Postmodern Icon to be Considered as Individual Landmark

AT&T Building. Image Credit: LPC.

Tower’s design, which flamboyantly rejected the precepts of the International Style, generated tremendous publicity and controversy. On November 28, 2017, Landmarks voted to add the former AT&T Building, at 550 Madison Avenue to its calendar, formally commencing the designation process. Designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, the building is considered an icon of Postmodernism. The building, built between 1978 and 1884, is just old enough to be considered under Landmarks’ rules mandating that only buildings that have stood for 30 years or longer may be designated. 

Johnson who worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art before starting his own architectural practice, began his work within the language of International Style Modernism. He designed as his home the Glass House in New Canaan Connecticut, and worked on the landmarked interiors of the Seagram Building. On partnering with Burgee, the pair designed several corporate buildings, and together helped postmodernism bring into the field of architecture.

The AT&T Buildings were a provocation against modernism and the International Style, reintroducing classical-style ornament to contemporary architecture. The tower is clad in granite, rejecting the glass-and curtain walls associated with Modernist office towers. The building employed prominent historicist quotations, with its famous pediment inspired by design motifs in Chippendale furniture. The building is arranged in a classic tripartite manner, with a base featuring a 110-foor tall central arch. Openings surrounding the entrance hearkened to Italian Renaissance forms.

The buildings originally had unenclosed public arcades along three sides of the base, but they have subsequently been enclosed or converted into discrete retail shops.

The Building garnered significant amounts of media attention, and stirred controversy among architectural critics. Johnson appeared on the cover of Time Magazine holding a model of the AT&T building. In the New York Times, architectural critic called Ada Louis Huxtable gave the building a decidedly mixed reviews, calling it a “pedestrian pastiche” elevated by the quality of its details. Johnson was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1979.

The tower was built by AT&T to serve as its corporate headquarters. In 1992, the company consolidated its headquarters at 32 Sixth Avenue, and leased 550 Madison to the Sony Corporation. Sony purchased the structure in 2002. In 2013, the Chetrit Group acquired the building from Sony, planning to redevelop the building for residential use. The redevelopment never took place, and the current owners, the Saudi-based Olayan Group purchased the building in 2016.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said that, in considering the building as an possible individual landmark, the Commission would be grappling with a “particular architectural paradigm as it comes of age,” rather than dealing with historical styles that had reached a consensus of widespread appreciation.  Srinivasan said it merited consideration for its iconicity and prominence in the City skyline, as well as for being a pivotal work by a significant American architect. She said the controversy and publicity surrounding the building made it one of the world’s most well-known Postmodern structures.

Commissioners Michael Devonshire and Kim Vauss urged the Research Department to also examine the lobby as a potential interior landmark. Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said the building offered an important critique of Modernism, and noted that that it was constructed during a stagnant economic time in New York, when few architecturally ambitious towers were being built.

The Commission voted unanimously to add the building to Landmarks’ calendar. There was no date set for a public hearing on designation.

LPC: AT&T Building, 550 Madison Avenue, Manhattan (LP-2600) (Nov. 28, 2017).

 By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

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