Casting a Skeptical Eye on the AT&T Building Remake

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No architectural monument in New York has stirred up such passionate ambivalence as Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building at 550 Madison Avenue. Widely mocked and grudgingly admired, the emblematic tower of the postmodern age made its pop-culture debut as a scale model that its maker held aloft like a trophy on the cover of Time in 1979. Ada Louise Huxtable, the Times’ critic, was both entranced and suspicious. The mishmash of historical references, the impish gigantism, the thumb poked in the Establishment’s eye — all these made architecture seem suddenly like a spectator sport, in which both aesthetic principles and tough economic realities were at stake. “The outcry may well be because both the knowing and the naïve suspect an architectural rabbit punch,” she wrote. Once built, the rose-granite exterior, fanciful headgear, and imperial-scale and heavily shadowed arcade on the ground floor declared that a corporate high-rise could be outlandish, even divalike. The fact that the owner and client was one of the nation’s most ubiquitous and dour monopolies — one that was broken up by the courts even as its headquarters opened — only made the project’s eccentricities more intriguing.

Less than a decade later, Sony took over the building and subjected it to a clumsy makeover. Gwathmey Siegel & Associates enclosed most of the public spaces, shoehorning stores into the yawning arcade. Sony moved out in 2016, and since then the tower has remained vacant. Now it’s the Norma Desmond of skyscrapers, built for another era but hoping for a glorious third act.

Snøhetta, the firm readying 550 Madison for its next incarnation, recently unveiled a plan to bring in more light and lure fresh tenants by stripping away some of the stone façade along Madison Avenue and replacing it with a curtain of scalloped glass. The wall’s undulations are intended to evoke the fluting on ancient columns, an opaque reference both to Johnson’s overscale neoclassicism and the colonnade of the original AT&T headquarters at 195 Broadway. But rather than rest on a classical base, the glass hangs 15 feet above the street, atop a podium of air. The proposal has incurred the fury of several critics and preservationists. Some would like to see the tower landmarked, the 1992 refurbishment reversed, and the opera-set-like arcade restored to its authentic gloom. Snøhetta’s co-founder Craig Dykers says that he and his team have registered those criticisms and are working on ways to address them, but preserving AT&T as a museum piece would never work. “Not addressing the fundamental challenges would be a disservice to an important building,” he says. “If we were doctors and we saw some symptoms, we wouldn’t just give the patient a happy pill.”

At first blush, Snøhetta would seem to be the right firm for the job. Its Oslo opera house, perched between the city and the fjord like a penguin about to dive in, combines bold drama with populist warmth. The redesign of Times Square is a master class in how to be restrained in the face of glitz. (I admire its San Francisco Museum of Modern Art expansion and even contributed an essay to a book about it.)

So far, though, Dykers’s strategy for injecting amiability into 550 Madison is a mixture of fine and potentially tragic. He leaves the crown and torso pretty much alone, concentrating architectural firepower on the base. The new version’s most inspired gambit is to get rid of a low-rise annex and the glass half-vault at the back, turning a rarely used public atrium into a landscaped, tree-filled park similar in size to MoMA’s sculpture garden. That idea begins to deal with the original’s greatest strength and deepest flaw: its overweening brawn. Johnson pushed the Madison Avenue wall a few feet closer to the curb than its neighbors, stealing a strip of sidewalk. Columns hit the ground on giants’ paws. Behind them is public space, a great granite hall fit for kings, not for office workers looking for a place to have lunch.

Ambivalence is baked into the architecture. In 1983, the Times put Paul Goldberger’s review on the front page. “At ground level,” he wrote, the rough stone “moldings, arches and columns create public space that is truly monumental, even uplifting.” By 1992, he had reconsidered: “[O]nce built, these spaces turned out to be noisy, windy and dark. Their elegance was too self-conscious to offset the cold formality that pervades the building; the grandiose architecture rolls over the space and quashes it.” Gwathmey’s intervention didn’t help. The insertion of (unsuccessful) stores left a pair of flanking breezeways on the side streets, so unspacious and uninviting that someone felt the need to hang banners reading “Public Space,” because otherwise how would you know?

