Snøhetta reveals more preservation-friendly redesign for Philip Johnson’s 550 Madison

December 5, 2018

Architecture firm Snøhetta unveiled this week a preservationist-friendly revision to a controversial design for an updated AT&T building at 550 Madison Avenue. The latest design is one of several revisions, each followed by controversy over being seen by preservationists as diverting too much from the building’s original design by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. In addition to comparisons to the original, new designs have had to consider the subsequent revamp that made it the Sony building in 1994, which replaced the building’s open Madison Avenue arcade with “Sony Experience” storefronts and covered a rear public arcade with a glass roof.

550 Madison, snohetta, olayan group, Philip johnson

As the building is now landmarked, its landlord, the Olayan Group, requires approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to move forward with the changes, which, in their reference to the 1984 design, are fairly conservative when compared to suggestions of a shiny glass sheath for the granite tower’s base. Erik Horvat, real estate director of the Saudi Arabia-based Olayan said, “We’re removing some of the [Sony] alterations because they didn’t work.”

“550 Madison is a historic landmark, claiming its place in New York City’s architectural heritage,” Horvat said in a statement. “We aim to return the tower, which has sat vacant for years and was in danger of condo conversion, to its original prominence as one of the top Class A commercial buildings in New York City.”

An earlier redesign proposal in 2017 by Snøhetta would have re-worked the building’s lower floors for improved retail use. That proposal, however, received no love from preservationists. Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange said of that attempt, “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.”

Robert A.M. Stern weighed in against the design, alongside protesters bearing signs that read “Save the Stone,” “Save AT&T,” and the media-friendly “Hands off my Johnson.” As a result, 550 Madison received official city landmark designation in July of 2018, changing the stakes for its redesign, as 6sqft reported.

After consulting with all stakeholders involved, Snøhetta produced a new design for 550 Madison; unlike the previous version, the new plan considers the historic importance of the Postmodern icon. Says Horvat, “it’s absolutely evident that we’ve taken a preservation-first approach.”

The latest revision preserves 94 percent of the facade including its iconic top and includes three tall windows on either side of the building’s 110-foot-tall entrance archway, recessed to emphasize the granite columns between them. Nearly transparent mullions would take the place of the current darkened ones.

550 Madison, snohetta, olayan group, Philip johnson

550 Madison, snohetta, olayan group, Philip johnson

A big challenge to the acceptance by preservationists lies in the privately-owned public space (POPS) at the building’s street level. The new design nearly doubles the floor area in the rear arcade, creating a garden-like public space covered only by an airy glass canopy, with the current side street enclosures removed. Snøhetta’s new vision would bring the available public space to around 21,300 square feet with seating for 240 and plenty of greenery.

Olayan and development partners RXR Realty and Chelsfield have presented the new design to Community Board 5 to begin the review process. Next for the redesign is a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing with a decision expected January.

Olayan, who purchased the vacant tower in 2016 for $1.4 billion from Chetrit Group, estimates the project will cost about $300 million and hopes to reopen the building with 850,000 square feet of office space for lease by mid-2020.

Renderings courtesy of LMNB and Snøhetta.


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