Philip Johnson's AT&T Building has always been useless, idiosyncratic and flawed. Let's keep it that way – Los Angeles Times

There are occasions when making judgments about structure is an unsure enterprise, stuffed with grey areas and nuance. And there are occasions when it’s simple.

This is among the simple instances. A press launch trumpeting a proposal from structure agency Snøhetta to revamp Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 1984 skyscraper at 550 Madison Ave. in Manhattan, initially referred to as the AT&T Building, landed in my e-mail inbox at exactly 7 a.m. Monday. By eight:20 I’d written to my editor to let him know I’d be scrapping my earlier plan for this week’s column and changing it with a plea to Snøhetta and the tower’s proprietor, Saudi Arabian conglomerate Olayan Group, to rethink the $300-million overhaul.

It was clear to see instantly that the Snøhetta plan has main flaws. It might rework one of many archly ironic landmarks of postmodern structure into one thing agreeably “up to date,” which is to say completely bland. (In that sense it’s harking back to L.A. agency Johnson Fain’s depressingly tasteful replace of Johnson’s 1980 Crystal Cathedral in Backyard Grove, which I wrote about final 12 months.) In doing so, it appears decided to spoil the tower’s relationship to the bottom, the stable and rigorously organized way its granite facade meets the road.

I wasn’t the one critic to react that way. Somewhat after 9 a.m., an e-mail arrived from Mark Lamster, structure critic on the Dallas Morning Information and creator of a forthcoming Johnson biography. Lamster’s e-mail (topic line: “att”) was addressed to Craig Dykers, a founding father of Snøhetta; I used to be copied together with a number of different structure critics, together with Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times and Alexandra Lange of Curbed. Lamster instructed Dykers he was “deeply troubled” by the Snøhetta proposal and urged him to “rethink this course.”

Related responses crammed social media. “Are we now going to actually throw a veil over every part that’s now not in fashion?” Lange asked on Twitter. Kimmelman pushed again a bit, tweeting that the tower “has always been a failure at avenue stage.”

Earlier than we get into the main points of the brand new plan, it’s most likely value reviewing the unique design by Johnson and Burgee and why it made such a splash on the time. Johnson, after two stints operating the structure and design division on the Museum of Trendy Artwork, turned a practising architect comparatively late in life, finishing his quintessentially modernist Glass Home in New Canaan, Conn., in 1949, on the age of 43. By the point he teamed with Burgee to type Johnson/Burgee Architects, in 1968, he was decided to turn into a prolific company architect and construct at a skyline-altering scale.

By no means one to let conviction stand within the way of a juicy fee, Johnson started to throw in his lot, stylistically talking, with the rising put up-fashionable motion, which changed the flat roofs, glass curtain partitions and ahead-wanting gaze of contemporary structure with strategically deployed decoration and nods to historical past.

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Then got here AT&T. At the same time as a proposal, an unbuilt design, it marked a turning level; it introduced that PoMo was going mainstream. (For that cause alone it deserves to rank with Michael Graves’ 1982 Portland Building as one of many founding statements of the motion.) Johnson appeared on the quilt of Time journal on Jan. eight, 1979, holding a mannequin of the tower alongside the slightly imprecise headline “U.S. Architects: Doing Their Personal Factor.”

What was Johnson’s Personal Factor? Within the case of AT&T, it was utilizing the constructing as a kind of billboard to promote his rising curiosity in historical past, ornament, irony and associated topics. On the high of the 647-foot-tall constructing, on the nook of Madison and East 55th Road, was a pediment damaged within the middle by a semicircle; the design was a citation, at comically outsized scale, of a Chippendale chest of drawers. (Ada Louise Huxtable, writing within the New York Times, known as that element a “bow to the Baroque in a world of flat‐topped, no‐nonsense skyscrapers.”) In its center flooring the constructing was pretty simple and effectively-behaved.

It met the road with an outsized, arched entry, resulting in a foyer as excessive as a seven-story constructing. It’s right here that Snøhetta has targeted its consideration. (The Chippendale high received’t be modified within the proposed redesign.) Its plan reimagines the tower — largely vacant since Sony, which succeeded AT&T because the constructing’s proprietor, moved out 18 months in the past — as a mannequin of modern floor-stage transparency.

