When Snøhetta and the Olayan Group announced last fall that they would revamp the Philip Johnson-designed skyscraper at 550 Madison Avenue, the reaction from architecture buffs and preservation-minded New Yorkers was swift—and not entirely positive.
“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,” Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange said at the time. Robert A.M. Stern joined protests against the design, and explained to Metropolis why it was worth preserving. By the summer, the Landmarks Preservation Commission had weighed in, and gave the building’s exterior—including its stone facade and Chippendale-esque topper—landmark status.
And all the while, the developers and the design team were listening and adjusting their plans. “The reaction was quick, but we’ve been stewing on it pretty continuously since then,” says Nick Anderson, a senior architect at Snøhetta who is working on the redevelopment.
After conversations with a number of stakeholders—preservationists, architects (including Stern), community members, and the development team—Snøhetta came up with a new design for 550 Madison, which is due to be presented at a Community Board 5 meeting tonight. And unlike the previous design, which replaced a chunk of the ground-level facade with an undulating glass curtain wall, this one is more respectful of the Postmodern icon’s historical importance.
“First and foremost, we want this building to survive and be vital; it’s been vacant for two and a half years,” Anderson explains. But vitality and preservation were able to coexist in the new design for the tower. “We’re really focusing on improvement where it must happen, and we’re really trying to be respectful where the building tells us we should be,” he says.
And Erik Horvat, the director of real estate for the Olayan Group, says “it’s absolutely evident that we’ve taken a preservation-first approach” with the new design.
Improvement, in this case, means significant upgrades to the building’s interiors, which will be kept as office space, and were not part of the LPC designation. The building’s entire mechanical systems (including elevators and HVAC systems) will be replaced, with eco-friendly upgrades added and the goal of achieving LEED platinum status. An office building that was originally intended for fewer than 1,000 employees will, eventually, be able to accommodate 3,000, and will be competitive with newer buildings at Hudson Yards and in lower Manhattan, according to Horvat.
But the biggest change—and one that may still prove to be vexing for preservationists—is to the privately-owned public space (POPS) at the ground level. The current space is, as Anderson describes it, “tall, skinny, and dark”; Snøhetta’s new vision would open it up, with an airy glass canopy and plenty of seating. By removing some of the current retail spaces and taking down an annex that was added when Sony bought the building in the 1990s, the available public space will total around 21,300 square feet—significantly larger than what exists now—with seating for 240 and more plant life than is typically found in a POPS.
“We’re growing the public space,” Anderson explains. “We’re just shifting how it works.”
All of these changes were done in consultation with John Burgee and Alan Ritchie, two of the architects who worked on the building’s original design, along with Johnson, in the 1970s and 1980s. Snøhetta also received feedback from city agencies like the LPC and City Planning Commission, and asked landscape architects like Barbara Wilks and Signe Neilsen to weigh in.
But there are still losses; the lobby of the building was razed earlier this year, much to the dismay of preservationists. They had pushed for that cavernous space to be included in the LPC’s designation of the building, but were rebuffed. A new design for the lobby has yet to be approved, but Horvat says they are keeping Johnson’s original design in mind. “Whatever happens inside—and we’re not there yet—is to really respect the way this building works, and make sure it’s complementary to all the things we’re doing in the original design,” he explains.
And many of the original design’s detractors have yet to weigh in. “Snohetta says they haven’t completed their design of the ground floor yet,” says Lange. “In the current renderings it looks a bit like John Pawson’s minimalist Calvin Klein store from the 1990s further up Madison (an interior replaced in 2017 by artist Sterling Ruby, with yellow, scaffolding, and quilts). That part is not protected. They can do what they want. But I wish they could enter into the spirit of the place and work with postmodernism instead of against it.”
Ultimately, whether or not this design will move forward rests on obtaining approval from the LPC and the City Planning Commission: The former will review the design sometime early next year, and assuming it receives approval, the latter will spend time going over the new POPS design. The developers and designers are optimistic, however, that this new approach will pass muster.
“It’s been a process, but I feel quite good about where we’re at today,” Anderson says.