AT&T Building Exemplifies Postmodernism

Philip Johnson’s ironic, neoclassical design for a corporate headquarters made an avant-garde alternative to modernism a new path for American architecture.

Summary of Event

The American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) headquarters building in New York was the breakthrough project of architect Philip Johnson. Despite a long career, Johnson had become an architect of corporate skyscrapers only after he formed his partnership with John Burgee in 1968. In 1978, Johnson was one of the most influential architects in the United States; his prominence resulted from his prestigious clients (which included the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Pennzoil Corporation) and from his articulate discussion of the history and problems of modern architecture. American Telephone and Telegraph;AT&T Building[AT and T Building]
Architecture;AT&T Building[AT and T Building]
AT&T Building[AT and T Building]
[kw]AT&T Building Exemplifies Postmodernism (1978)
[kw]Building Exemplifies Postmodernism, AT&T (1978)
[kw]Postmodernism, AT&T Building Exemplifies (1978)
American Telephone and Telegraph;AT&T Building[AT and T Building]
Architecture;AT&T Building[AT and T Building]
AT&T Building[AT and T Building]
[g]North America;1978: AT&T Building Exemplifies Postmodernism[03050]
[g]United States;1978: AT&T Building Exemplifies Postmodernism[03050]
[c]Architecture;1978: AT&T Building Exemplifies Postmodernism[03050]
Johnson, Philip
Burgee, John
Butts, John Dulany de

Johnson had begun proselytizing for modernism in 1932, when he curated the Museum of Modern Art’s “International Style” exhibition of radical architecture. He made Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig steel-and-glass architecture the style of corporate America. However, from the mid-1950’s on, Johnson raised the possibility that modernism was not the mandatory, universal style he had once believed it to be. In 1960, he said that architects should feel free “to choose from history whatever forms, shapes, or directions” they wished. Johnson’s own work was modernist, but he became an enthusiastic supporter of rebels against modernist orthodoxy.

AT&T commissioned Johnson and Burgee to design its new headquarters because their recent designs had tried to find a new aesthetic treatment for the skyscraper through such means as faceted corners and slanting roofs. John Dulany de Butts, AT&T’s chairman, urged Johnson to make its new headquarters tower express the dignity of one of the most powerful corporations in the United States and to make the building instantly recognizable as the company’s symbol.

The AT&T Building (now the Sony Building) in New York City.

(David Shankbone/CC-BY-SA2.5)

At the time, Johnson was interested in the designs and ideas of a few younger architects who were committed to the use of historical references in architecture. These designers—Michael Graves, Robert Stern, Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, and others—used bits of past styles to tie the building to its local context and to acknowledge the complexity of modernism’s historical roots. Simple faith in functionalist methods was no longer possible. The ideas of these largely unknown “postmodernists” were uppermost in Johnson’s mind when AT&T ordered him to break the glass box.

Johnson had to design for a narrow two-hundred-foot lot at Madison Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street. He placed the building at the front of the site, facing Madison, locating the required public space in an arcade behind the building and in open arcades that took up the entire first floor except the lobby. The building itself remained a thirty-seven-story box on a ninety-by-two-hundred-foot base. To keep the structure from being a modernist slab, Johnson put postmodern ideas to use. He gave the building the monumentality of the great skyscrapers of the 1920’s by making its curtain wall not of glass but of pinkish-gray granite. Instead of metal or concrete stilts, the supports to create the public space beneath the building would be in the form of a sixty-foot-high classical colonnade with a 110-foot arch in the center. The building’s facade would follow the old-fashioned layout of base, shaft, and crown—that is, arcade, windows in vertical strips with stone mullions, and top—instead of being a single steel-and-glass wall.

The average office tower had a “functional” flat roof. Johnson and Burgee made the top of the AT&T Building a pitched roof with a twenty-foot-diameter circular void where the sides of the roof met, turning the crown into a huge version of another Renaissance motif, the broken pediment. As a design solution, the pediment was a tour de force. Its proportions just fit the narrow slab, and its overscaled simplicity matched the plainness that the project’s budget required for the stone casing. For the company, it was an instantly recognizable image on the skyline, with dignified classical connotations. The roof also turned an office slab into an enormous Chippendale box. It could be read as a serious reference to eighteenth century Utopian architecture (Johnson’s favorite subject) or as a cartoon version of a grandfather clock to amuse the public. In any case, it denied the rule “form follows function.”

