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Philip Johnson’s postmodern Midtown skyscraper could become a NYC landmark

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The Landmarks Preservation Commission is taking steps to protect the circa-1984 building

Courtesy Snøhetta

UPDATE 11/28/17: On Tuesday morning, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) moved swiftly to calendar an application to landmark the exteriors of 550 Madison Avenue. This marks the first step in the landmarks process. In the coming months, the LPC will hold a public hearing on the building, and then subsequently deliberate on landmarking Philip Johnson’s postmodern tower.

The committee’s research staff praised the building’s design for its “broad cultural critique of modernism” that stood in stark contrast to the international style of design that dominated the era.

“This is probably the first and definitely the most iconic postmodern building in New York City,” Meenakshi Srinivasan, chair of the LPC, said before the commission voted to calendar the landmark hearing. “I think some of us know the building is in play, so the time is right.”

It’s barely been a month since architecture firm Snøhetta unveiled a contemporary redesign for 550 Madison Avenue, and preservationists have already seen a win in their quest to protect Philip Johnson’s proudly postmodern skyscraper. The Landmarks Preservation Commission will decide this week whether or not to calendar the skyscraper, which is the first step in the process of naming the building a New York City landmark.

The move by the LPC comes in response to Snøhetta’s planned revamp, which would double the amount of public space within the building, along with transforming its stone base with an undulating glass curtain wall.

Many in the architecture community decried the move, noting that the changes would irreparably alter a “defining work of postmodernism,” as Dallas Morning News critic Mark Lamster put it. (Curbed’s own architecture critic, Alexandra Lange, called the proposed redesign “trinkety” with an “Apple Store-wannabe facade.”)

A rendering of Snøhetta’s planned redesign of 550 Madison Avenue.

A campaign to landmark the building began soon after, with no less a noted architecture figure than Robert A.M. Stern showing up to protest the changes. And it looks like the LPC is listening: In its brief for tomorrow’s hearing, it calls Johnson’s building “an icon of Postmodern corporate design and one of most recognizable buildings in the Manhattan skyline.”

The LPC has been notoriously slow to act on preserving postmodern architecture; it was just this year, after all, that the LPC voted to protect the lobby and the Ambassador Grill within the United Nations Plaza Hotel (now known as the One UN New York Hotel). A yearlong campaign, led by architecture buffs, helped save those disco-fied rooms (designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates) from certain death.

Johnson’s skyscraper, which became eligible for LPC designation in 2014, will hopefully go the same route. But one thing to note: the LPC seems to be considering just the exterior of the building for landmark status, not its interiors.

“[550 Madison] absolutely deserves to be a landmark and makes a perfect follow-up to the late modern Citicorp Building, whose landmarking we celebrated one year ago,” Lange said in an email. “Famous architect, skyscraper, Manhattan, instantly recognizable … the only reason it wouldn’t get calendared is opposition from the owners, which the landmarking process should weigh against history and the public good.”

The LPC will render that first all-important decision tomorrow—stay tuned.

Update: In a statement provided to Curbed, David Laurie, the managing director of Chelsfield America (one of the firms attached to the redevelopment, along with owner Olayan America), expressed support for the LPC’s decision. The statement continues below:

We have received both praise and critical commentary on the design and we are committed to developing a thoughtful approach. We recognize that the building has broad appeal and is at various levels an important part of architectural heritage, so we value a constructive dialogue as we develop the plans further.

550 Madison plays an important role in reaching the goals of the Midtown East rezoning. To achieve that, the building needs upgrades that will enable us to bring more than 3,000 jobs to the area, generate economic activity, and dramatically improve the adjacent public space. We want to breathe new life into the property that has been vacant for the past two years.

We are committed to creating a rejuvenated 550 Madison that retains its important presence, works for future tenants, and realizes long-promised public amenities to the larger Midtown community. And we look forward to further collaborating with the LPC to make that happen.


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