Labeled as "vandalism" and "murder" of an icon of postmodernism, Oslo-based firm Snøhetta's redesign proposal for Phillip Johnson and John Burgee's AT&T Headquarters was received with instantaneous backlash across the architectural community last year. Architect Robert A. M. Stern, marched alongside a protest outside 550 Madison Avenue, and even critic Norman Foster, who never claimed to have any sympathy for the postmodern movement, still vocalized his sentiments that "[the building] is an important part of our heritage and should be respected as such."
A rejection of the bland and cold functionality of Midtown's crystal skyscrapers, the AT&T building was intended to encourage a more playful approach architecture in the corporate world; the crazy socks beneath a three-piece suit. It was not without controversy. Upon its completion, the building was derided for its decorative and outsized pediment and occasionally dark interior spaces. Indeed, the building's arched entry spaces were among the only architectural elements to be met with praise from both critics and the public.
It is perhaps no wonder, then, that the proposal to strip and entirely retool this entry sequence was met with instantaneous backlash. Vocal and organized protests by preservationists (including the memorable 'Hands off my Johnson' signs) ultimately resulted in it becoming New York's youngest landmarked building. Now, over a year after the initial announcement of the redesign, Snøhetta has revealed revised plans for the tower that aims to "preserve and revitalize the building".
According to updated plans and renderings, the design retains 94 percent of the building's original surface area and is a more subdued design than was initially proposed. Upon the release of the new design Craig Dykers, a founder of Snohetta, stated,
We reevaluated the facade and gave respect to the masonry components, but we also knew that wouldn’t solve the challenge either, because we want to bring people back into this building.
In order to reactivate the building by drawing people inside, the firm has decided to glaze the stone arcades to host retail spaces and convert the back of the building into an open-air garden. The plaza had previously been transformed into an empty glass annex, with little to no use, but is now a central component of the redesign. A glass-and-steel canopy hovers above a fountain, planters, and heated seating, alongside circular patterns superimposed in the hardscape, referencing the motifs in the facade. This design increases the area of public space, a thoughtful nod to the residential complexes surrounding the district.
But most visible is the decision to retain and restore the 60-foot windows from Johnson's original design. The windows, concealed in another renovation years ago, are a unique and almost operatic element in the tower, bringing transparency and openness to the solid structure.
With the rush to get the approval of the second design proposal, many aspects of the building appear to still be underdeveloped. Though the building was originally supposed to be completed by 2019, it is uncertain when it will be finished now. Snohetta's redesign suggests the firm and developers are listening to the public, but it remains to be seen whether these efforts will translate to a successful built work.