The concept of a stone-clad, historicist office tower owed much to Johnson’s young protégé Robert A. M. Stern, Stern, Robert A. M. who admired the New York skyscrapers of the 1920’s. The Chippendale-style top derived from Robert Venturi’s Venturi, Robert ironic, billboardlike variations on classicism. Johnson had long wanted to return a sense of history to architecture, but for many years he could look for classical elegance and proportions only in modernist guise, as in Mies van der Rohe’s glass boxes. The postmodernists gave Johnson the courage to use the style explicitly. The AT&T Building was a flat-out attack on two “rules” of modernism: that architecture must honestly reveal its structure (without hiding a steel frame behind Renaissance stone, for example) and must never look backward for artistic solutions.

Johnson’s design was announced on the front page of The New York Times on March 31, 1978, and instantly became controversial. The postmodernists’ avant-garde design approach was suddenly being applied to an establishment job at huge scale and expense. Johnson was criticized for being shallow, for borrowing unknown innovators’ ideas instead of thinking the problem through himself. Critics noted that postmodernism’s amusing, overscaled classical elements became oppressive in the AT&T project’s huge dimensions. Johnson pointed out in response that he had met all his client’s needs efficiently and that many people agreed that the older historicist skyscrapers worked better than functionalist ones. His “radical” building was really a gift to New York. By the time it was finished in 1984, the AT&T Building (which later became known as the Sony Building) was generally accepted as a respite from the bleak architecture of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Historicism had found an entertaining solution to design problems to which modernists had produced only rote answers. AT&T’s and Johnson’s prestige made the building a milestone.


Johnson designed the AT&T Building at a time of widespread dissatisfaction with the ways modern architecture had been used. The urban rebuilding projects of the 1950’s and 1960’s were condemned for having produced anonymous buildings, empty spaces, and alienating scale. The AT&T Building demonstrated that postmodern styling could deflect much criticism leveled at new structures. Granite facings, setbacks, human-scale arcades, and ornament that referred to older buildings could give even the bulkiest skyscrapers an aura of history and sensitivity.

Real estate investors, especially Gerald R. Hines Hines, Gerald R. of Houston, commissioned Johnson to apply his new style to their buildings. Johnson’s Republic Bank Building in Houston and PPG Industries Building in Pittsburgh were widely publicized. Previously, he had had a reputation as an artist with a limited clientele; he now made Johnson/Burgee the leading commercial architectural firm of the 1980’s. Always articulate and media-conscious, Johnson became a celebrity who could explain the virtues of historicism to the public.

The AT&T Building’s notoriety had a great impact on the architectural profession. The designers who inspired Johnson, especially Robert Stern and Michael Graves, Graves, Michael received large commissions for the first time; Graves’s Portland Building (1982) was as important to making the postmodern style respectable as the AT&T project was. Stern’s and Graves’s work for the Walt Disney Company Walt Disney Company cemented the idea that “serious” architecture could be popular and entertaining. By the end of the 1980’s, such previously modernist architects and firms as Kevin Lynch, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill had adopted traditional ornament and Art Deco profiles in their buildings. The large role developers gave postmodern architects in urban development made their theories news, and their colorful, recognizable designs became fashionable. (Both Graves and Robert Venturi designed tableware and furniture.)

The new buildings of the 1980’s generally did not replicate past styles exactly. Building budgets and lack of traditional craftsmen made this impossible. Fortunately, the obvious fakeness of postmodernism’s historicism was part of its theory. When in 1966 Robert Venturi had praised “complexity and contradiction” in architecture in defiance of Mies van der Rohe’s dictum “less is more,” he meant that the styles of the past were richer than modernism was. Architects could never unlearn modernist functionalism and simplicity, however; the two design approaches would have to coexist, although they denied each other’s premises. In addition, a truly popular style would be more flashy and eclectic than either classicism or modernism. In a pluralist society, architecture’s quest for beauty meant less to people than did the images they absorbed from shopping strips, billboards, and television.

Venturi saw that people understood buildings as visual clichés, not as unified works of art, and said that the postmodernist architect’s job was to assemble images that could be consumed by the greatest number of people in the largest number of contexts. The contradictions involved would come out in the building, but only the architect would appreciate them. This ironic, relativist attitude denied the entire mind-set of modernism, which was functional, serious, forward-looking, and committed to finding the one best way to design. The idea of an architecture of images let postmodernists tackle problems of human context in their buildings while remaining honest about the shortcuts such an approach required.

