Architectural Review: 550 Madison Avenue

Architectural Review: 550 Madison Avenue

The redesigned floor ground foyer at 550 Madison Avenue.
Picture: Frederick Charles

How do you shield the standard of strangeness? Eccentricity, like innovation, is absorbed and normalized, or else degenerates into self-caricature. Hardly ever does anybody or something stay oddly endearing. And but, 4 many years after Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 550 Madison Avenue was wrapped to disclose a pink stone standing stone with a elaborate hat, the tower nonetheless radiates an ironic, obnoxious, and unmistakably New York persona. Recent out of an try to offer it some generic respectability, the 550 Madison (aka the AT&T Constructing, Sony Constructing, and “Chippendale Tower”) manages to retain its monumental awkwardness.

This end result was not assured. When the Olayan Group bought the constructing in 2016, the corporate thought of a extra drastic renovation. Snøhetta structure studio offered to remove the stone from the lower floors and exposing the metal braces to maximise daylight. This could have successfully given the constructing a Halloween skeleton costume, masking its street-level identification by displaying its inner construction. The design was met with contempt and alarm and rapidly retracted. As an alternative, the Landmarks Preservation Fee, with help from Olayan, designated the tower in 2018, guaranteeing a extra wise strategy.

The LPC is simply starting to to believe with the legacy of postmodernism, nevertheless it’s not at all times straightforward to take an ironic motion critically. The fee declined to guard the AT&T Constructing’s foyer, interiors, annex, or public area, all of which have been repurposed (or eradicated) as a company headquarters into an rental property. The result’s a mixture of respect and betrayal, with the unique idea forcibly break up into its constituent components. It is a tough compromise, however I can settle for it. The constructing is extra livable (and commendable) now, and whereas consolation has come on the expense of creative coherence, it has additionally ensured an eccentric constructing for a number of many years of life.

Conference, legislation and economics usually mix to divide structure into exterior and inside domains. A agency designs the facade, a specialist maps the fittings and a 3rd adorns the foyer. These divisions could be as arbitrary as having one baker accountable for the crust and one other for the crumb. Johnson noticed his constructing as a complete loaf of bread. The porthole window of the arcade corresponded to the round opening of the crown. The whimsical but heavy pink granite continues from the facade into the foyer, the place it takes the type of a Romanesque archway. The interaction of black and white circles and squares on the foyer’s marble ground evoked the patterned flooring of Italian Renaissance church buildings. (For the brand new iteration, Gensler tore them up and reproduced traces of them in cheaper terrazzo.)

Had been all of the sacramental touches – the porch, the arch, the nave and the aisles, with a form of cloister on the again – an ironic reference to the ubiquity of AT&T in American life? Or did they extra broadly signify a return to the basics of structure? The query is moot, for the reason that hyperlink between construction and element has been damaged. Each the unique foyer and the sky foyer are gone, and with them Johnson’s gloomy sense of grandeur. He had made the corridor an antechamber worthy of a small empire: a contemporary hypostyle outfitted with structurally superfluous columns. The high-ceilinged area, dominated by AT&T’s tall “Golden Boy” statue, managed to be majestic and claustrophobic on the identical time. Gensler moderated the oppression whereas retaining traces of risk. The partitions are lined with a bronzed wire mesh that might be mistaken for a coat of mail. The crown circle additionally yielded a brand new work by Alicja Kwade: a 24-ton bluish stone sphere suspended from the vaulted ceiling like a planet of Damocles. Kwade might not have meant the piece to signify a world on the verge of oblivion, nevertheless it actually does.

On the seventh ground, in what was referred to as the Sky Foyer and is now the membership degree – however nonetheless serves as an elevator junction – the Rockwell band made darkness a advantage that Snøhetta hoped to dilute. There are a number of extra home windows now, besides, bronzed metal, wooden paneling, temper lighting, and a hearth in a freestanding pod give the widespread areas a cocoon-like heat. Johnson and Burgee’s model of this ground prolonged the foyer’s geometric video games; phone firm staff modified elevators amid a profusion of freestanding stone portals, lintels and arches. All of this has been summed up within the circle, which seems all over the place, as ubiquitous as a emblem. A cellular with translucent globes hangs from the ceiling. Dorothea Rockburne’s flame-colored solar murals are extra at dwelling than ever, flanking the cyclopean eye that opens onto Madison Avenue. The sliding doorways near type a circle bisected inside a sq.. The ambiance is semi-Masonic.

