Philip Johnson's AT&T Building has always been vain, idiosyncratic and flawed. Let's keep it that way

A proposal from the firm Snøhetta calls for replacing the lower facade of Philip Johnson's AT&T Building in New York with a glass curtain wall. (DBOX)

There are times when making judgments about architecture is an uncertain business, full of gray areas and nuance. And there are times when it’s easy.

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.

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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.

I wasn’t the only critic to react that way. A little after 9 a.m., an email arrived from Mark Lamster, architecture critic at the Dallas Morning News and author of a forthcoming Johnson biography. Lamster’s email (subject line: “att”) was addressed to Craig Dykers, a founder of Snøhetta; I was copied along with several other architecture critics, including Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times and Alexandra Lange of Curbed. Lamster told Dykers he was “deeply troubled” by the Snøhetta proposal and urged him to “reconsider this direction.”

Similar responses filled social media. “Are we now going to literally throw a veil over everything that’s no longer in style?” Lange asked on Twitter. Kimmelman pushed back a little, tweeting that the tower “has always been a failure at street level.”

Before we get into the details of the new plan, it’s probably worth reviewing the original design by Johnson and Burgee and why it made such a splash at the time. Johnson, after two stints running the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art, became a practicing architect relatively late in life; he completed his quintessentially modernist Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., in 1949, at the age of 43. By the time he teamed with Burgee to form Johnson/Burgee Architects, in 1968, he was determined to become a prolific corporate architect and build at a skyline-altering scale.

Never one to let conviction stand in the way of a juicy commission, Johnson began to throw in his lot, stylistically speaking, with the emerging post-modern movement, which replaced the flat roofs, glass curtain walls and forward-looking gaze of modern architecture with strategically deployed ornament and nods to history.

The existing building, left, and the proposed redesign. (DBOX)

Then came AT&T. Even as a proposal, an unbuilt design, it marked a turning point; it announced that PoMo was going mainstream. (For that reason alone it deserves to rank with Michael Graves’ 1982 Portland Building as one of the founding statements of the movement.) Johnson appeared on the cover of Time magazine on Jan. 8, 1979, holding a model of the tower alongside the rather vague headline “U.S. Architects: Doing Their Own Thing.”

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What was Johnson’s Own Thing? In the case of AT&T, it was using the building as a sort of billboard to advertise his growing interest in history, decoration, irony and related subjects. At the top of the 647-foot-tall building, at the corner of Madison and East 55th Street, was a pediment broken in the center by a semicircle; the design was a quotation, at comically oversized scale, of a Chippendale chest of drawers. (Ada Louise Huxtable, writing in the New York Times, called that detail a “bow to the Baroque in a world of flat‐topped, no‐nonsense skyscrapers.”) In its middle floors the building was fairly straightforward and well-behaved.

It met the street with an oversized, arched entry, leading to a lobby as high as a seven-story building. It’s here that Snøhetta has focused its attention. (The Chippendale top won’t be changed in the proposed redesign.) Its plan reimagines the tower — largely vacant since Sony, which succeeded AT&T as the building’s owner, moved out 18 months ago — as a model of sleek ground-level transparency.

It calls for removing a significant amount of the tower’s façade along Madison, clad like Grand Central Terminal in Stony Creek granite, and replacing it with a fluted glass curtain wall that exposes some of the building’s steel structure. The arch facing Madison Avenue, covered by this new glass skin, would be visible but less pronounced. The tower would appear to float one floor above the pavement, which is to say it would become knock-kneed and top-heavy. The redesign would also remove an annex at the rear of the building and turn some of the indoor public space that AT&T built (in exchange for the right to add six stories to the tower) into a 21,000-square-foot outdoor public garden.

Some of these changes make sense, especially the ones aiming to undo problems introduced in the ground-level spaces in 1993 by Charles Gwathmey’s firm, which worked on the tower after Sony bought it. (John Hill has a good summary of the Gwathmey additions here; he’s right to argue that Gwathmey “was the first architect to disfigure the AT&T Building, doing it when the building was not even ten years old.”) On the whole, though, the Snøhetta plan is distinctly at odds with the spirit of the original design.

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.

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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.

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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.

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