Po-No You Didn't!

[UPDATES] Protest planned as controversy erupts over AT&T Building

East News Preservation
Protest planned as controversy erupts over AT&T Building. In this historic photo, Philip Johnson is seen with Jackie Onassis protesting the demolition of Grand Central Station. (Courtesy the Municipal Art Society)
Protest planned as controversy erupts over AT&T Building. In this historic photo, Philip Johnson is seen with Jackie Onassis protesting the demolition of Grand Central Station. (Courtesy the Municipal Art Society)

Saudi Arabian investment group Olayan America announced plans yesterday to renovate and overhaul the base of Philip Johnson’s iconic AT&T Building (now 550 Madison Avenue). The response to Snøhetta’s design proposal was immediately mixed, with many in the architectural community deriding the new design as anti-contextual and ham-handed.

The AT&T’s monumental Stony Creek granite archway is made from the same stone as Grand Central Terminal, the original Penn Station, and the base of the Statue of Liberty. This kind of stone facade is not common in New York City today, and critics are asking questions about whether the city needs another glass facade. “AT&T might be the last great stone building. Midtown doesn’t need any more glass,” said filmmaker Nathan Eddy, who is currently making a film about Johnson and is organizing a protest for Friday afternoon outside of the building.

Below are some of the responses to the controversy from the architectural community both in New York and around the globe. Feel free to send yours to us at info@archpaper.com and we will publish the best.

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“I am concerned about the building’s relation to the street and to us the pedestrians. In a review of Philip Johnsons’ design, I asked, ‘What does AT&T’s particular cultural borrowing have to do with us?’ And I criticized his use of scale—as a modernist who knows only something called ‘human scale’ and as a PoMo (not a postmodernist) convert, who applies this unthinkingly and repetitiously, causing an architectural dehumanizing. Rem Koolhaas responded, ‘But it has Presence.’ Presence, pshaw!

“Now we have proposals for Neo-modernist scalelessness. Again, what does it have to do with me on the street? If there are intriguing and exciting activities going on it’s nice to hear about it but I don’t see it. They should look at the Monadnock building and its kin of that era in Chicago for lessons on how commercial architecture can use street extensions into buildings to draw people in and scales that are commercial rather than public, to celebrate and decorate their activities as they draw you inside.

And they should examine the retail choreography that draws people into urban commercial malls.”

—Denise Scott Brown, architect and author of Learning from Las Vegas

“Louis Kahn famously described the Seagram Building as ‘a beautiful lady in hidden corsets,’ referring to the fact that Mies’s elegant facade masked all of the tower’s structural bracing. I thought of that when I saw Snøhetta’s plan for 550 Madison Avenue, the former AT&T Building, which calls for much of the lower section of the original granite facade to be stripped off, revealing never-seen cross-bracing behind it. The problem is that I’m not sure Philip Johnson’s lady wanted her corsets revealed any more than Mies’s did. In fact, probably less so, since Miesian modernism made some gestures, however disingenuous, toward structural honesty; Johnsonian postmodernism was all about the facade. Strip away the granite and you have quite literally exposed what the architecture was designed to conceal.

“All that glass at the bottom with Johnson’s original granite above makes the building look top-heavy; visually, stone doesn’t want to be supported by glass. These facade missteps are too bad, because there is much about this proposed renovation to like. I think what Snøhetta has proposed for the public space in the back is a huge improvement over the banal space that exists there now, and demolishing the so-called annex structure is all to the good. Fixing up the clunky storefronts on Madison is worthy, too. A certain amount of change is absolutely necessary if this building, which was designed forty years ago for an imperial corporation to occupy as a single tenant, is to work for multiple tenants in the twenty-first century. But I’m not convinced that change has to come in the form of such drastic alteration to one of the most recognizable skyscraper facades of our time.”

—Paul Goldberger, architecture critic and Joseph Urban Professor of Design at the New School

“This is bizarre. It is questionable whether Johnson’s original base should be altered at all. Its fortress-like quality is part of the architecture of, whether you like the building or not, an important postmodernist building which in its own time was controversial. But this is a bit neither-nor. It is both too respectful and disrespectful at the same time. If you’re going to change the base into a glass box, do it with the appropriate ‘fuck you’ brutality. Don’t leave in an apologetic trace of the arch and half of the heavy masonry. Different scale altogether but a few years ago the former Abbey National HQ in Baker Street, London was renovated and for a while, it looked like this (see below.)”

