After last year’s blowback, Snøhetta takes another stab at 550 Madison

In an interview, Olayan executive says project is "off schedule"

A year after Snøhetta’s first attempt at renovating Olayan America and Chelsfield’s office tower at 550 Madison Avenue ended in controversy and eventual landmarking, the architects are hoping their second attempt will be smoother.

The firm’s initial plan would have replaced the original facade of rose granite with a glass curtain-wall and garnered fierce backlash from architects, preservationists and architecture buffs after its release in October 2017. The new proposal unveiled Tuesday features three stories of retail at the ground level and a new opening in the rear facade to allow sight lines from Madison Avenue into a new open-air garden that will replace the currently enclosed galleria.

Snøhetta senior architect Nick Anderson said the firm “stood behind” their original design but said they learned from the criticism.

“We certainly were surprised by some of the passion of the people who came out. That said I feel like that helped us understand a little bit more about how much people care about this building and why they care about it and what parts they care about,” he said. The landmark designation applies to the exterior of the building only — a sore point for preservationists who had campaigned for interior landmarking of the building’s famed lobby before its demolition  last January.

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The building’s current owners, Olayan America and British partner Chelsfield bought the vacant property in 2016 for $1.4 billion from the Chetrit Group and David Bistricer’s Clipper Equity, who had planned a condominium conversion. The partners later hired Snøhetta to update the office building by adding new amenities and extensively renovating the ground floor areas in an estimated $300 million repositioning. As the landmark designation process began, RXR Realty joined the project as a minority partner in April 2018.

Olayan’s real estate chief and managing director Tony Fusco admitted the project was “a little off schedule,” though he said that a six-month delay was not significant because it’s a long-term play.

“We want to do it right… not fast,” he said.

Formerly known as the AT&T building, the 37-story tower was designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee to house AT&T’s headquarters in the late 1970s. When the architects’ design was first released in 1978, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger assessed it as “postmodernism’s major monument,” which promised to “bring some romance back to the skyline.” Since its opening in 1984, the building has become an icon to the Postmodern style of architecture and is recognized as such globally, in spite of its detractors.

When Snøhetta’s initial design proposal was released in October 2017, architect Robert A.M. Stern, a protege and long-time friend of Johnson, called it “an unforgivable violation to a great work of architecture” in an interview with Architectural Record. Stern was one of many prominent voices in the field calling for Snøhetta’s design to be scrapped. The LPC swiftly agreed, launching the process of designating the 33-year-old building a landmark a month later.