It may be the single most important architectural detail of the last fifty years. Emerging bravely from the glassy sea of Madison Avenue skyscrapers in midtown Manhattan, the open pediment atop Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 1984 AT&T Building (now the Sony Tower) singlehandedly turned the architectural world on its head. This playful deployment of historical quotation explicitly contradicted modernist imperatives and heralded the mainstream arrival of an approach to design defined instead by a search for architectural meaning. The AT&T Building wasn’t the first of its type, but it was certainly the most high-profile, proudly announcing that architecture was experiencing the maturation of a new evolutionary phase: Postmodernism had officially arrived to the world scene.
This article was originally published on November 25, 2014. To read the stories behind other celebrated architecture projects, visit our AD Classics section.
Architects have never enjoyed a position of such supreme prominence as they did in the worldview of Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller. To him, architects alone were capable of understanding and navigating the complex interrelationships of society, technology, and environment as viewed through the comprehensive paradigm of systems theory. Architecture, in this model, was intended to exist in close contact with both mankind and nature, playing civilization’s most critical role in elevating the state of humanity and promoting its responsible stewardship of the environment. Emerging from the ethical positivity of postwar modernism, this melioristic perspective marks perhaps the zenith of optimism’s ascent in mid-twentieth century thought, and gave Fuller a uniquely moral blueprint for his revolutionary designs.