THE SONY BUILDING
(formerly the A. T. & T. Building)
550 Madison Avenue
(between 55th and 56 Streets)
Developer: A. T. & T.
Architect: Philip Johnson/John Burgee
Erected: 1984

Plaza District skyline from the south

From right to left, Sony/ATT, IBM, Trump, 712 Fifth Avenue
and 9 West 57th Street towers

By Carter B. Horsley

View of tower from 57th StreetThe announcement of this project made the front page of The New York Times not because of its size or economic impact, but because of its heralding of a new architectural era.

With its eye-catching, Chippendale-style, broken-front roof pediment, shown at the right in the picture above that also shows its relationship to the former I.B.M. building in the center and Trump Tower at the left, the tower became the most famous "Post-Modern” building in the country.

It was not the first building of its time to base its style on historical allusion, of course, but it was the most prominent and most publicized. Because Johnson and Burgee were the nation's most favored corporate architects at the time and because A. T. & T. was not a minor company, the design took on even greater significance and clout.

Tall building on narrow avenueIts 37-stories belie its considerable height largely because its entrance is about 7 stories tall and had been specifically designed to accommodate and house the spectacular, large gilded statue, “The Spirit of Communications,” by Evelyn Longman Batchelder, that had formerly been perched atop A. T. & T.'s former headquarters building at 195 Broadway in Lower Manhattan overlooking historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The statue was the city's finest and most elegant skyline ornament since August St. Gaudens's great gilded statue of Diana that had stood atop the tower of the old, demolished Madison Square Garden on Madison Avenue and 26th Street.

The decision to remove the statue from the downtown building and put it in the new building's lobby surprisingly did not become a major public controversy even though it desecrated the integrity of the great building downtown and violated the artistic intentions of the sculptor. Such concerns were largely forgotten because of controversies over the Post-Modern design of the tower and over the tower's looming bulk without setbacks on such a narrow avenue in such a congested area.

"Spirit of Communications" statute

Computer drawing of "Spirit of Communications" statue at A. T. & T.'s major corporate offices in New Jersey that had formerly been atop its headquarters building on Broadway in Lower Manhattan before being removed to the lobby of its new building on Madison Avenue that was subsequently acquired by SONY.

The statue controversy also was ameliorated somewhat by Johnson's rather spectacular entrance setting for it which placed it on a pedestal beneath a gilded vault and behind a very large, arched, multi-paned window. The window gave the statue visibility from across the street. The window’s panes, however, made it seem imprisoned, much like a saint in a famous Raphael mural in the Vatican. For the public daring enough to enter the high-security lobby, the view of the statue was dramatic but awkward because of the relatively narrow lobby space, as shown in the picture below, that precludes any full appreciation of the tall statue even though one could walk around it.

Madison Avenue facade with AT&T's Spirit of Communications statue in lobby

In the late 1990s, A.T.&T. offered to return the statue to the city but the city, incredibly, could not come up with a plan and the company decided to keep its marvelous statue out at its major corporate campus in New Jersey. (9/21/00)

The Johnson/Burgee design for the building's base was quite remarkable in concept and poor in execution.

In “Philip Johnson, Life and Work,” (the University of Chicago Press, 1994), Franz Schulze noted that A. T. & T. had invited 25 architects in 1975 to compete for a major new building. “According to Burgee, he and Philip were the only ones who didn't answer,” Schulze wrote, adding that before long, however, they were on a short list of three and eventually won the important commission.

“Zoning laws requiring not only a plaza but ground-level shops that would have been arrayed close enough to the entrance to deprive it of the grandeur Philip wanted for it led him and John to the inventive idea of raising the whole structure sixty feet off the ground and supporting it on massive columns. The lobby would be smaller but kept at grade, and the shops would be moved to a glazed galleria at the rear of the tower. The open area, whose great piers reminded Philip of an Egyptian hypostyle hall, would be given over to benches and cafe seating, thus providing the public amenities expected of a plaza....The entrance was conceived as a mammoth, 116-foot-high round arch flanked on each side by three shorter 60-foot rectangular openings that create the effect of an arcade,” Schulze wrote.

