Score one for the status quo ante. A year ago, the developer Olayan Group and the architecture firm Snøhetta unveiled plans for a risqué renovation of Philip Johnson’s AT&T (a.k.a. Sony) Building at 550 Madison Avenue, which they wanted to convert from a disused corporate headquarters into a commercial office tower. Off came ten stories’ worth of demure masonry, replaced by a sheer negligee of glass, a post-postmodern roughing-up of a postmodern tower that seemed disrespectful, even violent. Preservationists swung into action, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, working with atypical urgency, designated the skyscraper a landmark last summer, sending the architects back to work on a more modest intervention.
During the first go-round, the firm’s front man, Craig Dykers, expressed a profound ambivalence toward Johnson’s design that, though widely shared, seemed like an obstacle to getting a renovation right. He got over it, I guess. Having overreached, he and his firm doubled back, this time seeing how little they could intervene. The blushing stone façade on Madison Avenue remains as Johnson dreamed it up, the Chippendale crown untouched. Gone is Snøhetta’s proposed drapery of fluted glass over exposed steel bones. Instead, the new iteration preserves the building’s essential mixture of flamboyance and solemnity, the trappings of religious power transferred to corporate America. The central arch with its oddly recessed rose window, flanked by six rectangular openings, the heavy piers resting on stylized granite feet — all survive.
Round the back, the new version is a vast improvement over Johnson’s original and an even vaster one on Gwathmey Siegel’s ham-fisted 1992 renovation. With Landmarks’ approval, the architects plan to demolish the pointless annex, peel away the half-barrel glass vault, and take down the glass walls that turned a once desolate open-air passageway between 55th and 56th Streets into an equally desolate room. In their place will be a landscaped plaza, scooped into circular seating areas, with several dozen trees (where now there are none), a central fountain, and a lower, lighter glass canopy. The point is to turn a nominally public, but actually forbidding, area into the kind of place where you might actually want to loiter.
In between the (almost) inviolate façade and the hopeful back garden, a cluster of smaller changes may make preservationists flinch. The new design declines to bring back the original arcade (a dim, baleful galleria), filling it in with double-height stores or restaurants facing Madison Avenue. Businesses have occupied those spaces before and failed, and it’s not clear that better lighting and clearer glass walls will make the difference this time around. The architects claim that a storeless street level is like a pair of missing teeth, and the owners hope to bring back the glory days of the Quilted Giraffe, which occupied the ground floor from 1986 until Sony bought the building and kicked the restaurant out in 1992. Lotsa luck.
Since the landmark designation only covers the exterior, the developers demolished the lobby, where Johnson’s black-and-white marble floor evoked the geometries of a Roman villa, an early Christian church, and a Renaissance palazzo, all rolled into one. When AT&T left, it took with it the company’s 24-foot bronze mascot “Golden Boy” (official name: Spirit of Communication), which Johnson had placed in the center of the lobby, a bright bit of glitter amid all that shadow and stone. The statue’s departure left an ostentatious void, which Snøhetta redeems by pushing the elevators off to the side and punching a hole at the back of the building. That creates a new view corridor from Madison Avenue to the fountain in the midblock garden, and maybe Johnson would have appreciated the way it draws the eye from the profane street, through the cave, to the bower. The architects envision a few other invasive surgeries, too, including a new set of windows on the rear façade to bring daylight into the sky lobby.
The AT&T Building was always famously imperfect. Gwathmey Siegel’s attempt to fix it only made it worse, and there is no ideal way to bring it back to life while leaving every detail sacrosanct. With this tower, Johnson was deliberately thumbing his nose at corporate modernists and their habit of taking themselves too seriously. He deliberately made it hard to distinguish true grandeur from mock grandiloquence. But buildings are not jokes, or in any case the wit invariably goes stale within a week after the ribbon-cutting, and they have to survive long after the stylistic polemics have abated. But this is a story of persistence. The skyscraper that many once treated as one-liner has endured long enough to go on essentially forever. And Snøhetta, having backtracked on last year’s cavalier proposal, has learned to tinker around the edges and steer clear of the building’s soul.