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AT&T building: the threat to New York’s ‘tablet of stone’

Philip Johnson’s AT&T building at 550 Madison Avenue in Manhattan, New York
‘Unexpected nobility’: Philip Johnson’s distinctive 1984 AT&T building at 550 Madison Avenue in Manhattan, New York. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Philip Johnson, the most influential American architect for much of the 20th century, was a terrible man and a mostly terrible architect. If his most obvious crime was his warm embrace of Nazism in the 1930s, he was also manipulative, self-dealing and cynical. His buildings are paltry in their detail, strangely draining architectural form into a spiritless cipher of itself – “thin-lipped”, as the British critic Reyner Banham put it – often plain clumsy, tone-deaf to the poetries of materials and light, their sense of scale awkward. His buildings are derivative, albeit in such a brilliantly timed way that they appear to lead the movements they in fact follow.

His greatest genius and significance was as a cultural politician, broker and string-puller, a man who, with the help of his inherited wealth and network of connections, could launch or end styles and make or break careers. As the architectural historian Charles Jencks once said, some time before Johnson’s death aged 98 in 2005, he “is a good whatever-he-is. Philip has ruined a lot of movements. He goes in and asset-strips.” He did much to create the hollow phenomenon of the starchitect, the man (it’s usually a man) whose work, once he has been declared a great architect, must self-evidently also be considered great.

So why should his most famous and notorious work, the 197-metre tower he designed for AT&T on Madison Avenue, New York, be protected from the major changes now proposed by Olayan, the Saudi conglomerate that owns it, and by its British development partners, Chelsfield? (As, without a shadow of doubt, it should.) And why has this threat to its integrity – “integrity” being a word that sits oddly with both the man and his work – inspired a younger generation, hopeful and idealistic as they are, to rush to its defence? Why, for example, should Nathan Eddy, a 33-year-old film-maker, have been driven at short notice to launch a petition, stage a street protest of “good-looking people with good slogans” (“Hands off my Johnson”) and enlist the support, among other famous architects, of Norman Foster, whose own disciplined hi-tech approach was the opposite of Johnson’s chameleonism?

From its inception, the AT&T building has had a knack of getting into the news. It was commissioned by what was then the largest corporation in the world to be its landmark and headquarters, and Johnson’s task was to repeat what he had done with the Seagram building, a quarter of a mile away on Park Avenue, in 1958. There, as accomplice to Mies van der Rohe, he had helped make another corporate headquarters into the world-famous statement of an architectural style. The Seagram, steel and glass, black, rectilinear and minimal, was modernist, but when the designs for AT&T were unveiled in 1978 the avant garde had moved on. It had to be postmodern, until then the style of a rebellious, pop-influenced generation expressed mostly in private houses and interiors. It was to be made of pink granite; it borrowed motifs from the Romanesque and the Florentine Renaissance; it had a gold vault in its entrance hall; and it was surmounted by a broken pediment that reminded people of Chippendale furniture.

Left: the existing ground-level view of his AT&T building; right: the proposed new glass frontage
Left: the existing ground-level view of his AT&T building; right: the proposed new glass frontage. Photograph: Snøhetta

It was greeted with uproar. Modernists saw it as a betrayal of their principles by a man who had once seemed to champion them. Postmodernists saw it as a commercial sellout of their ideas. “The so-called ‘postmodern’ styling in which AT&T has been tarted up,” wrote Michael Sorkin, architect and Village Voice critic, “is simply a graceless attempt to disguise what is really just the same old building by cloaking it in this week’s drag, and by trying to hide behind the reputations of the blameless dead.” The great critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it “clever cannibalism”.

In any event, Johnson got on the cover of Time magazine, caped and double-breasted-suited like a dapper Moses, holding a model of his Chippendale skyscraper like a tablet of stone. And since the AT&T’s completion in 1984 familiar alchemies have taken place, whereby the dubious motives of its creators and the controversies surrounding its creation have faded, and for a generation too young to know of them the tower became part of the urban furniture. AT&T ceased to be an omnipotent business titan and the building was taken over by Sony. Alterations enclosed much of the publicly accessible space at ground level, which had been an important factor in its getting approval from the city’s planning authorities.

Philip Johnson, ‘a dapper Moses’, on the cover of Time magazine, January 1979
Philip Johnson, ‘a dapper Moses’, on the cover of Time magazine, January 1979. Photograph: Time

It became an object of affection. Then, in October, its owners announced that they had hired the “visionary” architectural practice Snøhetta to “reinterpret” the building for “the way we live now”. This meant ripping away Johnson’s Brunelleschian stonework – after the broken pediment the tower’s most distinctive feature – and replacing it with glass, the better to maximise its retail possibilities and to serve its intended transformation from corporate headquarters to multi-tenanted office building.

It would be like taking one of the fine suits that Johnson favoured and chopping it at the knee. It would be another step in the ubiquitous glassification of the street levels of great cities, whereby everything that is solid must be melted in the cause of shopping. It would annihilate, as Liz Waytkus of the preservation group Docomomo says, the part of the architecture most directly experienced by the public.

It is, adds Waytkus, “obvious that it should be defended. It is one of the most important buildings of that style and incredibly important to the history of New York City.”

“You don’t have to like it,” says Eddy, who is working on a film about Johnson, “but you have to respect that there are some strong things about it. You may think it’s silly, but they said the same about the Chrysler building.” Which, of course, is now an irreproachable symbol of the Manhattan skyline. Johnson, Eddy says, “was not a capital G great architect, but he had a flamboyance and a devil-may-care attitude.” AT&T represents “a brand new world where we can do whatever we want – that speaks to my generation”.

Eddy’s campaign has been extraordinarily successful, extraordinarily fast. The Landmarks and Preservation Commission has “calendared” AT&T, which means it will hold a hearing as to whether the building should become a protected landmark, which is probably what will happen. The current SnØhetta plans seem to be dead. The big question now is to what extent the lower levels, already mucked around, should be protected or even returned to their former openness.

The answer is, as much as possible. Cities are made of stuff like this, of the strivings of not always pleasant people to make a mark, of provocation and ambition transmuted into masonry and space, which, redeemed by the passage of time, come to reveal unexpected nobility. Or at least distinctiveness. Olayan and Chelsfield should realise that they have something unique on their hands and, rather than kick against it, make the most of it.

This article titled "AT&T building: the threat to New York’s ‘tablet of stone’" was written by Rowan Moore, for The Observer on Sunday 31 December 2017 08.00am

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