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Snøhetta’s new design for 550 Madison Avenue gets broad support from architects

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During a two-hour Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, architects weighed in on the new design

Courtesy of LMNB & Snøhetta

Snøhetta’s proposed changes to 550 Madison Avenue, Philip Johnson’s Postmodern skyscraper (which was landmarked last summer), went before the Landmarks Preservation Commission yesterday, with the agency ultimately tabling its vote after a two-hour public hearing that stretched into the evening.

But the public testimony marked a shift from the public response to Snøhetta’s first go-round with redesigning the tower in 2017. Instead, the reaction to the firm’s new design—revealed in December, and focused on preserving more of the tower while transforming the building’s privately-owned public space—was overwhelmingly positive.

Much of the public testimony came from architects and landscape designers, who unanimously supported Snøhetta’s new vision for the building. Supporters included Robert A.M. Stern, who noted that he had protested the firm’s previous try at revamping the Postmodern skyscraper; Richard Rogers of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners; Billie Tsien of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects; Liz Diller of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro; Gene Kohn of KPF; Claire Weisz and Mark Yoes of WXY; Signe Nielsen of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, who is also part of the city’s Public Design Commission; and Adriaan Geuze of West8.

The new plan also has the support of Alan Ritchie and John Burgee, both of whom worked with Philip Johnson and were part of the team that designed 550 Madison Avenue. Ritchie called the new design “most respectful” and noted that Johnson himself “saw the need for buildings to evolve over time.”

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic, advised Snøhetta on the new design, and said during the hearing that the new changes are “an opportunity to show our greatest buildings are living things, and change can be managed to their benefit.”

Snøhetta

There were some detractors, however, notably Docomomo_US, which called on the LPC to vote down the new plan unless major modifications were made to ensure the building’s original design—which featured an open arcade at the ground level, without retail or other clutter—was restored. The new plan, Docomomo_US executive director Liz Waytkus said, shows a “lack of understanding of the original design complexity and context, which will now be lost.”

The Historic Districts Council also expressed reservations with Snøhetta’s new design, which will install retail on the Madison Avenue side of the building where those open loggias once stood. “This building was considered to be special enough to be designated as an individual landmark for being one of the best representations of its style,” the group’s statement reads. “HDC is of the mind that further interventions to the building should attempt to return it toward its intended design, which was a monumental loggia-ed vista along Madison Avenue.”

The meeting also gave Snøhetta and the building’s owners, the Olayan Group, a chance to shed more light on what they’re planning for the tower. The interiors of the skyscraper will get an overhaul (outside of the LPC’s purview) to better compete with other Manhattan office towers, but much of the exterior—96 percent, according to the team—will remain unchanged. Windows will be replaced, and new space for shops will be added at the ground floor level.

The biggest change will be to the building’s POPS; 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. In designing it, the team at Snøhetta looked to 550’s circular motifs (porthole windows, the broken pediment at its pinnacle) and Johnson’s other work—including the Thanks-Giving Square Garden in Dallas—for inspiration.

But after two hours of testimony, the LPC broke at 6:30 p.m., saying it would need more time to discuss and ultimately vote on whether the changes should move forward. The agency has yet to set a date for that vote.