This is one of the easy times. A press release trumpeting a proposal from architecture firm Snøhetta to redesign Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 1984 skyscraper at 550 Madison Ave. in Manhattan, originally known as the AT&T Building, landed in my email inbox at precisely 7 a.m. Monday. By 8:20 I’d written to my editor to let him know I’d be scrapping my earlier plan for this week’s column and replacing it with a plea to Snøhetta and the tower’s owner, Saudi Arabian conglomerate Olayan Group, to rethink the $300-million overhaul.
It was clear to see right away that the Snøhetta plan has major flaws. It would transform one of the archly ironic landmarks of postmodern architecture into something agreeably “updated,” which is to say perfectly bland. (In that sense it’s reminiscent of L.A. firm Johnson Fain’s depressingly tasteful update of Johnson’s 1980 Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, which I wrote about last year.) In doing so, it seems determined to ruin the tower’s relationship to the ground, the solid and carefully arranged way its granite facade meets the street.
Thanks in part to the popularity of Apple stores around the country, many developers now believe that a building you can see through is by definition a contemporary building, one in touch with the times. But transparency is more often these days a sign of deadly earnestness and lack of imagination, of giving in to the sort of architecture that you think your prospective tenants prefer. Many Manhattanites have grown weary of transparent architecture, and for good reason; there are blocks on which it seems the whole island has traded stone for glass.
The Snøhetta proposal arrives as a revival of interest in history — and in postmodernism specifically — continues to pick up speed, especially among younger designers. The Chicago Architecture Biennial didn’t simply take history as its central theme this year; it introduced to the public a whole generation of architects, mostly in their 30s and 40s, who anchor their work in a range of ways in the past, sometimes with Johnson-style irony and perhaps more often without.
The British designer Adam Nathaniel Furman, born two years before the AT&T Building was completed, was among the landmark’s biggest defenders on Twitter on Monday. “COME ON New Yorkers,” he tweeted after sharing images of the Snøhetta plan. “Don’t let it happen ...” On Wednesday morning, 33-year-old documentary filmmaker Nathan Eddy, who is working on a film about Johnson, emailed to tell me he was helping organize a protest outside the tower on Friday afternoon.
Kimmelman has a point when he says that the tower (which is not landmarked) is imperfect at street level; in his skyscrapers Johnson sometimes paid more attention to big, symbolic gestures than pedestrian scale. But big gestures matter. Style does too. It’s become entirely unfashionable to say this, but cities don’t succeed without the occasional display of architectural idiosyncrasy or even vanity. (If living in Los Angeles for 13 years has taught me anything, it’s this.) Show me an urban neighborhood where the balance between the architect’s prerogative and the desire for a consistent public realm tips too drastically toward consistency and I’ll show you a place drained of life, without any spark. I’ll show you the Pearl District in Portland, all California retirees sipping Chardonnay on perfectly scaled front stoops carrying some imagined Jane Jacobs seal of approval.
In rare cases it’s worth carving out space — and special protection — for an odd, daring, groundbreaking and flawed building like AT&T.
Just as important, a crucial element of Johnson and Burgee’s original design is the solid, even heavy way the tower meets the ground. This is perhaps the building’s most classical feature, this insistence that a building gains power and presence by bringing stone all the way down to street level.
I hope Olayan will pay close attention to the critical backlash and seek out some architectural second opinions. Otherwise Snøhetta’s glass curtain wall will hang over the Madison Avenue sidewalk like a guillotine of good taste.