590 MADISON AVENUE
Between 56th and 57th Streets
(the former IBM Building)
Developer: The International Business Machines Corporation
Architect: Edward Larrabee Barnes
By Carter B. Horsley
when it opened, this sharply chiseled, dark green giant may not
be a masterpiece of modernity, but it is very impressive and definitely
one of the city's finest oases.
Take a square column, slice
off a large wedge facing southwest, cut away a chunk from the
base facing northeast and add a saw-tooth skylight atrium on its
southwest side and you have the basic form. The photograph above,
taken from the 56th Street entrance of Sony Plaza, shows the roof
of the atrium, the former IBM Building on the right, and the rear
of Trump Tower on the left.
Then fill the atrium with huge
bamboo trees, finish everything finely with rich materials, add
the finest general-purpose museum space in the city in the basement,
connect the atrium to the adjacent Trump Tower atrium and you have the 43-story building that formerly
was known as the IBM Building before that company sold it to its
What you also have is a whole
much greater than its parts because this tower cannot be fully
considered without its relationship with two other major skyscrapers,
the Trump Tower to the immediate west and the Sony (formerly A.
T. & T.) Building (see The
City Review article)
to the immediate south. These three towers, shown at the left
in a view from Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, form a high-rise
enclave that by themselves would “make” any other city
and which in their aggregate dramatically changed the focus of
the midtown office market. One could well argue that the building’s
bamboo court atrium is the epicenter of the city's most desirable
office market. While the Plaza district has been the city's most
elegant for most of the century for its hotels and shops, this
trio solidified it as the most desirable corporate address.
Incredibly, both this building
and the A. T. & T. Building were abandoned after a only few
years by their corporate developers, a stunning quirk of financial
and real estate history and probably corporate mismanagement.
Neither building, in fact, were official corporate headquarters
as the companies had long since sneaked out of the city, but the
two buildings epitomized the tradition of distinctive, proud corporate
The former IBM Building, whose
cantilevered entrance is shown below, was acquired by a venture
headed by Edward J. Minskoff, a member of a family long associated
with major office building development in Manhattan after World
War II. The former A. T. & T. Building was acquired by the
Sony Corporation for its American headquarters.
If two of the mightiest corporate
names in the history of the United States cannot tolerate or support
a major headquarters building in New York, perhaps the city is
doomed. At the very least, such a major shift in corporate thinking
reflects a serious decline in the city’s stature as the sine
qua non of the business world, especially since both abandonments
occurred prior to the explosion of interest in the World Wide
Web on the Internet with all of its implications for global connectivity
via computers rather than in person.
IBM’s decision was the
more understandable of the two as the company had endured more
than a decade of ludicrous mismanagement of the business it virtually
invented: personal computers. It actually needed the money. Indeed,
its sale of the building was not as dastardly as its outrageous
decision to close its splendid, very elegant, museum-like exhibition
space that had hosted a most impressive series of great art exhibitions.
Not surprisingly, the company soon decided to also sell off many
of its most valuable paintings from its famous art collection,
which had helped garner the company a world-wide reputation as
a leading corporate patron of the arts. It happened to sell the
art when the market was down considerably, also.
The decision of both companies
to sell their famous skyscrapers at almost distress prices in
a real estate depression was an early and very disturbing sign
of corporate downsizing that no doubt warmed stockholders’
hearts while depressing the hearts of all civilized people. If
the board of directors of the companies had been more astute and
waited a few years, they could have realized substantially greater
sales results as the real estate market boomed in the late 1990's.
So much for "shareholders' interests" and "corporate
responsibility." So much for neighborhood, to say nothing
of urban and civic and responsibility.
Adding insult to injury and
kicking the city while it’s down, the new owners of both
buildings also shared an amazing contempt for contractual agreements
with the city. It was no surprise, of course, that city officials
meekly, albeit outrageously, acquiesced.
Mr. Minskoff, a dapper contemporary
art collector, mowed down a large portion of the bamboo court
that IBM had created to make room for meretricious, dismal, uninspired
and not at all attractive contemporary art, at least in the first
new installations. Furthermore, he approved the installation of
a very poor and mediocre red Alexander Calder sculpture beneath
the great cantilever at the corner of Madison Avenue and 57th
In his book, "Privately
Owned Public Spaces The New York Experience," (John Wiley
& Sons, 2000), Jerold S. Kayden writes that this covered pedestrian
space has garnered "near universal recognition as New York
City's peerless privately owned public space, a tree-filled conservatory
and public living room rolled into one."