This lesson could be applied with greater or lesser seriousness. Johnson was an admirer of pop art and its conceptual games as well as of classicism; he designed what he claimed were close copies of older buildings, but their differences from the originals could be easily read in their megabuilding size, odd proportions, and modernist detail. (The PPG Industries Building, for example, is a neo-Gothic quadrangle covered with the corporation’s own mirror glass.) In the average architect’s work, pitched roofs, colonial windows, and colored stone veneers were simply added to standard modernist buildings. In many projects, it was too obvious that architects had been hired to put fashionably historicist fronts on profitable but mediocre designs by developers. Johnson offended other architects by admitting that this often happened, even in his own practice. Postmodernism’s preoccupation with the image made the difference between a building’s visual cues and its three-dimensional reality wider than ever before.

Nevertheless, the AT&T Building’s example of applying ornaments in traditional materials without worrying about functionalist “honesty” also justified architects in deferring explicitly to the past. This fact, too, had many applications. Architects such as Kohn Pedersen Fox used a high-tech variation on the Art Deco style to fit into older cityscapes. Venturi’s and Graves’s cartoonlike classical motifs were attempts at a truly popular style, while Stern’s eclectic copies of landmark buildings acted out a social conservatism. In many cities, postmodernism encouraged preservation efforts and fostered civic identity. Such planners as the firm Duany and Plater-Zyberk—influenced by the extreme antimodernists in European postmodernism such as Leon Krier—rethought urban design in terms of traditional pedestrian scale. Outside the United States, James Stirling and Arata Isozaki used postmodernism’s collage technique to seek a genuine artistic synthesis. As a final result of the style’s popularity, even architects who did not embrace it—and many did not—received new attention as artists who could influence public values.

The overall result of postmodernism, once Johnson’s AT&T Building brought it into the mainstream, was to widen architects’ sense of their design options and the contexts in which to apply them. Moreover, Johnson’s work showed the public that architects could add color, humor, and a sense of heritage to the way the world looked. American Telephone and Telegraph;AT&T Building[AT and T Building]
Architecture;AT&T Building[AT and T Building]
AT&T Building[AT and T Building]

Further Reading

  • Games, Stephen. Behind the Facade. New York: Universe Books, 1986. Breezy but incisive essays on postmodernist architects and events in the design world, based on the author’s British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio programs. The chapter on Philip Johnson (“The Best Hated Architect in the World”) is based on a revealing personal interview. A good introduction to postmodernism’s popular face. No illustrations or index.
  • Jencks, Charles. Post-modernism: The New Classicism in Art and Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, 1987. The critic who first applied the word “postmodern” to the new historicist architecure provides many descriptions and defenses of antimodernist movements. Features valuable photos and evaluations of a number of postmodern buildings in the United States and elsewhere. Includes endnotes, bibliography, and index.
  • Johnson, Philip. Writings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Dated, as it appeared just as the AT&T design was made public; as an intellectual autobiography, however, it makes clear why Johnson abandoned modernism. The arguments about style and history reprinted here were enormously influential in postmodern theory and practice. Accompanying texts by Peter Eisenman and Robert Stern are too mired in New York architectural feuds to be helpful. Contains unillustrated list of Johnson’s building designs through 1978, partial bibliography, and index.
  • Johnson, Philip, Stephen Fox, and Hilary Lewis. The Architecture of Philip Johnson. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 2002. Exceptional photographs of Johnson’s buildings are compiled in this retrospective.
  • Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. 2d ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002. First published in 1966, this is the sourcebook for postmodern theory. Essentially a collection of photos of ornate and unusual buildings taken from Venturi’s 1966 lectures at the Museum of Modern Art, and justified for their visual effect at modernist theory’s expense. Many of the buildings shown here were sources for later postmodernist borrowings. A few of Venturi’s own early projects at the end.
  • Wolfe, Tom. From Bauhaus to Our House. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981. Humorous but hostile and thinly researched essay on how modern architecture took hold in the United States is important because its plea for ornate, eclectic “bad taste” architecture fed popular support for postmodernism. The last chapters mock the premises of the leading postmodernists themselves.

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