7. AT&T Building at 550 Madison Avenue
The AT&T Building (later the Sony Building) at 550 Madison Avenue by Philip Johnson and John Burgee became a lightning rod as soon as it was announced in 1978 due to its Postmodern design featuring a grand arch, stone facade and, most especially, its broken pediment roof widely thought to resemble Chippendale furniture. Following decades of dogmatic Modernism, with Johnson in a leading role, a new age in architecture had arrived and with it a new criteria for judging it: humor.
Paul Goldberger wondered if the Chippendale part “suggests that a joke is being played” that in the end “may not be quite so funny.” Others dismissed the top as a “historicist joke” (art critic Robert Hughes) and a crass “one-liner” (architectural theorist Charles Moore).
To supporters, the joke was on the haters. “There is humor in his AT&T design,” architecture critic Paul Gapp agreed, hoping that in response American architecture “will stop boring us to death.” Johnson for his part did not deny his intentions. “Let’s have fun,” he said in an interview.
Architectural writer Susan Doubilet saw it as “a serious attempt to bring humor” to building design. That concerned architectural historian Frank Beckum. “If he’s doing it as a joke, then that’s alright… but if he’s doing that thing as a serious answer to the problem of today’s skyscrapers, it’s a tragedy.” Goldberger smiled in the end. When it was completed he called the Chippendale a “happy presence.”
There is one other fun angle to this building. Robert Moses may have predicted the AT&T Building. In a 1947 article, he contended that Modernist architecture and design would eventually fall out of favor and “when that day comes, Chippendale, Inc. will again sell briskly at par.” At the very least, an ironic coincidence.
550 Madison Avenue is undergoing a large, controversial renovation plan that will demolish the original privately owned public space on the ground floor, and replace the lower level facade with glass. Due to protest, a movement was led to landmark the building which took place in 2017, but exterior landmarking did not prevent interior demolition to begin in January 2018.