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Philip Johnson’s Postmodern Skyscraper Is Landmarked, But Rockburne Murals May Still Be in Danger

The postmodern icon has become the first of its kind to gain landmark preservation status in New York City, but there’s no word if the art housed inside will remain safe.

A view of Philip Johnson’s “AT&T Building,” which has become the Sony building since it was opened in 1984. (image courtesy LPC)

Last November, Hyperallergic reported that a proposed redesign of the building by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta caused significant controversy in the preservationist circles. Key to these discussions was the fate of Dorothea Rockburne’s site-specific murals, which currently reside in the tower’s lobby. Although the company that owns the building, Alayan America, released a statement professing great respect for Rockburne’s work, their comment lacked any explicit guarantee that the artist’s mural would be protected if any redesign occurred.

A representative for NYC’s Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) confirmed to Hyperallergic that the building’s new status only recognizes the exterior of the structure and not the interior. This is a major win for the preservationists who fought the Snøhetta proposal, but a setback for those who have rallied on Rockburne’s behalf.

Dorothea Rockburne, “Northern Sky” (left) and “Southern Sky” (right) (1993), Lascaux Aquacryl paint, Berol pencils, Artstix, and UV protective finish (image courtesy the artist)

Speaking with Hyperallergic last year, the artist said she was just looking for some peace-of-mind. “I would like to get some guarantee that this isn’t going to happen again. 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.”

There is slight cause for optimism, though. LPC noted that any proposed restoration, alteration, reconstruction, demolition, or new construction that could affect the exterior of the skyscraper would require the commission to review and approve it. LPC would also review interior work that requires a Department of Buildings (DOB) permit to determine if it affects the landmark’s exterior.

Built between 1978 and 1984, Johnson’s AT&T Building marked a turning point in the history of twentieth century architecture. Designed by the famous architect alongside John Burgee as a statement on the power and drama of classical forms, it fomented an era of postmodern architecture. It was the world’s first skyscraper associated with the new style, and probably the movement’s most respected iteration by today’s critics. (Shield your eyes from the horror that is the Portland Building.) Located on Madison Avenue between East 55th and 56th Streets, the 37-story office tower is clad with pinkish-gray granite and crowned by a colossal broken pediment.

“The iconic form of 550 Madison, from the arches at its base to its unique peak, is a jewel in our streetscape that deserves to be preserved,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer in a statement. “I thank the Landmark Preservation Commission for designating this postmodernist masterpiece for future generations of New Yorkers.”

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