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Postmodern icon 550 Madison Avenue will get a contemporary Snøhetta revamp

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The proposal has architecture critics fretting over the significance of Philip Johnson’s iconic postmodern building, which is not a New York landmark

As part of Snohetta’s redesign, the podium of 550 Madison Avenue will be glassed in.
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Snøhetta has been tapped to reimagine Philip Johnson’s iconic postmodern skyscraper at 550 Madison Avenue as a contemporary office space with a newly transparent podium that “stitches the life of the building back into the street,” the firm has announced.

The renovation of the former Sony and AT&T headquarters comes on the heels of a deserted plan by developer Chetrit Group to convert the 1984 building into 113 condos, including a $150 million triplex penthouse. Chetrit Group sold the building to Olayan America for $1.4 billion in May 2016. It’s Olayan America with Chelsfield America that are now moving forward with the renovation of 550 Madison. The building is not a landmark, allowing the renovation to move forward unobstructed.

Snøhetta’s redesign will expose the base of the building by partially replacing its stone facade with an undulating glass curtain wall that will extend to the first two floors of the building. The renovation will also see the demolition of a neighboring annex building that will double the amount of public open space surrounding the building. That open space will absorb the mid-block passageway between 55th and 56th Street and include a “sensitively curated planting palette” as well as spaces for gathering.

The office building has remained largely vacant since Sony decamped from 550 Madison about a year and a half ago. The redesign will help to modernize the office spaces through targeted LEED Gold and WELL-certified renovations, along with upgrades like DOAS—a Dedicated Outdoor Air Ventilation System ensuring fresh air for office occupants—and the installation of a new digital infrastructure.

Since the renovation was announced this morning, the architecture community has responded with mixed reactions, particularly to the amendments to the building’s retail portion:

Mark Lamster, architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, and New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman came at the proposal from opposing sides on Twitter this morning. “AT&T is one of the most significant buildings of the 20th century and a defining work of postmodernism,” writes Lamster, defending his position against the renovation.

“Of course,” Kimmelman wrote, “but it also is and has always been a failure at street level. Does that matter?”

“The ‘failure’ is overstated, and can be ameliorated with FAR less intrusive measures,” said Lamster. “This is a marketing ploy that compromises a landmark.”

Curbed’s own architecture critic, Alexandra Lange, has this to say of the proposed redesign:

Snøhetta's proposed alteration to the AT&T Building's Madison Avenue facade cuts Philip Johnson's groundbreaking postmodern tower off at the knees, upsetting the balance between its arched bottom and Chippendale top. The point of AT&T was solidity, a return to the old order of skyscrapers clad in stone instead of glass, though Johnson had fun with that tradition by making it look like a piece of furniture. Inserting an Apple Store-wannabe facade is trinkety and trendy and ten years from now, the next owners will want to change it again. AT&T deserves to be landmarked as one of the two defining buildings of postmodernism, alongside the Portland Building.

Sony

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