale model, nestling it close, his expression betraying more than a twinge of self-approval. But for years, the perennially old man would go all whaddayaknow every time the subject was broached.
He may have once confessed to Susan Sontag that “I’m a plagiarist man,” but at AT&T Johnson’s shtick caught up with him. Here was naiveté masquerading as connoisseurship, a defeated ironical form rebranded as “prescient,” and authorial disavowal trailing gigantic ego. Such was the hackled opinion of Michael Sorkin, assessing the design in its projected form for The Village Voice. By the time that Reyner Banham swooped in to bless the completed building—his appraisal for the Architectural Review was gracious to a fault—few New Yorkers needed any convincing, though elements of the city’s Industrial and Commercial Incentive Board came to regret awarding the project $20 million in tax abatements.
When it opened in 1984, the building surprised more than a few critics in the quality of its build, particularly in the tailoring of its flinty suit. But it never reached full capacity. Two years earlier, Congress broke up AT&T, which found itself with at least 300,000 square feet of unused floor area. In the 1990s, it sold off the holding and naming rights to Sony, which made extensive changes to the tower’s base. Following a brief proprietary interlude under Chetrit Group, which contemplated converting the tower for use as luxury residential and hospitality, in 2016 Olayan added 550 Madison to its portfolio for $1.4 billion. The new nonmoniker was entered into the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC) registry not long after, described, succinctly, as “postmodernism’s first skyscraper.”
Because it purported to advance a singular identity of the monopolistic American corporation, the building ceased to make practical sense once that corporation vacated the premises. A certain clumsiness prevailed in its key set pieces: the nth-tuple-height lobby, semi-contiguous with the tenebrous public portico that backed onto a covered passageway, and the “sky lobby,” with its wall-to-wall white marble and foreboding portals and lintels. Johnson and Burgee fiddled with straightforward concerns, most notably conveyance: office workers changed elevators at the sky lobby (the swishy sobriquet derived, one guesses, from the notional natural sky visible through the porthole window) to reach their workstations. In aesthetic terms, the sequence was a misdirection of centuries as much as sensibilities, with the Italianate costumery of the ground floor giving way to marmoreal sheen and curved-edge minimalism. Twin sunburst Dorothea Rockburne murals were installed in 1993 in an attempt to raise the temperature of the room but, lacking actual fires, failed to impart any real warmth.
With the AT&T-to-Sony changeover, the building’s claims to furthering the public life were voided. The mazy loggias with their great 60-foot-tall piers, having either been judged an unseemly den of idleness or untapped leasable floor area, or both, were enclosed upon in the name of retail. The job went to Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman (later Gwathmey, Siegel, and Associates); the partnership also walled in the through-block pedestrian corridor at the back, rechristened “Sony Plaza Public Arcade.” To offset the loss of public space of plugging the portico, Sony had the architects expand the dimensions of the arcade and reduce the bulk of Johnson and Burgee’s bumptious annex building.
The tower always wore its playfulness heavily, but it has also proved more mutable than was ever intended. Of course, mutability as a concept is closely connected with force, and in that sense, a spirit of selective demolition can be seen to run through the most recent overhaul managed by Snøhetta. As is typical of such high-profile “revitalizations,” the gestalt of a place, having been snuffed out, is consigned an afterlife through questionable decorative cues or immoderately judged surface treatments. Hemmed in by history, a spatial designer might find refuge in the recesses of some ersatz embroidery or seek justification in the unctuous language of emendation. There’s an awful lot of this going on inside—and to a lesser extent, outside—550 Madison.
The Gwathmey alterations, the compulsion of program, and the acute pangs that move architects to exert their authorial touch led Snøhetta to mount a brash edit: To start, they advised to peel back the granite cladding from the base and hang an apron of glass from the top edge, exposing metaphorical knees and structural garters, and floors of anticipated shoppers, in the process. The proposal appealed to no one and angered more than a few, such as the tiny group of picketers that gathered on the sidewalk outside at lunchtime in early November 2017 to protest the tendered defacement. One was reminded of the images of Johnson attending a demonstration—not the doraphilic fascist rallies of his youth, but the prim action staged outside McKim, Mead & White’s imperiled Penn Station, where he let Jane Jacobs do the jeering for him.