Of course, the arcade was interrupted by the entrance and was not continuous along Madison Avenue, thereby only offering partial protection for pedestrians from the elements.

The tower's base had two high open gallerias with public setting consisting of cast-iron chairs and tables painted white. The east and west sides of these spaces each had three large openings with flat tops as opposed to the building entrance's arched opening, which rose several floors higher. The north and south facades of the base had similar openings, but also three oculi with flared borders.

These galleries were originally criticized for being a bit too drafty, as a result of their considerable height, and for their furniture being a bit cute. Their intent, of course, was to provide some public open space in a very congested area with relatively narrow sidewalks.

Of the lobby entrance, Schulze noted that, “Overriding a proposal to install a large sculpture there by Isamu Noguchi, Philip persuaded [chairman John] Butts instead to let him salvage a statue that had been placed in 1916 on top of the old A. T. & T. building downtown....It was as close to a stroke of genius as Philip gave the whole project: an unmistakable symbol of a solidly conservative corporation, at the same time a piece of beefcake and high camp, a weightless gay fantasy levitating in the middle of all that straight hard rock. This was PoMo irony, undiluted.”

Sony's redesigned Madison Avenue facade for building

Indeed, it was Post-Modern rape, twice over, since the excellent statue, gay or not, and probably not, was abducted to New Jersey when A.T.&T. abandoned this building to Sony.

Oculi in part of formery open public arcade in former AT&T BuildingWhen the building was sold to Sony, furthermore, the city agreed to let the new owner enclose the galleries with windows that were similar to the multi-paned treatment used at the building's entrance, as shown in the picture above. The newly enclosed galleries, however, were no longer available as public open space and were permitted to be converted into showrooms for Sony products. Sony also blocked oculi openings, which were the nicest feature of the spaces as seen in the picture at the right. It did not, however, lower the ceilings, but did fill the high spaces with large banners and lighting fixtures heralding their products and the redesign resulted in a very cluttered appearance that hopefully, and likely, will be redesigned.

At the same time, the city permitted Sony to partially enclose the formerly open but skylit, through-block atrium behind the tower, as shown at the left. The atrium separates the tower from a low-rise building that was part of the original A. T. & T. development. The low-rise building originally was designed to contain a showroom for A. T. & T. products and exhibitions and some retail space. The showroom was opened, but never was very successful, a reflection more on the quality of its exhibitions than its design. Part of the retail space was rented for several years to The Quilted Giraffe, one of the city's most expensive French restaurants that had been formerly located several blocks away. The restaurant changed its cuisine to incorporate a lot of Japanese cuisine and its new interior design was very modern and very handsome. The restaurant, however, closed after several years. The atrium, shown at the left below after Sony alterations, also had kiosks and large hanging lanterns that were bulbous and looked like they were transplanted from some 1960's hotel atrium's outside elevator bank.

Atrium a la  SonyThe city's acquiescence with the Sony designs was an incredulous and egregious error as the changes violated the building's original design integrity and, more importantly, appropriated for commercial use the public space of the original gallerias for which the project had received a substantial zoning bonus that enabled the building to contain more office space. There was a little public debate that did not change the result substantially. A new, unattractive banner proclaims that the new Sony Plaza is public and there is some public seating that resulted from the fact that the new corporate showrooms do not extend all the way back to the through-block atrium.

In an ideal world, every public official who voted to approve this change should never be re-elected.

The north end of the through-block atrium faces the very handsome and successful, large, skylit atrium of the former IBM Building (see The City Review article) on the next block north.

Presumably, part of the rationale in approving the new Sony Plaza was that the old A. T. & T. Plaza had been neither successful nor popular, particularly in contrast to the adjacent IBM atrium. The buildings, of course, were developed independently and had never been coordinated with one another. The IBM Building, however, had been coordinated to a certain extent with the Trump Tower/Bonwit Teller buildings that abut its atrium.

