Snøhetta reimagines 550 Madison Avenue

Since 550 Madison was completed in 1984, its fortress-like base has presented an uninviting street front but Snøhetta are about to change all that

by Nick Myall 30 October 2017
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    Snøhetta has been commissioned to reimagine the 1980’s postmodern tower located at 550 Madison Avenue. The renovation is the first major project to be announced for New York City’s East Midtown since its revitalization plan was approved earlier this year. While the recognizable top of the tower will remain a fixture of the New York City skyline as it has since its completion in 1984, the new design will transform the base into an inviting street front, extending the lively activity of Madison Avenue further south to 55th Street. Moreover, the adjacent public space will nearly double in size to create a lush outdoor garden for the public’s enjoyment. Snøhetta’s design will update the building with state-of-art systems and breathe new life into the building’s public, retail and office spaces for the contemporary needs of one of the world’s most recognized avenues. 

    Completed in 1984, 550 Madison, formerly known as the AT&T Building and then the Sony Building, was originally designed by Philip Johnson for single-tenant occupancy, serving as the eponymous world headquarters for its corporate owners. Since the departure of the Sony Corporation more than a year-and-a-half ago, its office floors have sat vacant. The building’s redesign modernizes interior spaces to meet the contemporary needs of a variety of office tenants and adds high-quality amenities, world-class retail and restaurants. 

    The renewed 550 Madison aspires to be a leader for commercial tower renovations in the future, targeting LEED Gold for sustainability, WELL-certification for healthy materials and well-being, and WIRED-certification for digital infrastructure. It will employ a Dedicated Outdoor Air Ventilation System (DOAS), ensuring tenants have access to a continuous supply of clean fresh air, while consuming less energy than typical VAV mechanical ventilation systems. In leading the transformation of East Midtown for the rapid changes of the contemporary workforce, 550 Madison will ensure the area remains a thriving, world-class business district. 

    Snøhetta’s design approach stitches the life of the building back into the street. Since 550 Madison was first completed, its fortress-like base created an uninviting street front, which was then further compromised by a series of ground-floor renovations that effectively closed the building off from its surroundings. With the updated design, the stone façade will be partially replaced at eye level by an undulating glass curtainwall. From the street, the reconceived façade dramatically highlights the multi-storey arched entry while revealing the craftsmanship of the building’s existing steel structure. Scalloped glass references the sculpted forms of fluted stone columns, re-interpreting the building’s monumentality while creating a lively and identifiable public face for passersby. With this increased transparency, the activity within the lobby, atrium, and first two levels of the building will become part of the vibrant energy of the street.

    As part of the renovation, 550 Madison’s public space will be converted to an outdoor garden, providing a verdant landscape with water features and trees as a respite from the dense urban fabric of Manhattan. The existing mid-block passageway at the rear of the tower connecting 55th and 56th Street will be transformed into a serene public space. By removing neighboring annex building, the design will allow access to open air and daylight while nearly doubling the amount of publicly accessible space. The revitalized public garden makes itself visible from the densely-built streetscape with entrances anchored by vegetation, as well as through the reconfigured building lobby as a splash of colour that catches the eye. The garden encourages a variety of experiences: to meet over lunch and socialize, to find a moment of peace besides the water feature, or to experience a tactile connection to nature. A sensitively curated planting palette will celebrate the dynamic seasonality of the Northeastern climate, transformed over the course of the year by colorful flowering trees and blubs in spring, warm autumnal colours, and the stark elegance of cypresses and evergreens in winter. 

    These new plantings will allow smaller species of birds and butterflies to flourish in their new environment, a unique urban habitat. The lush outdoor garden will be the largest within a five-minute walking radius of the building, providing a respite from the verticality of Midtown, awakening people to their surroundings, and allowing them to linger and take pleasure in a part of the city that they typically rush through. The re-imagined 550 Madison reflects how we work and live in New York today. The design sensitively transforms a sculpturally monumental building and celebrates the experience of the building where it meets the street. By updating this inward looking tower for the 21st century, the redesign will foster a more vibrant, dynamic relationship between the building, the city, and the people who inhabit it.

    Nick Myall

    News editor

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