When I asked Dykers how he felt about AT&T, he replied with deeply mixed feelings. In an email he wrote that he has always “respected” it but finds it lacking in “humane sensitivity.” The base, especially, troubled him. “On my first visit in 1985 I immediately found the entrance halls and arcades foreboding,” he wrote. “I remember feeling that I was trespassing. It was empty even though newly opened. I immediately recognized that it was designed to be famous but not necessarily empathetic.” In subsequent conversations he reiterated that though he appreciates the work’s importance, it seems to him more of a showcase of postmodern theory than a habitat for people. It was likely also an expression of AT&T’s reluctance to have nonemployees hanging around its offices.

Having worked there for six months during the Sony years, I, too, found that the grandiloquence quickly gets old. I never once lingered longer than I had to in the public space. Dykers believes that his highest priority is to reinvigorate experience of the lower band, where pedestrians dwell and their eyes rove, and where people and architecture can form their most intense bond. But his first solution is to rip stone from steel, leaving the columns’ slender bones and covering them with a thin layer of smooth concrete. That would leave the tower’s base free of the ornery personality with which Johnson endowed it.

Dykers says the details are still in flux, and I look forward to the next iteration. He believes that respect and professionalism matter more than uncritical affection, and he has a point, but I still wonder whether he can really reconcile his goals with his aesthetic discomfort. One clue to that conflict lies in the three oversize portholes along each side, which once brought light into the colonnade and have since been blocked up by vents. Snøhetta would open them up again — an excellent idea — but also replace the circular frame of Renaissance-ish stones with a thin modernist metal band. It’s a small change, but a meaningful one, an assertion of one architect’s power to overrule another.

Much of the redesign flows from the problem of the sky lobby. When I worked at Sony, this was just an elevator junction, a place to flash your ID and scurry through on the way to your desk. Snøhetta’s task is to revivify this double-height space for future tenants who want somewhere to escape their cubicles, socialize, eat, and remind themselves that they work in the heart of Manhattan. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of views or daylight, aside from whatever intrepid rays manage to sneak beneath a tall arch on the street and then through a recessed porthole. Snøhetta would peel back the masonry and open the interior to the outside world, letting tenants gaze down on the life of the street. One thing they can’t do anything about is the cross-hatching of steel beams buried in the wall that holds the structure up — so those structural elements would be exposed and displayed like museum artifacts beneath the façade’s translucent scrim. Among the casualties is a pair of gorgeous white marble staircases that swirl like whipped cream up to a mezzanine, to be replaced by a single new stairway at the center, as sinuous and light as Johnson’s are opulent and massive. (The firm took a similar approach in its expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, excising Mario Botta’s ceremonial staircases and replacing them with a new, sleekly informal model.)

I am provisionally unpersuaded. Flaying the façade and exposing the steel skeleton would be an act of disdain, not homage. I can imagine two possible solutions, one minimal, the other extreme. The first is to leave the stone façade in place and brighten the sky lobby with artificial light and color, making it one of those unsuspected indoor habitats that makes New York a city of upstairs marvels. That kind of modest approach could preserve the front arcade by pulling the storefronts back one bay, beneath the colonnade. Dykers claims that denying stores street frontage would kill off their business. Maybe, but with the retail industry foundering and its future uncertain, organizing a renovation around in-store consumption has begun to seem unwise. Besides, window-shopping out of the rain beneath a handsome arcade can be enormously appealing, as the residents of Bologna and Milan can attest. So would a covered café on Madison Avenue, with heat lamps to soften the grandeur.

Another option might be to push the postmodern drama even farther than Johnson did — to treat his eclecticism as one more box of historical references and turn AT&T into an icon of post-postmodernism. So for instance, tear away masonry in ragged strips, making the attack on its integrity explicit. Go for the fluted-glass drapery but let it swing out above the sidewalk like a billowing skirt. A sympathetic designer with a Johnsonian sense of theater might be able to pull off such an outré costume. Maybe architecture’s Norma Desmond needs to age with extravagance.

*A version of this article appears in the November 27, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Casting a Skeptical Eye on the AT&T Building Remake