View of curved skylight in Sony Wonder space at rear of building

Sony Wonder, part of which is shown in the picture below, is a multi-level and interactive exhibition that is not too bad and is accessed through a large cylindrical elevator in Sony Plaza.

Sony Wonder interior

The three towers, however, cannot be considered in total isolation as their visual impact on the skyline and on the plaza district's economy and liveliness is immense. The three towers are shown with their surrounding skyline on the picture at the start of this article.

Regardless of their individual merits, these three towers significantly upgraded the Plaza district with the high quality of their designs and rich materials. Their proximity intensified vertiginous impact on pedestrians while adding character and color to the neighborhood. The Sony Building is clad in unpolished, pink granite while the IBM facade is polished, dark green granite and Trump Tower is clad in reflective, bronze-tinted glass. Because of the spacing provided by the low-level Bonwit Teller Building, which became the Galleries Lafayette Building and then was rebuilt in 1996 into a Nike store, this tower trio is less vibrant but more successful than the tower troika consisting of Carnegie Hall Tower and the Metropolitan Tower, both on 57th Street between the Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue, and CitySpire behind them, across 56th Street. Both of these "tuning-fork" trios bring to midtown the staggering, cliff-hanging precipitousness that defined the Financial District's romantic skyline and heady, canyonesque pedestrian experience.

Johnson/Burgee devoted a great deal of their design efforts in many major projects to fenestration experimentation. Here, they stressed the tower's verticality by recessing the narrow windows and their spandrels and omitting corner windows to let the handsome and finely detailed pink granite facade convey a powerful sense of monumentality. While the fenestration pattern is a bit fussy, the overall effect of the shaft portion of the tower is quite attractive because the minimalization of windows augments its substantiality.

The famous Chippendale-like top is simple and very bold and even better at night when its curved cutout is well-illuminated, adding a kind, emanating mystery, and occasionally steam. The analogy to a highboy, however, is so apt and unavoidable that it is hard not to be overcome by the trivializing association. Giganticism can often have wonderful shock value, but buildings, if not owners, are relatively permanent and not toy building blocks, especially at such a prominent site.

Sony atrium without Spirit of CommunicationsThere is nothing inherently wrong with appropriating forms from other disciplines and the thought of a childlike “toy city” has entered our culture with Disneylands and “Learning From Las Vegas” insights from architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Isenour. It is an undeniable plus for a city to have a major corporation erect a major edifice and when the city, or midtown district, already has a chaotic melange of styles, it is alright to encourage new “design statements.” The city is unquestionable better off for A.T. & T.'s investment and venture. It should be noted, however, that its castration, or rather beheading, of its former headquarters was despicable, more so than Sony's bastardization of the public spaces. A. T. & T. had actually moved most of its headquarters operations to an enormous and very impressive facility in Basking Ridge, N.J., where it presumably absconded with its great statue when it sold the Madison Avenue building to Sony, which now uses the lobby for a modern sculpture as shown at the left. The Basking Ridge facility does not actively encourage public visits and hopefully the company will see fit at some future enlightened moment to return the statue to its rightful home in Manhattan. A fitting solution might be to place it on some high, elegant pedestal at an extremely important and prominent public site that, conceivably could be renamed A. T. & T. Plaza. Such a site could be at Battery Park City, or Battery Park, or the promenade at Ellis Island, or Bryant Park, or even putting it back on its original perch where the new owner of the building, Peter Kalikow, put up a gilded orb, which was pleasantly thoughtful, but not as inspiring. Such a solution would go a long way to clearing up the company's ignominy with regard to urban amenities and civic responsibility.

What inspired Sony to purchase such a Post-Modern landmark, which is still too young to be considered for designation as an official city landmark because of the city's archaic and timid landmark regulations, is very hard to understand. Sony's product innovations and elegant product design would lead one to assume that its major facilities would have a somewhat consistent design philosophy, or motif, namely, something high-tech, modern, dazzling, and maybe even abstract.

