Postmodern Buildings: AT&T Building, New York By Johnson/Burgee

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Philip Johnson John Burgee AT&ampT Building Sony Tower

Pomo summertime: originally developed for American communications giant AT&ampT, Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s Postmodern skyscraper was the very first of its variety. Now acknowledged as the Sony Tower, the creating stays controversial and is the up coming in our season on Postmodernism.

Philip Johnson John Burgee AT&ampT Building Sony Tower credit_David_Shankbone_dezeen_468 The AT&ampT Building, now known as the Sony Tower, in 2007. Photograph by David Shankbone

When it opened in 1984, the AT&ampT Building stood in stark contrast to the boxy glass-and-metal towers that had sprung up in Midtown Manhattan considering that the 1950s. Regarded as the very first Postmodern skyscraper, the 37-storey developing – created by Philip Johnson and John Burgee – featured a amount of ornamental flourishes, from its granite cladding and “Chippendale” roof line to its brass and marble finishes on the interior.

“The announcement of this task produced the front page of The New York Instances not since of its dimension or economic impact, but since of its heralding of a new architectural era,” wrote architecture critic Carter B Horsley in The City Evaluation. “It was not the first developing of its time to base its type on historical allusion, of program, but it was the most prominent and most publicised. Simply because Johnson and Burgee had been the nation’s most favoured corporate architects at the time, and since AT&ampT was not a minor business, the layout took on even higher significance and clout.”

Philip Johnson John Burgee AT&ampT Building Sony Tower dezeen_468 Seeking up and southeast at the Sony Constructing from 56th Street. Photograph by Jim Henderson

In 1975, American Telephone &amp Telegraph (AT&ampT) – a single of the world’s greatest organizations – set out to construct its new corporate headquarters in New York. It chose a 36,800-square-foot (3,400 square metre) website on Madison Avenue among East 55th and 56th Streets, found just blocks away from the Seagram Building, the seminal Modernist skyscraper by Mies van der Rohe that opened in 1958.

AT&ampT wanted a tower that rivalled the stature of the bronze and glass Seagram Developing, but it wanted its new home to seem markedly diverse. The chairman asked for a dignified headquarters that was not a glass box, a developing that would signal the subsequent route in architecture.

The business solicited qualifications from 25 major US style companies, with Johnson/Burgee Architects amongst them. The New York studio was founded in 1967 and had gained recent interest for corporate projects, notably Pennzoil Place, a pair of trapezoidal glass towers finished in 1975 in Houston, Texas.

Philip Johnson John Burgee AT&ampT Building Sony Tower credit by_Matthew_Bisanz_dezeen_468 The arched entrance to the AT&ampT Developing. Photograph by Matthew G Bisanz

Although Johnson and Burgee collaborated on a lot of designs, Johnson had the more powerful pedigree and was regarded as 1 of America’s most influential architects. He was the very first director of the architecture department at New York’s Museum of Modern day Artwork (MoMA), a place he held from 1932 to 1934, and again from 1946 to 1954. He studied architecture at Harvard beneath Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, and later joined the office of Mies van der Rohe, where he worked on the Seagram Building.


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Johnson was an early – and forceful – advocate for Modernism in America. A 1932 exhibition he co-curated at MoMA is credited with introducing the term Global Fashion. But his tastes started to shift in the 1960s as glass towers became a lot more commonplace.

“What fascinated him most was the idea of the new, and as soon as he had helped set up Modernist architecture in the United States, he moved on, experimenting with decorative Classicism, embracing the reuse of historical components that would become identified as Postmodernism,” wrote critic Paul Goldberger in 2005 on Johnson’s death at the age of 98.

Philip Johnson John Burgee AT&ampT Building Sony Tower dezeen 2_468 Ground level view of the AT&ampT Creating in 2007. Photograph by Rory Hyde

The AT&ampT Creating gave Johnson the opportunity to indulge his curiosity in Postmodernism at a grand scale. Johnson/Burgee made the shortlist for the coveted commission and in the long run won. As the story goes, the two architects brought only two props for their presentation to the company’s choice committee: a photograph of the Seagram Constructing and a photo of Pennzoil Spot. The designers otherwise relied on their gift of gab – “on Philip’s inimitable mixture of wit and inclined but hardly eager urbanity collectively with Burgee’s complementary amazing publicity,” wrote Franz Schulze in the 1994 biography Philip Johnson: Daily life and Perform.