Goaded into action, the LPC petitioned for and succeeded in protecting the building exteriors, sending Snøhetta back to the desktop. Principal Craig Dykers and his team were nonetheless quick to comply, and the alternative proposal saw Snøhetta withdraw into the more prosaic business of “master planning the building,” Dykers told AN, with attention fixed on three problem areas: the ground-floor retail, the bi-level lobbies, and the midblock galleria. Pursuant to its managerial mandate, the firm parceled out the work, delegating the interior refinements to Gensler and Rockwell Group and taking the lead on the public-facing items.
At street level, Snøhetta chucked the bay windows and the gridirons of windows above those that inhibited opportunities for advertising, and, per Dykers, installed a “very high-end” and “super clear” system that uses low-iron glass set within minimal bronzed frames. In a callback to the incipient phase of the building’s life, the west-facing bays of the ghosted colonnade have been newly vented. They exist, perhaps, to remind the city that the fleetingly provisioned public archways were rather quixotic and underused to begin with and that their blanket restoration (as some preservationists agitated for) would be misguided at best and detrimental at worst. When prompted, Dykers editorialized: “The columns were so massive that people were worried about who was hiding on the other side of them.”
On this front, the LPC was assuaged. Inside, the committee didn’t bother putting up a fight. The entrance lobby, too-tall-and-small by any measure, retains its vertiginous proportions but none of the original’s camp lighting or mannerist fittings, a fanciful, thin take on Romanesque. As the former domain of AT&T’s New York mascot, the 24-foot-tall Golden Boy, the vaulted space is now conspicuously vacant, even with the plummeting blue orb of Alicia Kwade’s Solid Sky frozen overhead. Overtones of Looney Tunes and New Age cosmology aside, the piece calls acute attention to the unrelenting sparseness of its surroundings. The welcome desk and seating have been awkwardly shoved off to the long sides of the room and set against darkly bronze mesh consoles. The terrazzo reproduces the older monochromatic Lutyens (or was it the Pantheon’s?) floor tiling in wan grays. In another attempt to ward off anonymity, the architects installed LED strips along the arches and the inner ring of the gnomic oculus on the west wall much like one would illuminate a car’s trim kit; where the latter once enigmatically haloed the gilded youth, now it fulfills the purpose of placeholder-as-logo. There isn’t much else to distract one from the excess of white marble or its vaguely lavatorial feel, both antiseptic and “freshened up.”
Wanting to establish a sight line from busy street sidewalk to leafy park, Snøhetta split and rotated the elevators on either side of the central east-west axis. Super-clear glass or not, one has to enter the building or circle around to the park behind to appreciate the effect. The elevator cabs still deposit office workers in the sky lobby, which is not the restful ceremonial hall it once was. Much to the relief of art lovers, the ebullient Rockburne murals have been left alone, if only to be vitiated in less direct ways. Rockwell Group designed the new lounge, which drafts the compound artwork into the subsidiary role of vibe attenuators. Rockwell has a knack for inventive spatial subdivision: Salons, game rooms, and other cubbylike precincts, with their nesting custom furniture, cater to coworking trends, while a commitment to flexibility (enacted through lumbering sliding walls) enables conference rooms to go from big to board meeting.
The setting has been brightened up through added fenestration, which had to be cleared by the LPC. But in the inner recesses, illumination levels are dimmed to evoke the associations of intimacy found in hotel bars, chalet nooks, clubhouse “libraries”—any place besides work. Above, the office floors are still in the process of being finished out. At the penthouse, the original three-story connecting stair, clad in eerily patterned marble, remains intact.
