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Dorothea Rockburne Murals in Limbo as the Former AT&T Building Awaits Its Fate

While debate swirls over a redesign of Philip Johnson’s postmodern skyscraper, it’s unclear what will happen to Rockburne’s two site-specific paintings in the building’s lobby.

Dorothea Rockburne, “Northern Sky” (left) and “Southern Sky” (right) (both 1993), installed at 550 Madison Ave. (photo by Jim Salzano, courtesy the artist)

When buildings switch ownership, questions often arise over the fate of any site-specific artworks, which are typically not of top priority in real estate deals. Such is the case of a pair of monumental murals by Dorothea Rockburne in the lobby of Philip Johnson’s postmodern skyscraper at 550 Madison Avenue, originally known as the AT&T Building. Completed in 1993 for what was then Sony’s headquarters, “Northern Sky” and “Southern Sky” have been in limbo for four years now, as the building was sold to the Chetrit Group in 2013, then to Saudi conglomerate, the Olayan Group, last year for $1.4 billion.

Spanning 30 by 30 feet, the secco fresco works are dazzling, utilizing chaos theory to visualize energy fields in the northern and southern hemispheres. As Hyperallergic previously reported, Rockburne had been in talks with the Chetrits and was hopeful that her murals would remain in situ, but any resolutions dissolved with the 2016 sale of the property.

Now, a controversial redesign of Johnson’s building under the ownership of the Olayan Group has renewed public concern over the murals. The conglomerate has commissioned architecture firm Snøhetta to reimagine the iconic tower, now simply named 550 Madison, and future plans involve replacing the lower portion of the building’s Stony Creek granite facade with a wavy glass curtainwall. The backlash from the architecture community was swift and sharp, with critics arguing that Snøhetta’s redesign would ruin the integrity of a 20th century masterpiece. Local preservationists also protested the plan outside the skyscraper, as the Architect’s Newspaper reported, and have launched an online petition to be delivered to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. As for Rockburne’s murals, Snøhetta’s press assets give no mention of them.

“The whole proposal is outrageous,” preservationist Thomas Collins told Hyperallergic. “The lobby and the sky lounge will be totally obliterated. But these murals need to be conserved. They need to be put on public display in a museum in New York.” On November 9, Collins submitted a Request for Evaluation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to attain landmark status for the building, and included a request that the lobby receive designation as an interior landmark.

Comparison of existing building and Snøhetta’s proposed design (photo © DBOX)
Snøhetta’s design for the facade of 550 Madison Avenue (photo © DBOX)

Anthony Fusco, managing director for real estate at Olayan America, told Hyperallergic, “We have great respect for Ms. Rockburne and her work. The murals are in place and fully protected, and we are safeguarding their future.” However, he added that he could not provide any further comment on these plans. Snøhetta did not respond to multiple inquiries about whether the redesign would incorporate the murals.

Rockburne herself has not heard from the Olayan Group since it shared news of the redesign. When the building changed ownership last year, she met with representatives of the company who mentioned that they were aware of the works’ value and would preserve them.

“In the beginning they answered me once, then never answered again,” Rockburne told Hyperallergic. “I do have questions regarding the new renovation: Will the murals be endangered by passing traffic wherein people passing might rub against them or large handbags might hit and damage them? Will they continue to have an unobstructed view — i.e. that nothing will be built directly in front of them? Will they be properly lit?”

Detail of lobby entrance on Madison Avenue as proposed by Snøhetta (photo © DBOX)

It’s unclear if the murals will even remain in the building. Last Monday, members of the Municipal Art Society and preservation planning committees met with representatives from the Olayan Group and Snøhetta to discuss concerns with the redesign and Rockburne’s murals.

“They indicated that they intend to preserve the murals, but they did not indicate, explicitly so, whether they were going to [keep them] in place or not,” MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein told Hyperallergic. “We certainly are going to do everything we can to encourage the developers to do the right thing.

“It certainly didn’t sound like [leaving the murals in situ] was their first plan, but it doesn’t mean that it won’t be their second or third plan,” she added. “So, we’ll continue to talk to them and work on that as we go forward.” MAS has also released a letter urging Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, to designate Johnson’s building an individual New York City landmark.

If the murals have to move out, finding a new home for them would be a challenge considering their size alone. But having faced these complications for years now, Rockburne hopes a final solution, whatever that might be, will present itself soon.

“I would like to get some guarantee that this isn’t going to happen again,” Rockburne said. “At this point I’m 85, and I have to look to the future.

“But it’s not just my murals,” she added. “I have feelings about the integrity of the building, which was the first break from International Style in this country. [The developers] want to make it warm and cuddly, and that’s not how Philip Johnson designed that building. He designed a cathedral of office buildings. It intimidates people, but I think that’s kind of interesting.”

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