In conceiving the design and style, Johnson/Burgee drew inspiration from the city’s Beaux Arts-style architecture by esteemed practises such as McKim, Mead &amp White. They also took cues from historic skyscrapers like the Empire State Building and Chrysler Constructing – especially their majestic crowns. As opposed to the flat roofs that defined Modernist towers, Johnson/Burgee needed a skyscraper with a distinguishable cap that was noticeable from a distance.

Philip Johnson John Burgee AT&ampT Building Sony Tower dezeen 3_468 The AT&ampT Constructing seen from a skyscraper on 52nd Street. Photograph by Hrag Vartanian

“The nature of the consumer was so marvellous,” Philip Johnson recounted in the book Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Very own Phrases, authored by Hilary Lewis and John O’Connor. AT&ampT’s chairman advised the architect: “Now, look, I will not want just one more building. We’d like to make the subsequent stage in tall buildings because the Seagram building – just go to it.”

When their style was unveiled in 1978, it sparked an uproar in the architecture community. A “Declaration of Independence” from Modernism, the style featured a symmetrical tower sheathed in pink granite and topped with a crown resembling a broken pediment. The distinctive roof line earned the nickname Chippendale, a reference to the historic cabinetry by the English furnishings maker Thomas Chippendale. “This was seen to be a sort of poor-boy behaviour, possessing an totally ornamental top,” architectural historian and the former chief architecture curator at MoMABarry Bergdoll told Dezeen.

The base of the tower also marked a notable departure from Modernism. Zoning laws needed that the architects include retail room and a public plaza into the building’s ground level. To accomplish this, Johnson/Burgee took an unusual technique, putting the workplace tower atop 60-foot-high (18 metre) columns. Beneath, they produced an airy loggia with cafe chairs and tables, and a buying arcade modelled following the renowned galleria in Milan.

Interior finishes incorporated bronze-plated elevator doors, marble flooring and a gold-leaf ceiling. Spirit of Communication, a 20,000 pound (9,100 kilogram) gilded sculpture that had adorned the peak of AT&ampT’s former Manhattan headquarters, was positioned in the atrium. Outdoors, they adorned the reduced portion of the facade with large oculi and a soaring archway that served as the tower’s primary entrance.

The task gained nationwide attention. In January 1979, TIME Magazine featured Johnson on a single of its covers with the architect proven holding a model of the creating. The accompanying story, by critic Robert Hughes, examined Postmodernism and posited Johnson as its leader. That same year, Johnson was the initial ever recipient of the Pritzker Prize, established by the Pritzker family members in Chicago to honour the world’s most influential architects.

Building of the AT&ampT Constructing began in 1979 and was completed in 1984. With a structural frame manufactured of steel, the 648-foot-tall (198 metre) tower was clad in glass and 13,000 tons of granite. To mimic conventional masonry building, false joints have been incorporated with real ones. Every single panel of granite was affixed separately to the building’s skeleton to avert the “domino impact” in case one fell, in accordance to reports.


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AT&ampT occupied the constructing for decades. Dealing with economic troubles, nonetheless, the business offered the developing to Sony Corporation in 2002, and the skyscraper was renamed the Sony Tower. The enjoyment business created controversial modifications to the atrium, converting portions of the public room into retail showrooms for Sony goods. Although Sony didn’t reduce the ceiling, it filled the lofty area with “big banners and lighting fixtures heralding their products and the redesign resulted in a quite cluttered look,” wrote Carter B Horsley.

The creating altered owners when again in 2013 when Sony sold it to the Chetrit Group, a real-estate developer, for \$one.1 billion. The developer is now converting the office tower into luxury condos and perhaps a hotel.

Regardless of whether or not it’s an critical constructing in architectural background is up for debate. “Prescient for its time, the design’s historicist shtick has aged with surprising grace, its after-goofball Chippendale leading having acquired the architectural gravitas of the city’s most cherished skyscrapers,” wrote architectural journalist Samuel Medina in Metropolis Magazine.

Nevertheless, whilst largely embraced by the general public, the building is usually dismissed by architectural critics and historians. In his book Modern day Architecture Given that 1900, historian William JR Curtis wrote that Johnson had “carried out minor far more than stick some historical quotations on to a regular workplace area.” He additional: “The reduction of a skyscraper to a cartoon-like signal in the cityscape was no doubt symptomatic of strain to treat architecture as a marketing and advertising gadget.”

Barry Bergdoll echoes his sentiments. “My personal opinion? I actually don’t think at the time it was an essential creating, and now it really is just banal, it’s silly,” he informed Dezeen. “I consider it’s a mediocre creating, and mainly due to the fact it is well-known and controversial.”

The best photograph of the AT&ampT Creating noticed from Park Avenue is by Jim Henderson.

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