The AT&T Building:
Philip Johnson and The Postmodern Skyscraper

Tue, Sep 26, 2023
The AT&T Building, no3 550 Madison, a skyscraper in NYC.

Courtesy of The Olayan Group

The unveiling of the design for the new headquarters for AT&T, then the largest company in the world, appeared on the front page of The New York Times on March 31, 1978 and was quickly dubbed “the first Postmodern skyscraper." The tower's architect was Philip Johnson, who had championed the minimalist and functionalist aesthetics of the European avant garde as a curator at MoMA in the 1930s and had collaborated with Mies van der Rohe on the Seagram Building in the 1950s. With its granite-not-glass façade and split-pediment “Chippendale” roofline, Johnson’s AT&T overturned – or at least undermined for a decade – the aesthetics of Modernism he had helped establish as orthodoxy.

The original design and construction of the AT&T headquarters in both theory and practice will be discussed by Alan Ritchie, who was the project manager for AT&T in the Johnson/Burgee office and later Johnson's partner, and Scott Johnson (no relation), now of the California-based firm Johnson Fain, who as a young architect in the office, worked on the AT&T team and other skyscrapers. A second program later in the fall will feature architects of the design teams responsible for the recent renovation and 21st-century reinvention of 550 Madison and the new and expanded POPS plaza.

This program is presented in connection with the Museum's current exhibition SKY MARKS | LANDMARKS. The AT&T/Sony Building, now renamed by new owners for its address, 550 Madison, was designated a NYC Individual Landmark in 2018.

Alan Ritchie

Alan Ritchie worked with Philip Johnson for over twenty-five years and became his partner from 1994 until Johnson's retirement in 2004 in the firm first known as Philip Johnson / Alan Ritchie Architects, now PJAR Architects. He was the project leader for the original AT&T Corporate Headquarters, overseeing the team for design and construction, and the managing partner and award-winning designer responsible for the implementation of many of the office’s most important buildings spanning the globe.

Scott Johnson, FAIA

Scott Johnson, FAIA, is co-founder and Design Partner of Johnson Fain, an international architecture, planning, and interior design firm located in Los Angeles. After receiving his MArch from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he worked at The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, Mass. and the L.A. and San Francisco offices of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill before joining the New York office of Philip Johnson and John Burgee. He served as Design Associate for several of the firm’s most notable high-rise projects. During this time he also served as an assistant to Arthur Drexler in curating the Three Skyscrapers exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1981).

Joining Pereira Associates in Los Angeles in 1983 as Principal and Design Director, Scott Johnson and William Fain acquired the firm now known as Johnson Fain in 1988. In addition to designing nearly 100 built projects in the past 20 years, he has taught and lectured at various universities. He served as Director of the Master of Architecture Programs at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture from 2004 through 2007. He is the author of numerous books, including Essays on the Tall Building and the City; Performative Skyscraper: Tall Building Design Now; Imagining the Skyscraper; and Tectonics of Place: The Architecture of Johnson Fain.

Scott Johnson's and Alan Ritchie's presentations begin after introductions by Museum Director Carol Willis. The video follows with a discussion between the two guests.