Presumably, the sun will rise someday on a new owner of this “abused” building and nurture it back to normalcy and Sony will entice and enchant the city with some of the brilliance that has made Japanese design and architecture the world's most fascinating for almost two decades.

This story needs a happier ending.

In January, 2000, A. T. & T. offered to return "Golden Boy" to New York, but in April, 2000 announced it had decided to keep it. A spokesman for the company, John Heath, was quoted in an article by Shaila Dewan in the April 4, 2000 edition of The New York Times as stating that "We were not able to find a suitable home for him elsewhere." The same article quoted New York City Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern as stating that the city would "put him on a pedestal with the Statue of Liberty" and that the city had offered A. T.& T. three sites, one at the Washington Market Park, one atop 195 Broadway, its original home, and one at 346 Broadway that had once been topped by a large bronze eagle.

Since the products in the retail spaces are made by Sony, the showrooms are by and large well-designed and interesting, but they completely violate the architectural integrity of Johnson/Burgee's famous design for the building and make a mockery of the city's overseeing and guidance of proper plaza usage.

In his book, "Privately Owned Public Spaces The New York Experience," (John Wiley & Sons, 2000) Jerold S. Kayden, to his great credit, discusses Sony's 1992 proposal at length, noting that it "bluntly raised the question when, if ever, privatization of public space should be formally allowed":

"Specifically, Sony proposed to eliminate 10,560 square feet of arcade, reducing it from 14,102 to 3,542 square feet, and to replace it with 6,050 square feet of indoor retail space, much of it along the Madison Avenue frontage. Were this all to the proposal, the answer would be easy, since Sony not only would be decreasing public space but would also be increasing private floor area. What made this a matter for legitimate public debate was Sony's sweetener: its offer to enlarge its covered pedestrian space, located at the rear of the building and connecting East 55th and 56th Streets, from 5,625 square feet to 9,731 square feet and to render it climate controlled. Sony was offering an additional 4,106 square feet of covered pedestrian space and a general enhancement of its qualities in exchange for a reduction of 10,560 square feet of 'as-of-right' arcade. Sony also proposed to eliminate 1,324 square feet of retail space fronting the covered pedestrian space, and to replace the AT&T Infoquest Center with its own exhibit center, called SonyWonder Technology Lab, in the annex. The zoning arithmetic worked out as follows. Reflecting the judgment that, square foot for square foot, a covered pedestrian space is more valuable to the public and more expensive to construct than an arcade, the Zoning Resolution generally authorized a substantially greater bonus per square foot of covered pedestrian space. In the Sony case, at a rate of 11 square feet of bonus floor area for every square foot of covered pedestrian space, the additional covered pedestrian space would generate a bonus of 45,166 square feet. At a rate of three square feet of bonus floor area for every square foot of arcade, the lost 10,560 square feet of arcade would reduce the building's zoning floor area entitlement by 31,680 square feet. Thus, even after Sony would have constructed 6,050 square feet of new retail space in the old arcade space, that would still leave it with an unused entitlement of more than 7,000 square feet of building. And that would be before counting the 1,324 square foot reduction of retail space in the covered pedestrian space. In short, in the arcane world of zoning bonuses for privately owned public spaces, it could be argued, the public would emerge more than whole, with less, but more valuable, public space. The City agreed with this reasoning and approved Sony's application in 1992, concluding that the public benefit associated with the changes exceeded the public benefit associated with the existing configuration."

Kayden goes on to argue that as completed the spaces work well, but concludes that "As for the lost arcade spaces, it would be a mistake to romanticize them," adding that "during much of the year, they were cold, dark, and windy."

Kayden neglects to discuss the utter prostitution of the building's architecture, nor the fact that perhaps the city gave in to Sony because it did not want to antagonize such an international powerhouse especially when the city was in the midst of a very, very severe recession. The city's decision to grant these changes was and is unconscionable and outrageous and inexcusable even though the Sony retail spaces, designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, are pleasant because of Sony's great products on display.

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