"When the Minksoff ownership
group purchased the IBM building in 1994 and applied to the City
Planning Commission one year later for permission to modify the
space, alarm bells sounded. Here was someone about to tamper with
sacrosanct public space, something that could be tolerated only
if it were conclusively demonstrated that the changes would improve
existing conditions. The owner originally proposed to reduce from
11 to 5 the number of bamboo tree stands and remove the low dish
planters to make physical and visual way for the indoor sculpture
garden displaying large-scale artworks by major artist sof the
twentieth century rotated regularly under the directionof the
Pace Wildenstein Gallery. The owner also proposed to increase
the amount of seating (albeit with benches substituting for some
of the movable chairs), to decrease the number of movable tables,
and to relocate the food kiosk from southwest to southeast corners,
making it more visibile form Madison Avenue. After hearing arguments
for and agaisnt the changes, and after the owner agreed to retain
8 of 11 bamboo stands, install additional movable chairs without
benches, and keep the tables, thge City Planning Commission gave
its approval....While Wordsworth's 'brotherhood of venerable trees'
has been diminished, and the planters once filled with brightly
colored azaleas, lilies, and tulips that changed with the seasons
are sadly absent, sculptures by such artists as Henry Moore, Karel
appel, and Alexander Calder have taken their place. Together with
the Levitated Mass (1982), environmental artist Michael
Heizer's sculpture in the urban plaza at the northwest corner
of East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, shown below, consisting
of an 11-ton stone incised with a coded building address and resting
in a stainless steel basin of rushing water...,the public spaces
here have become something of a public art magnet....Several other
changes have occurred over the years. The IBM Gallery of Science
and Art...has been replaced by the Newseum, a media museum funded
by the Freedom Forum."
One might say that such art
patronage was praiseworthy, but one cannot, first because the
specific art is not distinguished and second because a resurrection
of the former IBM gallery would have been very noble and could
well have been called, proudly, the Minskoff Gallery. Of course,
it still could, hint, hint.
One should not quibble too
much over public art, perhaps, but here the art was being lent
by local, albeit prestigious, art dealers, usurping dedicated
public space that was used by the building to erect a larger structure.
The new artsy atrium can be seen below.
The decision of Sony to remake
the street-level spaces of the former A. T. & T. Building
into commercial showcases for its products is even more blatant
chutzpah and how it could have been approved by city officials
makes Boss Tweed look like a saint.
While somewhat stylish, the
Sony spaces enclosed the building’s most of the original
huge arcades that also counted heavily toward permitting the building
to become much larger than its normal zoning would have permitted.
All this change, of course,
merely carries on New York’s infamous, chaotic tradition
of change for change’s sake.
Indeed, Donald Trump demolished
the rather attractive Art Deco facade of Bonwit Teller, the department
store, to erect Trump Tower, and moved the store into a classy,
but more contemporary and sleek new building next to the IBM Building
on 57th Street. The store didn’t survive very long and was
soon taken over by Galleries Lafayette and in 1996 Nike, the sneaker
company, tore that building down to erect its own store on the
site, inspired and attracted no doubt by the wild success of the
Warner Bros. Studio store across the street that revitalized the
It is interesting to note,
moreover, that this trio - the former IBM and A. T. & T. buildings
and Trump Tower - is countered by another towering trio two blocks
to the west. The western trio, comprised by the Metropolitan Tower,
the Carnegie Hall Tower and CitySpire, was also unplanned and
uncoordinated by its three separate developers. While considerably
more controversial for a variety of reasons that are discussed
in their individual essays in this book, the western trio, which
is much more closely bunched, resonates much more like a three-pronged
tuning fork than this trio anchored by the former IBM Building.
This trio is more satisfying
because of the open spaces provided by the “IBM” atrium
and the open rear terraces of Trump Tower. Architecturally, this
trio also betters the other one, largely because two of its towers
were designed as corporate showcases rather than speculative office
towers, which normally are not as plush. Both trios, however,
introduce to midtown much of the vertiginous ecstasy/apoplexy
that heretofore was the sole domain of the financial district
Like the palm trees in the
Wintergarden at the World Financial Center downtown, the bamboo
trees here were doubtful survivors, but like most transplants
to the city they have thrived, until Mr. Minskoff came along.
This trio is also more cohesive because the former IBM was the
most dignified of the lot and happens to be the shortest and at
the center, an interesting reminder that mere physical dominance
in height or bulk does not necessary rule.
There are six entrances at
the former IBM Building: directly from the former IBM Building's
cantilevered Madison Avenue and 57th Street entrance, through
the building's lobby; directly from the former IBM Gallery of
Arts & Sciences, now used by Freedom Forum; directly from
the Nike store that was formerly the Galleries Lafayette store
and originally a new Bonwit Teller in the middle of the block;
and three directly from the streets. (In 1996, the building’s
new owners rented the former IBM corporate exhibition showroom
space on 57th Street to Tourneau, a watch store, shown below,
which will never match the institutional elegance of the former
showroom. While its space would be impressive in another context,
say a New Jersey shopping mall, here it borders on being crass.
