Just over a year ago, Snøhetta released plans for its revamp of the former AT&T Building (1984), designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. Reaction against the design was strong. Actions to oppose it were swift. And by the summer, the 34-year-old tower was designated a landmark—among the youngest buildings to receive such a designation—thwarting Snøhetta’s vision to replace the rose Stony Creek granite cladding at the base with a scalloped glass curtain wall.
In the meantime, critics debated the actual value of the building—from a design perspective. Sure, its place in the canon of architectural history as the first Postmodern skyscraper was secure, but was it ever really any good?
Apparently, it doesn’t really matter. And whatever challenges the building faced because of its design—a lobby that never quite worked as public space despite the signs all over it that read “Public Space”—will still need to be overcome since the new plan is essentially a preservationist scheme. What’s more ironic, Olayan America, the current owners of the building, now known as 550 Madison Avenue, is continuing to work with Snøhetta to deliver it. The firm is known for bold designs, from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt to the Oslo Opera House, and for pushing current thoughts about sustainability with a Zero Emission Building Pilot House (2014) and its House Zero prototype at Harvard.
Yet Snøhetta’s new scheme is classic preservation—cleaning the façade; retaining the tall, ground floor arches; removing outdated mechanicals; replacing the dark glass Gwathmey Siegel had inserted in the arches during an earlier renovation with clear glazing; reducing the size of mullions. The firm has even hired former NYC Landmarks Commissioner Sherida Paulsen to serve as a consultant. But the architects insist the new design is as bold as its first one. That’s mainly due to the new, landscaped public area the firm has designed behind the tower, where a small annex now stands—a major transformation, according to Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers.
“If it went into full-scale preservation, it would be silly for them to hire us,” says Dykers. “Besides, a lesser architect would not be able to negotiate through the system.”
Aside from the lobby, which also has some significant tweaks, including new elevators to accommodate a building whose occupancy is expected to jump to 3,000 from an original 800 employees, plans for the interiors of the 30+ upper floors are unclear, though Olayan already engaged Gensler for some of that work.
For its part, Olayan expresses optimism for the new direction its building project has taken. According to Erik Horvat, the company’s director of real estate, “If you’re in a place you recognize as a landmark, there’s value to that.” Snøhetta’s tame, current version went before the local community board for comment this week.