A plan by the design firm Snøhetta to remake Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building has sparked anger in the architecture world.
Changes to the building since it opened have undermined this idea of an Italianate arcade. Sony, after purchasing the building from AT&T in 2002, enclosed the spaces and converted them to showrooms. Some of the building’s distinctive oculi (round windows) were blocked off. Acknowledging that past changes were unsympathetic, Snøhetta plans instead to strip a large rectangle from the stone façade on Madison Avenue and “partially [replace]” it with a wavy sheet of glass.
The architecture world reacted angrily to the announcement. British architect and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman (whose own work draws on Postmodern influences) tweeted sarcastically: “Say goodbye to Philip Johnson, and hello to, um, glass...wayda go New York...”. Mark Lamster, the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, tweeted: “this defacement of pj’s landmark att tower by snohetta is a travesty. i know att is controversial but this is wrong.” (Lamster is currently writing his own biography of Johnson.)
But not everyone was ruffled. Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of The New York Times, responded to Lamster’s tweet: “Why travesty?”
because att is one of the most significant buildings of the 20th century and a defining work of postmodernism.— mark lamster (@marklamster) October 30, 2017
the "failure" is overstated, and can be ameliorated with FAR less intrusive measures. this is a marketing ploy that compromises a landmark.— mark lamster (@marklamster) October 30, 2017
Kimmelman raises the point that despite Johnson’s aspirations, the arcade is not very successful as a public space. The gigantic scale of the columns and the arch make it appear forbidding. (Or in Snøhetta’s language, “fortress-like” and “uninviting.”) Increasing the level of transparency and improving the flow between building and street would seem like no-brainers to many people.
That shouldn’t come at the cost of the integrity of a major work of Philip Johnson’s, say opponents, who quickly rallied to launch a change.org petition and #saveatt Twitter hashtag. They also plan a protest outside the building on Nov. 3.
The debate over the appropriateness of the redesign comes down to priorities. What’s more important: the integrity of an important work of architecture, or how well it functions as part of the contemporary city? Behind that question lurk others. How important is AT&T, really? (One scholar described it as “banal” and “a mediocre building” in 2015.) And how well can we assess a building’s role in architectural history at a remove of only 30-odd years?
These questions are going to arise again and again as buildings of the late 20th century—designed in the Postmodernist, Late Modernist, and Brutalist styles—reach an awkward age. They haven’t been state-of-the-art or fashionable for decades. They look tired; their systems are creaky; their owners want to revive them. But they’re not old enough to be considered properly historic. Even some of the most significant of these buildings (including AT&T) lack landmark status, so owners and architects have free rein to modify them. (Thomas Collins, a preservationist who opposes Snøhetta’s scheme, has submitted a formal request for evaluation to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for both the building’s exterior and interior lobby—“one of the few intact postmodern interiors left in New York,” he says in an email.)
Snøhetta has caught flak for its approach to a Postmodern building before. Last year, some critics expressed disappointment at how the firm’s new addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art interacts with the museum’s 1995 wing, designed by Mario Botta. Whatever one thinks of AT&T, the architects’ suggestion, in their press release, that the Chippendale top is the building’s key Postmodern feature seems dubious. (“[P]erhaps the formal elements most illustrative of Postmodern sensibilities occur 647 feet below [the crown] at ground level,” as David Langdon writes in ArchDaily).