The sky foyer on the seventh ground earlier than renovation…

One other view of the brand new Sky Corridor.

The backyard which changed the annex of the central block.

Images of Alex Fradkin Jakob Dahlin

It is exhausting to think about now, however 4 many years in the past the design got here like a thunderbolt. Johnson had been one of many excessive monks of modernism, however with this constructing he signaled that many years of austerity had lastly been lifted. All these skinny, easy, flat and clear constructions belonged to the modernist second however to not the inevitable future. Make approach (Johnson appeared to say) for arches, columns, historic references and enormous blocks of calmly pitted, caressable, iridescent stone. The crown, a temple pediment with a cannonball gap in its middle, was immediately recognizable in opposition to the horizon as an outsized steering wheel – proudly ineffective, retro, enigmatic. For some architects, this nice permission was as liberating as the tip of corsets. Many others hated it.

The critic Reyner Banham wrote that the spirit and elegance of the constructing, like these of the architect, hid a piece of deep seriousness. “AT&T is so intensely regional that it is nearly parochial, a Manhattan insider’s joke — or could be if Manhattan weren’t a world metropolis and Johnson a world determine.” Michael Sorkin was extra acerbic, calling the tower “a graceless try and disguise what is admittedly simply the identical outdated constructing by hiding it on this week’s drag”.

Gags do not age effectively, and the playfulness of postmodernism has confirmed highly effective however momentary. The skyscraper as an icon influenced the technology of Gehry, Foster, Libeskind, Hadid, Nouvel and de Portzamparc. On the identical time, nonetheless, the builders packed the New York skyline with ever-tighter, brighter, and cooler wands of crystal. Company modernism was coming again, like malaria. The AT&T constructing ushered in a brand new lane that nearly instantly went out of fashion.

Maybe this short-lived timeliness helps clarify the constructing’s enduring enchantment: it is too distinctive to hold the load of an ism. Structure should survive its second, and Johnson’s constructing, designed as a joyful tombstone for modernism, has presided over different passages as effectively. Like Craig Unger documented in New York in 1982, the temple of America’s final company rises simply as the corporate collapses, quickly to be dismantled after an anti-trust lawsuit. Sony purchased the constructing a decade later, throughout the CD-induced increase earlier than digital file sharing ravaged the recording trade. For a while after this, the tower remained vacant. The newest rehabilitation as a speculative workplace constructing happened simply in the way forward for the workplace and the enterprise district started to look flimsy.

Our cowl, 1982.
Picture: Christophe Bonanos

This type of story could make a skyscraper really feel disposable, so Snøhetta needed to arrange a rescue operation, which he did partially by returning the area to the general public. The corporate’s most aggressive and profitable transfer was to demolish the ineffective addition behind the road entrance, between Fifth and Madison, and broaden the atrium on the rear of the home into an open backyard. . It’s a high-quality public area, the place a cover protects customers from the rain and gutters acquire it to irrigate the ample plantations. Different arcs and circles proliferate: spherical tables, curved bars and benches, and a concave wall the place water flows over faceted stones. Snøhetta has remodeled what was a large, nearly empty pedestrian avenue into a group of paradise, inviting nothing extra vigorous than a stroll. A winding cover homes a café and a set of public bogs, serving to to restock the town middle’s rarest commodity. The backyard ensures the success of the venture.

Conservatives are delicate to fragility. Take away a statue, eradicate a door or replace the lighting, they generally say, and you’ve got undermined the entire aesthetic edifice of a design. However good structure is strong; his capability to resist a specific amount of punishment is a testomony to his longevity. Johnson and Burgee’s huge stone assertion survived a slipshod renovation (by Gwathmey Siegel within the Nineties) and it’ll survive this one too.

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