A 24-ton stone sphere is hanging in the lobby of Philip Johnson’s 550 Madison Avenue tower


Devin Gannon, 9.30.21

A massive blue spherical stone now hangs in the lobby of the landmarked office building 550 Madison Avenue, part of a broader project to revitalize Philip Johnson’s postmodern gem. The Olayan Group on Wednesday unveiled the renovated space, a project which included preserving the 110-foot arched entry, adding a multi-story window across from the entrance with views through to the new garden, still under construction, and the centerpiece art commission. Designed by artist Alicja Kwade, who had a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s roof garden in 2019, the art installation includes a 24-ton Azul Macaubas stone sphere hanging from ten polished stainless steel chains only 12 feet above the floor.

In addition to resembling our planet, the sphere also is a nod to circular motifs found throughout the building, like at the very top of the historic tower. The installation complements the height of the lobby’s main hall, drawing the eye of visitors to the impressive triple-height ceilings.

“This rock is the result of a metamorphosis that took place over 1 billion years ago, and was created under great pressure and elevated temperatures. A metamorphosis always has something metaphysical and magical about it,” Kwade said.

“Due to the blue color of the stone, the ball appears like planet earth – very fragile and small, in comparison to the entirety of the universe. It is an ambitious and emotional project, taking place on one of the most famous streets in the world.”

Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed 550 Madison Avenue in the early 1980s as the world’s first postmodern skyscraper. First serving as the headquarters for AT&T and then Sony, the 647-foot building was acquired by the Olayan Group for $1.4 billion in 2016.

After Olayan Group, along with development partner RXR Realty, announced plans to renovate the building with designs from Snøhetta, preservationists called on the city to landmark the building. In 2018, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate 550 Madison Avenue as an individual landmark, protecting the building’s exterior, particularly its pink-gray granite facade and Chippendale-inspired crown.

Designed by Gensler, the renovated lobby aims to respect Johnson’s original arcade, while still modernizing the space. The architects experimented with different materials, ultimately using bronze mesh on the walls, terrazzo flooring, and leather accents. Thanks to the multi-story glass window across from the Madison Avenue entrance, light floods the space.

“We were inspired by the large volumes and spatial proportions of the 550 Madison lobby and sought to honor its impressive scale with simple, classical, elegant forms and materials,” Philippe Paré, principal and design director of Gensler, said. “The outcome is a space which is both quiet, yet powerful; respectful, yet not a reproduction; timeless, yet very much contemporary.”

The rear window overlooks the Snøhetta-designed public garden, which is currently under construction and will increase the public space at the site by 50 percent. The landscaped space will offer a range of seating options, public bathrooms, and bike racks.

Rockwell Group designed the building’s 7th-floor amenity space, which includes health and wellness-focused perks for tenants like a fitness center and healthy food and beverage options. The iconic Johnson-designed oculus will be framed by two floor-to-ceiling artworks by Dorothea Rockburne, which were commissioned in 1993 specifically for the building.

The 800,000-square-foot building offers 14-foot high ceilings, column-free floor plates, and some offices overlooking Central Park. 550 Madison Avenue will open in 2022 as a multi-tenant building for the first time.

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