People who live in glass houses should look to Snøhetta
Respect for the past, vision for the future
Two architectural giants, Philip Johnson and Snøhetta, are converging in New York. The latter will be revitalizing the AT&T Building at 550 Madison Avenue in Manhattan, designed by Philip Johnson in collaboration with John Burgee.
The choice of Snøhetta and the Olayan Group to work on the building was announced over two years ago, but their initial proposal brought a great amount of controversy, suggestions, and dictums.
This is not surprising, as the structure was designed by the respected American architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005), who received two of the most prestigious awards in his field, the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1978 and the first Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1979.
In addition to the AT&T Building, some of Johnson’s most notable buildings include: the Seagram Building (in partnership with Mies van der Rohe and the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center); the Glass House in Connecticut; and the Crystal Cathedral in California. Several of his projects were created to house or enhance artwork, such as the 14 Rothko pieces in Houston’s Rothko Chapel and Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas, which displays 73 panels of Gabriel Loire’s stained glass.
A new challenge
As the former AT&T building was not landmarked, anything could happen. Snøhetta’s original plan was to have the skin at the front of the building opaque. Critics weighed in swiftly. In the meantime, the building was granted landmark designation in 2018, which gave their plan pause. Now, the proposed elimination of the stone exterior and unique top was almost impossible.
But the Norwegian firm Snøhetta was up for the challenge. It has already been responsible for several iconic projects. In Norway, these include, but are not limited to, the Norwegian National Ballet and Opera House, and Under, an underwater restaurant (the first in Europe) and marine research center in Lindesnes. With an eye to the environment, the latter structure will organically become a reef. In 2004, they set up an office in New York. That same year they were chosen to create the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion.
Snøhetta is more than an architectural firm and does not limit itself to the construction of structures. For example, they developed the exhibition design, visual profile and a book for the Víkingr exhibition at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. Their core values are more of a philosophy than a mission. As their website explains, “Our work strives to enhance our sense of surroundings, identity and relationship to others and the physical spaces we inhabit, whether feral or human-made. Museums, products, reindeer observatories, graphics, landscapes, and dollhouses get the same care and attention to purpose.”
I was intrigued, not only because I am a New Yorker, but also because I had never heard about Snøhetta reconfiguring an existing building before, so I reached out to their New York office and asked about their approach to these types of projects and their experience on this specific project at 550 Madison Avenue.
Victoria Hofmo: Does Snøhetta often work on redesigning existing buildings? I usually see that your projects are ground-up construction.
Snøhetta’s Team: Snøhetta has done a number of projects that aim to revitalize existing buildings, or, as we sometimes say, living buildings. Our design approach, whether it is a renovation or ground-up construction, is always deeply informed by context, and so these projects vary in scale from projects like the expansion to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in California, to Harvard HouseZero, a net-zero energy retrofit of a residential home in Cambridge, Mass., as the headquarters for Harvard’s Center for Green Buildings and Cities.
These projects all tie into a deep consideration of sustainability through reuse and renovation, and so our work often goes beyond individual buildings into the scale of master planning work, from the redesign of Ford Motor Company’s Research & Engineering Campus in Dearborn, Mich., to the Willamette Falls Riverwalk in Oregon City, Ore., which aims to restore habitat and public access to the falls by reusing and editing the existing industrial structures on site.
VH: Was Snøhetta surprised by the blowback from their original proposed design for the building?
ST: We knew that given 550 Madison’s historic significance and the amount of public interest vested in it, the response to any redesign would be vocal no matter what was proposed. This is not new for the project—after all, Philip Johnson’s original design elicited equally powerful reactions when the building first opened in 1985.
Because of this, we knew there would be a vibrant discourse, no matter how restrained or bold our proposal was. Our task is to listen to as many voices as possible to inform our approach, then take that input and apply it toward a design that best extends and sustains the life of the building far into the future, while nurturing the life of the public realm surrounding it. We, along with ownership, embraced the landmark designation of the building while allowing for modern upgrades so the building can be reactivated as a commercial destination.
VH: How was the process of having so many city officials, agencies, and New Yorkers weighing in on how the building should be redesigned?
ST: Creating consensus with complex stakeholder groups and deeply invested community groups is a challenge that we relish, and in the past, we have led projects of comparable complexity in New York City, such as the pedestrianization of Times Square and the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion.
Of course, the challenges and opportunities differ with each project that we take on. At 550 Madison, we embraced working with community members and city agencies, such as the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the local community board, to refine our proposal to enliven the public realm— including the creation of a new public garden—while retaining the historically significant components of the project.
Respect for the past, vision for the future
Last year, on Sept. 26, 2019, there was an enticing presentation at the Philip Johnson Glass House. Craig Dykers, a founding Snøhetta member, American architect Paul Goldberger, and historian John Maciuika hosted the discussion. The focus was on preservation, living buildings, and the public realm. Snøhetta’s work on the Philip Johnson project was also part of the discussion. This was a brilliant location for the event, reflective of the brilliant pairing of Snøhetta’s work and rework on this project.
Inspirational is how I would describe Snøhetta’s approach to the 505 project. First, Snøhetta works as a team, and for this reason, even the company’s responses to my questions in this article are attributed to “Snøhetta’s Team.” The organization’s core values are implemented in each project and based on cooperation; one can see how they could be open and prepared for critiques and concerns of a New York public and professionals, especially when it comes to such an iconic building, designed by a “starchitect.” At Snøhetta, egos are secondary to results and the betterment of all.
Snøhetta’s approach is especially relevant at this time, as much of the Midtown East area, where 550 Madison is located, was rezoned in 2017, an action many years in the making. Powers that be have declared that the buildings in this area have become obsolete. The rezoning allows for much larger heights, making every property in the area potentially worth more if demolished.
The rezoning is a concern for many, as the area covers a large swath of the city, running from Madison and Third avenues from 39th Street to 57th Street. Only a small number of the existing buildings are protected, even though many of the unprotected structures are exquisite. There is a possibility of a larger loss in how these buildings relate to each other and have created a conversation that has become the fabric of this part of the city. Demolitions here and there could destroy that pattern, pulse, and cadence.
Many believe that we need to cherish and care for our iconic buildings. The individual components are our touchstones, the reason we live in urban areas and create the rhythms of the city, as described by renowned urbanophile Jane Jacobs. If other projects could mimic Snøhetta’s process that incorporates a preservation-first approach, our built gems or “living buildings” as Snøhetta describes them, might be preserved with relevant tweaks, a win for New Yorkers.
Snøhetta’s visionary philosophy could also be used to re-evaluate New York’s East Midtown and beyond. It offers an alternative to dehumanizing destruction of our cities worldwide, at a time when humanity is needed the most.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.