NYC Planning Commision approves Snøhetta’s design for 550 Madison garden

The renovation of New York's 550 Madison and the new garden redefine the landmark as a state-of-the-art office tower, displaying a sustainable model for adaptive reuse.

by Jincy Iype Published on : Jan 16, 2020

Conceived by Snøhetta, the new design for the public garden and revitalisation of The Olayan Group’s 550 Madison has received a unanimous consent from the New York City Planning Commission this month. This comes after the scheme received an approval from the Manhattan Community Board 5 in December last year. Inspired by the neighbourhood’s architectural heritage and the region’s history, the proposed transformation aims to turn the area into a lively sensory retreat. Snøhetta re-imagines an expansive, densely vegetated garden as the building’s public space.

Located at 550 Madison Avenue in Manhattan, the structure is a post-modern, 37-storey highrise designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, completed in 1984. The garden is a privately-owned public space (POPS) that invites people to pause, stay, and connect with one another and their surroundings, in a part of the city that is typically rushed through. The garden’s new design welcomes and imbibes the contemporary role that privately owned public spaces can hold within the context of New York's transitional urban fabric.

Axonometric view of garden, looking north, revealing connections to the building and streets | 550 Madison Garden | The Olayan Group | Snøhetta | STIRworld
Axonometric view of garden, looking north, revealing connections to the building and streets Image Credit: Courtesy of Snøhetta

“Privately-owned public spaces are a critical part of New York City’s public realm. Urban life thrives in and around spaces that allow us to connect with one another and to nature,” says Michelle Delk, Partner and Director of Landscape Architecture at Snøhetta. “Moreover, we need to make the most of the spaces we already have, and recognise that they are part of a network that contributes to the livelihood of the city. We are thrilled to be a part of renewing the future of this historic site,” she adds.

The new garden draws heavily from famous pocket parks such as the Paley Park or the MoMA Scultpure Garden in New York City. It aims to foster a dialogue about our course of occupying the Big Apple, and being attentive to our surroundings.

The existing site conditions at 550 Madison | 550 Madison Garden | The Olayan Group | Snøhetta | STIRworld
The existing site conditions at 550 Madison Image Credit: Courtesy of Snøhetta

Erik Horvat, Managing Director of Real Estate at Olayan America, reiterates that Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s idea for 550 Madison was to create an aesthetic and grand public amenity in tandem with a distinct office building. “Snøhetta is restoring their intention for the open space with a reimagined new public garden that will further improve the vitality of East Midtown. As the largest outdoor space of its kind in this district, the garden at 550 Madison will be a new anchor point in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, and a huge amenity to the local community and our world-class office tenants,” he shares.  

Garden elevation, looking west | 550 Madison Garden | The Olayan Group | Snøhetta | STIRworld
Garden elevation, looking west Image Credit: Courtesy of Snøhetta

550 Madison’s renovation and public space re-imagining renews the landmark, as a state-of-the-art office tower and also stands as a leading example of a sustainable model for adaptive reuse. The firm’s design proposal ensures that 550 Madison remains a world class business district, while also taking the lead in East Midtown’s evolution as it transforms for the needs of a contemporary workforce embracing diverse cultures.

The Manhattan Community Board 5 has minimal recreational and open space in the whole region, while East Midtown is identified by its dense group of commercial buildings and retail storefronts. Bringing a verdant breather to the existing site, the garden’s design extends an immersive atmosphere while complementing the neighbouring POPS. The garden helps reconnect the historic building into the street life of East Midtown, and is expected to be 50 per cent bigger than the current space.

Auditory relief from the neighbourhood noise is provided by the central water wall, accessible from the garden | 550 Madison Garden | The Olayan Group | Snøhetta | STIRworld
Auditory relief from the neighbourhood noise is provided by the central water wall, accessible from the garden Image Credit: Courtesy of Snøhetta and MOARE

The firm explains, “The new garden will open up the public space along the west end of the tower, transforming it into a series of interconnected outdoor ‘rooms’ that provide both quiet spaces and larger, more open areas.” These rooms are inspired from Philip Johnson’s body of work, specifically his use of circular motifs at 550 Madison. In addition, the geometry of these rooms is created through a series of circles intersecting in its plan, and the rooms are partially enclosed by a new glass canopy. The existing landmark building features 14-foot high ceilings, large column-free floor plates and offices with spectacular views of the New York City skyline and Central Park.

The geometry of the rooms is created through a series of circles intersecting in its plan| 550 Madison Garden | The Olayan Group | Snøhetta | STIRworld
The geometry of the rooms is created through a series of circles intersecting in its plan Image Credit: Courtesy of Snøhetta

Auditory relief from the neighbourhood and city noise is provided by the central water wall, and is accessible from the garden. The garden possesses details embedded in its materiality, which is demonstrative of the cultural and environmental site histories, generating intrigue. More information about the site is planned to be implanted within the seating and walking surfaces of the garden as well.

The garden helps reconnect the historic building into the street life of East Midtown | 550 Madison Garden | The Olayan Group | Snøhetta | STIRworld
The garden helps reconnect the historic building into the street life of East Midtown Image Credit: Courtesy of Snøhetta and MOARE

More than 40 trees will be planted in the area devoid of vegetation presently. The selected greens represent the changing seasons of the Northeastern climate and comprise evergreens, perennials, and flowering shrubs. The plantation is expected to encourage a plethora of butterflies, birds and other pollinators to flourish in the urban habitat.

Visitors at the garden are offered diverse experiences such as socialising over lunch and relaxing beside the water body. “Conceptually, the landscape responds to the canyon-like verticality of Midtown Manhattan, with a layered topography that lifts up along the west side of the garden, both minimising the impact of existing tower service infrastructure while providing a sense of being immersed in the garden.”

Project Details

Name: 550 Madison Garden
Location: 550 Madison, New York, United States
Design Architect and Landscape Architect: Snøhetta
Architect of Record: AAI
Landscape Architect of Record: SiteWorks
Horticulturalist: Phyto
Development Team: The Olayan Group, RXR Realty, Chelsfield

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About Author

Jincy Iype

Jincy Iype

Iype is a trained architect, who often indulges in writing and amateur photography. She was a cinephile and a melophile even before she knew what those words meant. She is inclined towards architecture journalism, and can usually be found curled up reading a book, or cooking for therapeutic relief.

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