The merits of the $300 million project rest on the success of the backyard privately owned public space, or POPS, which replaces the mall-like caboose. If, as Snøhetta Partner and Discipline Director of Landscape Michelle Delk maintains, the office incorporated what they could into the new design, then their strategy of reuse was limited to retaining a few tokenistic textures: Some of the extant herringbone pavers were retained and excised granite crunched into aggregate for concrete banquettes. In fairness, there wasn’t much to save. And because a paradigmatic example of the form could already be found across the street, spanning the interstitial rump space between the Trump Tower and the IBM Building, Snøhetta reasoned they had sufficient latitude to reenvision the area.
“The space was really encumbered by those doors,” Delk said, referring to the lateral walls that sealed off the POPS from through traffic. Off they came. The firm devised a sloped weather canopy that funnels water downward to firs and shrubs. Its profile isn’t dissimilar from Johnson and Burgee’s bowed glass canopy, except streamlined and effecting a silly arboreal posture. Thin arms branch off the columns to span the aerial distance between the tower and a more svelte, receptive flank, also designed by Snøhetta to replace the existing annex. It’s a support structure in the dual sense of the term, not just accommodating freight trucks and parking, but also sculpted garden terraces. A flange pokes out on the 53rd Street side, advertising a pricey coffee kiosk, behind which is a well-appointed gender-neutral restroom, perhaps the best statement of the overall re-do.
In New York, public restrooms are defined by their increasing rarity. Yet if the trend were to be reversed, they would undoubtedly be of greater use than the existing acreage of POPS, whose number has now climbed to 600. These slivers of residual space and deadpan expanses not so much convene as trivialize the interpersonal interaction and material affordances needed for sustaining public urban life. In the flash point triggered by Snøhetta’s initial plan, the standard bearers of the preservationist milieu shaped up their case for the building and its attendant exterior spaces. By the lights of the Municipal Arts Society, Gwathmey’s enclosed passageway came “the closest of any through-block POPS in the city to evoke the nineteenth-century European arcade.” A more damning appraisal of this patented program of space-making would be difficult to find.
The social group that gets the most out of POPS are office workers. On their behalf, and in line with their ultra-mediated consumer preferences, entire city neighborhoods have been preened and plucked, laundered in every sense. At 550 Madison, what had been an airless corridor with dinky kiosks and a comical sense for horticulture is now a salubrious plaza inscribed with whirling pathways, circling benches, and tree-studded hillocks. Banquettes and bar stools, two- and eight-tops, are arranged into rings that Delk likens to “rooms.” But the activities that propel these little social orbits will, it seems, be restricted to coffee breaks and lunching, mimicking the use patterns of food halls, maybe the most viral contemporary Midtown typology. The name of the most prominent purveyor (as the received terminology of neo-artisanship goes), Urbanspace, is apt in what it promises: Generic yet heightened experiences to be passively taken in, by visual and/or digestive means.
Minimally protected from the weather, the plaza is also a frigid spot to be for months of the year. On multiple recent visits, the concave water feature—calculated to gush and spurt in reassuring ways—was bone dry. Nor was there any evidence that the fire pit had ever been fired. And for all the abundant seating, the few other occupants remained vertical. Milling about were the guards, trained, presumably, to enforce ground rules that would curb all but the most bridled of the loitering arts.
The tacit protocols etched into the park’s programmatic eddies may end up doing their work for them. The city’s history of great modernist public spaces, many of them paved over by opportunistic or aggrieved redevelopment, is filled with barbed criticisms about indecorous ideals that fail to account for basic human realities. Idealistic could also be applied to the latest crop of pocket parks, ornamental commons, and outdoor emporia, whose designers seemed to have planned with only the summer months and a curtailed imagination of use in mind. Another viable descriptor would be camp, less of the sort intended by Johnson and Burgee and more along the lines of Sontag’s counterintuitive understanding, with its evocation of the “urban pastoral” and the naive pleasures connoted therein. It seems Snøhetta and its collaborators have expertly exchanged one mode of naiveté for another.