550 Madison Avenue
(formerly the A. T. & T. Building and then The Sony Building)
550 Madison Avenue
(between 55th and 56 Streets)
Developer: A. T. & T.
Architect: Philip Johnson/John Burgee
By Carter B. Horsley
The 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.
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.
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
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
The Johnson/Burgee design for
the building's base was quite remarkable in concept and poor in
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.”
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.
When 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
An August 1, 2018 article at Dezeen.com
by Eleanor Gibson reported that the New York City Landmarks
Preservation Commission announced July 31, 2018 that it had designated
the exterior of 550 Madison Avenue, originally the A. T. & T.
Building designed by Philip Johnson as a landmark. The building
subsequently was taken over by Sony, then the Chetrit Group and finally
The designation protects the exterior of the reddish-toned
stone building, preventing the Oslo
and New York-based architecture firm's controversial proposal to replace part
of its base with glass. Sn°hetta is now revising its scheme to update the
vacant building's public, retail and office spaces, and any changes intended
for the exterior will require an LPC review and an LPC permit.
"The team has stepped away from the design in
renderings that were made public in October 2017," said a statement sent
to Dezeen on behalf of the firm.
"In anticipation of the landmark designation for the exterior,
the team has been preparing plans for the building that strike a balance,
respecting 550 Madison's
importance, while addressing the challenges to making it a multi-tenant office
building with high quality public space."
The move to landmark the building commenced last year,
shortly after Sn°hetta revealed its controversial scheme and triggered an
outcry from the architecture industry. Architects Norman Foster and Robert A M
Stern, and critics including Olly Wainwright, Alice Rawsthorn, Alan G Brake and
Alexandra Lange, were among those who backed the campaign to protect the
Filmmaker Nathan Eddy, who organised a petition and protest
in November 2017 – a week after Sn°hetta's plans were revealed – described the
news as "an astonishing and marvelous victory".
Following the landmarking, Sn°hetta is revising plans to
replace the stone base with glass
"Landmarking any building against the wishes of
almighty developers in New York City
is almost impossible these days," Eddy told Dezeen.
"I look at it this way: $200 in poster supplies and two
days of intensive hand-lettering built a movement so passionate that we swept
the building into landmark status in less than a year."
Completed in 1984, the 34-storey tower was designed by
Johnson and partner John Burgee for American communications giant AT&T,
featuring a number of ornamental flourishes like the "Chippendale"
roof line, and brass and marble finishes inside.
Today, it is celebrated as the first skyscraper built in the
postmodern architecture style, which emerged in the late 1970s as an
ideological reaction against the utopian ideals of modernism. The landmarking
recognises the importance of this era of design.
"This is the building that established postmodernism as
a legitimate architectural movement," said LPC's Frederick Bland in a
statement. "It deserves to be preserved for future generations."
It could also mark a major step in recognising other works
built in the controversial style. Many examples of postmodern buildings have been
threatened with demolition in recent years. Others in the US include Helmut Jahn's James
Center in Chicago, which Eddy also campaigned to save
by creating a movie about the government building.
Speaking to Dezeen last year, Foster commented that although
he didn't particularly like "cartoonish" postmodernism, some
buildings in the style – like Johnson's AT&T – are worth saving.