The Sony building stands at the corner of Madison Avenue and 56th Street in midtown Manhattan. At 197m, it’s a little higher than its immediate neighbors, but there are at least 60 taller buildings in the city. It is an inoffensive, creamy color. At ground level there’s a spectacular atrium. Yet when it was completed in 1984, it was considered the most shocking building in the world.
The reason is the top. You have to walk a block or so away to get a sense of it. The building, originally known after its first corporate owner, AT&T, is crowned by a broken pediment; a circular space has been carved out of the apex of the triangle which tops the facade. It’s a simple, rather beautiful gesture. It is also a huge act of betrayal by the architect and the most visible trace on the New York skyline of postmodernism, a cultural current that is the subject of Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990, a major new exhibition at the V&A Museum in London.
Why betrayal? The architect was Philip Johnson, who in 1932 had curated an extraordinary architectural show at the Museum of Modern Art. Images and models of buildings by Mies Van Der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra and others led a generation of architects to make an absolute break with the styles of the past and embrace the tenets of modernism, chief among which was the idea that form should follow function. Johnson termed this new wave the “international style,” a name which stuck as the skylines of major cities (notably Chicago) were transformed by constructions of plate glass and structural steel, buildings which banished decoration, mere skin and bones enclosing volumes of space.
Initially a radically utopian architecture, dreaming of a rational future uncluttered by superstition and ornament, the international style had, by the 1970s, become a rather joyless orthodoxy. For every triumph of the movement, such as Mies and Johnson’s Seagram building or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, there were 10 undistinguished tower blocks, whose indifference to their context seemed less an expression of universality than of the arrogance of planners. Britain suffered particularly badly, as shoddy system-built high-rises gave modernism a bad name from which it has never entirely recovered.
For the man who had brought the international style to North America to put an ornamental pediment on his building was like Mondrian deciding to put a vase of flowers in a corner of his black and white grid. The AT&T tower became known, sneeringly, as the Chippendale building, because it reminded observers of the ornamental broken pediments the 18th-century cabinetmaker often put on highboys and bookcases. A building that looked like a piece of furniture? It seemed trivializing, a tasteless joke.
But Johnson was not the only person finding his sense of humor. Suddenly serious architects were adding color to their creations, making little historical references, nudges and winks. All sorts of things that had been off-limits came back: trompe l’oeil, vernacular, pastiche. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown published a theoretical book about the tackiest built environment in the world, the Las Vegas strip. They called it, provocatively, Learning from Las Vegas. The strip, they argued, with its riot of billboards and neon, was (literally) a place of signs rather than things, where the buildings were only a minor part of an environment of semiotic seductions, designed to be legible to a person traveling by at 55kph.