It requires eradicating a major quantity of the tower’s façade alongside Madison, clad like Grand Central Terminal in Stony Creek granite, and changing it with a fluted glass curtain wall that exposes a number of the constructing’s metal construction. The arch dealing with Madison Avenue, lined by this new glass pores and skin, can be seen however much less pronounced. The tower would seem to drift one ground above the pavement, which is to say it would turn into knock-kneed and high-heavy. The redesign would additionally take away an annex on the rear of the constructing and flip a number of the indoor public house that AT&T constructed (in alternate for the proper so as to add six tales to the tower) right into a 21,000-square-foot outside public backyard.

A few of these modifications make sense, particularly those aiming to undo issues launched within the floor-stage areas in 1993 by Charles Gwathmey’s agency, which labored on the tower after Sony purchased it. (John Hill has abstract of the Gwathmey additions here; he’s proper to argue that Gwathmey “was the primary architect to disfigure the AT&T Building, doing it when the constructing was not even ten years previous.”) On the entire, although, the Snøhetta plan is distinctly at odds with the spirit of the unique design.

Thanks partly to the recognition of Apple shops across the nation, many builders now consider that a constructing you possibly can see via is by definition a up to date constructing, one in contact with the instances. However transparency is extra usually lately an indication of lethal earnestness and lack of creativeness, of giving in to the kind of structure that you suppose your potential tenants choose. Many Manhattanites have grown weary of clear structure, and for good cause; there are blocks on which it appears the entire island has traded stone for glass.

The Snøhetta proposal arrives as a revival of curiosity in historical past — and in postmodernism particularly — continues to select up pace, particularly amongst youthful designers. The Chicago Structure Biennial didn’t merely take historical past as its central theme this 12 months; it launched to the general public a complete technology of architects, largely of their 30s and 40s, who anchor their work in a variety of the way up to now, typically with Johnson-fashion irony and maybe extra usually with out.

The British designer Adam Nathaniel Furman, born two years earlier than the AT&T Building was accomplished, was among the many landmark’s greatest defenders on Twitter on Monday. “COME ON New Yorkers,” he tweeted after sharing pictures of the Snøhetta plan. “Don’t let it occur ...” On Wednesday morning, 33-year-previous documentary filmmaker Nathan Eddy, who's engaged on a movie about Johnson, emailed to inform me he was serving to arrange a protest outdoors the tower on Friday afternoon.

Kimmelman just isn't solely unsuitable that the tower (which isn't landmarked) is imperfect at avenue stage; Johnson was always higher at large, symbolic gestures than at perfecting the kind of design particulars that can humanize a constructing. However large gestures matter. Model does too. It’s turn into solely retro to say this, however cities don’t succeed with out the occasional show of architectural idiosyncrasy and even vainness. (If residing in Los Angeles for 13 years has taught me something, it’s this.) Present me an city neighborhood the place the steadiness between the architect’s prerogative and the need for a constant public realm ideas too drastically towards consistency and I’ll present you a spot drained of life, with none spark. I’ll present you the Pearl District in Portland, all California retirees sipping Chardonnay on completely scaled entrance stoops carrying some imagined Jane Jacobs seal of approval.

In excessive instances it’s value carving out house — and particular safety — for an odd, daring, groundbreaking and flawed constructing like AT&T.

Simply as necessary, an important ingredient of Johnson and Burgee’s unique design is the stable, even heavy way the tower meets the bottom. That is maybe the constructing’s most classical characteristic, this insistence that a constructing features energy and presence by bringing stone all of the way right down to avenue stage.

I hope Olayan pays shut consideration to the vital backlash and hunt down some architectural second opinions. In any other case Snøhetta’s glass curtain wall will dangle over the Madison Avenue sidewalk like a guillotine of fine style.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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Philip Johnson's AT&T Building has always been useless, idiosyncratic and flawed. Let's keep it that way - Los Angeles Times