Mary Ann Tighe of CBRE

The Power of Place: CBRE’s Mary Ann Tighe on the magic of sight lines and Snøhetta at 550 Madison Avenue

Mary Ann Tighe is CEO of the New York Tri-State Region of CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm.

You studied art history, worked at the Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Arts, and co-wrote a history of American art and architecture. How does your art background inform your work today?

I am an appreciator of space. I’ve been trained to look at how space is configured, both abstractly and functionally. As a result of that, I tend to fall in love with buildings that create spatial magic. I’ve been privileged to work on buildings like that. I gravitate toward them, as I did when I heard the exciting news about 550, because I really always felt that it would be a loss to take this great office building and turn it residential, which had been the prior owner’s plan—the door would be closed to anyone ever experiencing it except those lucky few who could buy multimillion dollar apartments. Now I feel like the building’s come back to its original conception.

I think because I grew up in art history, I have an affection for and, I think, an appreciation of cityscapes that are multi-generational. I really don’t like the idea of a neighborhood that sprung up overnight. I love the texture of seeing buildings that were built at the beginning of the 20th century alongside buildings that are being built in the first quarter of the 21st. I think it’s a huge part of the magic of Manhattan, especially Midtown Manhattan where we have such diversity of office stock. It’s fantastic to be able to look out the window and see all the different generations in our cityscape.

Besides its special texture and aura, what do you think is the attraction of Midtown today for companies hunting for office space?
I think the attraction of Midtown today is much the attraction it’s had for most of the 20th century and so far all of the 21st, which is that it’s our great City’s greatest transportation hub. From anywhere in the region and, because of its access to airports, from anywhere in the world, you can get to Midtown. Regardless of where an employee lives, there is a reasonably straightforward way to get to Midtown. That’s first and foremost: You can get there. Secondly, if you are concerned about accessing your customers, and most people are, you can, in turn, get from Midtown to your customers. That issue of accessibility, both for employees and for customers or clients, is Midtown’s great trump card.

550 Madison was originally designed by architect Philip Johnson, and has an iconic status for its Chippendale crown and its pink granite cladding. Beyond its famous exterior, what in your opinion makes this a special office space?
This was one of the last great assembled sites in Midtown. It was assembled by AT&T as a full block front so that you have a building with light and air on four sides, with no other building up against it. That’s number one.

Number two, Johnson did something quite remarkable with this building. I recently read an autobiography by the great structural engineer Leslie Robertson. He was the structural engineer for 550 Madison, and he devotes a full chapter of his book to the work he did on it. It happens that the structure beneath the limestone cladding of 550 is quite beautiful.

If you’ve been in the building, one of the things that is initially puzzling is, how is it you feel like you’re perched out over Madison Avenue? You look north, you look south, and you can see all the way up the avenue and down. You can see One World Trade Center. You think, “What is it that makes the siting of this building so special?” Robertson describes how when Philip Johnson came to the block front after AT&T had selected him, he immediately saw the opportunity. The IBM building, 590 Madison, was going up right next door, just north between 56th and 57th on Madison. He saw that IBM’s architect, Ed Barnes, had placed the building on an angle. Johnson, being so very clever, said, “You know, if I pull our building right to the edge of the property line and build it in that way, we will have exceptionally special sight lines from every floor in the building.”

What about the interior space?
Once you’re in the building, the other thing that blows you away is that there are no interior columns. Everybody who’s been in has said, “How is this building column-free, and how is it that the lowest slab height in the building is 14 feet?” If you look at other buildings, not just in New York but around the nation, that were built or designed in the late ’70s and early ’80s, they had punched windows. They were 10 feet six-inches, maybe 11 feet, slab to slab, and they have columns.

This building presents as though it were designed in the 21st century. You almost can’t put your finger on it, why does this space feel so light and the volume of space feel so great, until you begin to break it down into its parts and realize the ceilings are high, there are no columns, and it’s pitched out over the street without any adjoining buildings to block the views.

Why was the architecture firm Snøhetta selected to renovate the building and reimagine its public spaces?
When Johnson designed this building, it was as pure a statement of power as could be had. I mean, AT&T maybe didn’t have the biggest capitalization on the New York Stock Exchange, but it was certainly up there with the top companies of the United States and the world. Conveying AT&T’s power was part of Johnson’s brief. But power in terms of how we exercise it in the 21st century and how it felt in the early ’80s when it was being designed, I think is very different.

We wanted an architect with a youthful view of the work environment and of the non-hierarchical nature of work today. Snøhetta came in and demonstrated from the very first meeting that they understood this. Later on, we came to realize that they had prior experience working with a 1980s building that they updated, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Snøhetta has come in and lightened and brightened the building at the street, adding transparency, making the building more accessible than ever before. Also, as their design exposes the beautiful structure, it tells you that not only is the limestone beautiful, but the actual steel beneath it was brilliantly configured as well and represents a sort of artistic statement all of its own. I actually think the building will be more iconic with Snøhetta’s design, because not only will the architectural community embrace it, but so will the engineering community. Every engineer who passes through New York is going to want to come and stand there and look at what Robertson did, because it is so beautiful.