The new Nike Town store is a crowd magnet, but its high-school
gym architecture is an incongruous and disappointing replacement
for the original building on the site whose dark red polished
granite facade was elegant and a good neighbor for IBM’s
polished granite facade and the fortress-like facades of Tiffany's
on the other side.)
The atrium's potted plantings
in the former IBM building used to be changed regularly and a
handsome, circular, stainless-steel food and beverage stand made
a stay in this vast skylight jungle extremely pleasurable. The
New York Botanical Gardens also had a store fronting on the atrium,
which was appropriate because of the atrium's lavish plantings.
A bar and smoking area would
be most welcome here, but probably incorrect politically and corporately.
The zig-zag skylight is rakish,
but it is a reminder of the unusual angularity of the former IBM
Building, which, with the adjoining Trump Tower and the Sony Building,
has transformed a rather drab great location into one of the supreme
glories of New York despite the above-mentioned flaws.
The double-height office building
lobby itself is minimal in size, relative to the tower, but is
oriented so that clear views into the atrium can be seen from
its entrance. Thanks to the high polish of its granite walls,
the reflected views of the atrium between the elevator banks appears
larger than the actual window openings, a rather brilliant design.
Moreover, this entrance is
tucked beneath the tower's incredible cantilever at this corner.
This engineering tour-de-force reportedly cost IBM an additional
$10 million or so in construction costs at the time. (At the time,
$10 million was not an insignificant figure.) It was considered
an awkward gimmick initially, but it is very, very dramatic as
befits such a prestigious corporation whose history of support
of the arts had always been among the highest in the country.
The cutaway corner opens unusual vistas of 57th Street between
Madison and Fifth Avenues, one of the city's most elegant blocks,
but the cantilever also permits the tower's form to hold to the
traditional street grid. Barnes tried a variation of this cutaway
for Park Tower Realty's 535 Madison Avenue office tower, a few
blocks south, but there a corner column helps support the tower
and interrupts, albeit fairly gracefully, its midblock plaza.
The Calder sculpture, shown
above prior to the Tourneau watch store lease of the retail space
to the west in the building that fussified its appearance, just
sits plunk and ungracefully beneath the cantilever and directly
in front of the entrance. While it certainly is not as bad as
the wall Richard Serra controversially erected some years before
in the plaza of the Federal Office Building on Foley Square in
Lower Manhattan, it detracts from the awesomeness and daring of
Barnes’s design. It’s hokey and not elegant. It’s
just plain ugly in its execution.
The IBM tower's angled facade
facing southwest not only gives it workers unusual vistas but
also opens up views of the nearby Trump and Sony towers. Furthermore,
the IBM tower's highly polished and flush granite facades lessen
the visual impact of such a large building and presents a very
The southeast corner street
entrance to the atrium is setback to permit a marvelous horizontal
fountain, shown above, by sculptor Michael Heizer that is one
of the best new works of public art in the city in a generation.
The stainless steel base of the fountain, in which water rushes
horizontally, contains a large granite sculpture that the artist
designed as a “lineal code” to denote the location by
assigning numbers to the alphabet and then spelling out, in code,
MAD and 56.
According to Margot Gayle and
Michele Cohen in their excellent book, “The Art Commission
and the Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculpture,”
Heizer's carving atop the granite boulder “suggest Egyptian
rock gravure and American Indian petroglyphs,” even if less
casual observers might construe them as an abstract representation
of a microchip that seems to hover over a torrent of rapids.
The angle of the tower is recalled
in the angled sidewalk lobby of the building's former gallery
space as well as the sidewalk piers of the tower, an especially
nice and unusual touch.
The former gallery's lobby
is large, simple and efficient with a broad staircase and a large
elevator leading to the galleries downstairs, which expand under
the entire site and had the highest record of consistently interesting
and wonderfully installed exhibitions of any art institution in
the city. Excellent public restrooms are located on the lower
level here. The gallery alone would have earned plaudits for this
project, which is the best and only good thing IBM has done since
the introduction of its personal computer in 1981.
Some purists may never forgive
IBM for not making its tower out of lapis lazuli to conform with
its nickname of “Big Blue.” Perhaps someday they will
erect a blue skyscraper, but inasmuch as this was not even its
corporate headquarters, nay, not even, a summer residence, this
green giant will do very nicely indeed.
The former IBM building is
too stark, bulky, overwhelming and almost too razor-sharp to be
a masterpiece. Yet its combination of robust solidity and strength,
high degree of finish and fine materials, and unusual form and
superb public amenities make it a subtle, sophisticated modern
marvel of urbanity.
In 2008, the museum-like space
was taken over by Bonham's, an auction house.