Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Why postmodernism is the palate cleanser we need

AT&T Building, designed by Philip Johnson. LIFE Images Collection / Getty Collection.

Around the time I was putting this column together in my head, the new owners of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 1984 AT&T Building decided to take a wrecking ball to the building’s lobby, with its inlaid black-and-white floor, circuit of round arches, and intricate brass elevator doors. While the exterior of the building is being considered for landmark designation, the lobby (which I thought of as an inside-out palazzo) was fair game.

It was made vulnerable, as interiors so often are, by an earlier renovation that robbed AT&T of its most interesting spatial effect: the hollowed-out loggia at the base of the top-heavy highboy. Johnson loved spindly arrays of columns, stretching them like taffy in his city hall for Celebration, Florida. His idea of the public realm, at least on narrow Madison Avenue, was softening the sharp street corners with arches and providing a base through which people could flow.

That was a quirky idea, especially when coupled with the opulence of the lobby, where the sculpture “Golden Boy” once pointed skyward, with lightning bolts. I had been hoping against hope that the owners, and renovation architect Snøhetta, would see the lobby as I did: as an experiment with materials, space and art more distinctive than their proffered Scandi-adjacent discourse on light and air. Midtown has plenty of brightly lit, forward-facing, gridded lobbies. What it has precious little of is drama—or texture.