—Sean Griffiths, artist and co-founder of FAT, London

The former Abbey National HQ in Baker Street under renovation. (Sean Griffiths)

“The AT&T skyscraper, Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s succès de scandale of 1978, has the rare distinction of continually adding new chapters to its notoriety, even while its banal architectural design continues to age poorly. Not only did the original design, with its one-liner quotes from architectural history, involve removing a major piece of civic art from the original ATT building, but it was granted additional square footage in exchange for public space along the Madison Avenue sidewalk and behind.  This was a promise that was as good as people’s short attention spans, and as honest as the fake masonry joints that dimension the hung masonry facade. In 2002 those sidewalk niches—never very successful in the first place—disappeared. As memories of legal agreements faded, when the building was turned over to SONY, the electronics company proceeded to fill in the ‘public space’ with shops for their products. As one corporation claiming historical permanence gave way to another continually trading dishonestly in the name of the public good, the building has gained a loyal following eager to preserve its vintage post-modern design. Now a project is under consideration that promises to return some of the stolen public space—in exchange for?—to use as part of a conversion to new uses designed by Snøhetta…  it is certainly worth considering how life could be returned to the west side of Madison Avenue continually in the shadow of this Chippendale highboy of false promises.”

—Barry Bergdoll, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History, Columbia University

“There is no doubt that the building is a landmark in many, many peoples’ minds, even if it has no legal status as such.

But let’s face it, retail is the king of street-level real estate. Open plazas, monumental lobbies and other public spaces went out the window on the same wave postmodernism rode in on.”

—Terence Riley, architect and curator

“I was at the University of Houston last week and had an idea…..”

(Rob Rogers)

Digital edit of University of Houston’s College of Architecture by Philip Johnson and John Burgee (Rob Rogers)

—Rob Rogers, Rogers Partners 

“Like it or not, Johnson’s Chippendale building is a landmark, metaphorically if not yet officially. It signified postmodernism’s entry into the corporate design mainstream, which has played the biggest role in shaping the American city of the last 50 years, as well as the end of cap-M Modernism’s hegemonic,  global, post-war choke hold largely unchallenged up until then. Just as many Bostonians united by a sustained loathing of Kallman McKinnell & Knowles Brutalist City Hall nonetheless advocate fervently for its designated protection, so should New York’s  professionals and policymakers respect this historic measure of design’s evolving continuum. There’s room to upgrade and adjust it as the side facade elevations intimate, but demolishing the grand Palladian entry to be replaced by a glass curtain wall (however state-of-the-art it may be) utterly wipes out the narrative architectural  ‘sign’ that lies at the core of postmodernist intent.”

—Paul Gunther, executive director, Gracie Mansion Conservancy, New York

“It doesn’t matter if at this particular moment in time this building, and its author, are out of fashion. It is a hugely important building, probably one of the two most significant designs by one of the 20th Century’s most complex and continuously relevant and active architectural figures. The current proposal willfully and unnecessarily undermines, or rather systematically destroys, every single one of the building’s architectural qualities as experienced from the street and its ground level public spaces. The extremity of the proposal’s grotesque annihilation of anything that was unique about Johnson’s design, and any semblance of artistic coherence, would be comical if it wasn’t so vulgar and aggressive. This is bully architecture, an act of disproportionate aggression to an important figure in history. Its Trump-era architecture, and must be stopped.”

—Adam Nathaniel Furman, architect and author of Revisiting Postmodernism, London

“While Snøhetta’s redesign of 550 Madison Avenue—or AT&T Building, as it will always be known—certainly does enlarge the public space and open it above ground once to the street, visually, but the new more transparent facade does not relate to the tower above at all as well as the more solid brick original base did. And it obscures (or dematerializes) the iconic tall arched entranceway that complemented the memorable, if not always adored, ‘Chippendale’ top. Like the new name, 550 Madison, the new facade is not distinctive or memorable. It’s lacy-ness does not seem to support the tall tower above it as well as the original more solidly brick one, which its arched arcade did. And the new public areas on upper stories are simply not as inviting as the types of public spaces were that were built at the time of the tower, such as Edward Larrabee Barnes’ IBM Building down the street at Madison between 56th and 57th Streets. There, bamboo-filled public areas with easy to access seating, open to the street on a cantilevered corner, inviting passersby to come in and stay for awhile. They also flow into to the Trump Tower atrium, providing access to Fifth Avenue, and to the 550 Madison tower on the south. Really ‘public’ public space works best at street level.”

—Jayne Merkel, art historian and critic, New York

Protest planned as controversy erupts over AT&T Building. (Courtesy Nathan Eddy)

The protest will take place Friday, November 3 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at 550 Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Already, activists have started using the #saveatt hashtag on Twitter and elsewhere. There is also a change.org petition circulating, which can be found here.

Here is the Facebook event description from the organizers:

Philip Johnson’s AT&T building is the defining icon of post-modern architecture and a towering tribute to the monumental masonry skyscrapers of the 1920s. It is in danger of losing its exemplary granite base, a destruction that would shatter the artistic integrity of Johnson’s meticulous design. This must not be allowed to happen. We are aggressively dedicated to the preservation of Johnson’s delicious crowning achievement. Please join us in preserving one of the seminal landmarks of the 20th Century.

The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) will update readers as more information becomes available.

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