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Will the AT&T Building Ever Really Work? A Look at the (Revised) Renovation

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Score one for the status quo ante. A year ago, the developer Olayan Group and the architecture firm Snøhetta unveiled plans for a risqué renovation of Philip Johnson’s AT&T (a.k.a. Sony) Building at 550 Madison Avenue, which they wanted to convert from a disused corporate headquarters into a commercial office tower. Off came ten stories’ worth of demure masonry, replaced by a sheer negligee of glass, a post-postmodern roughing-up of a postmodern tower that seemed disrespectful, even violent. Preservationists swung into action, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, working with atypical urgency, designated the skyscraper a landmark last summer, sending the architects back to work on a more modest intervention.

During the first go-round, the firm’s front man, Craig Dykers, expressed a profound ambivalence toward Johnson’s design that, though widely shared, seemed like an obstacle to getting a renovation right. He got over it, I guess. Having overreached, he and his firm doubled back, this time seeing how little they could intervene. The blushing stone façade on Madison Avenue remains as Johnson dreamed it up, the Chippendale crown untouched. Gone is Snøhetta’s proposed drapery of fluted glass over........

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