Aaron Betsky

1980 in Parallax: On the Queerness of the AT&T Building


In 1980 the first ever Venice Architecture Biennale entitled ‘The Presence of the Past’ famously announced Post-Modernism as the international mainstream of architecture. It proposed a new canon that was to be more inclusive and polyphonic, and sought to embrace a diversity of narratives, a variety of styles, contradictions and irony. Yet despite these ideals, none of the case studies and architects presented at the Biennale went beyond the European and North-American context. Looking back – once again – in order to look forward, this series of essays addressing the question ‘Whose Post-Modernism?’ reconsiders the Post-Modern canon from the critical distance of 43 years to reinvigorate the pluralism suggested by the Biennale and Charles. It invites multiple voices to collectively remap the year 1980 from various geographical and cultural perspectives beyond the West, while reflecting on its legacies today. Sixth in the series, Aaron Betsky considers Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building, its cultural context in early 1980s New York and its role in queering Manhattan’s Modernist skyline.

To be in New York City in 1980 was to watch one order fall apart, literally in the neglected buildings and streets of the city, while new orders emerged. Some of these were coalescence of a multicultural and multifaceted society in which the old divisions between white and black, men and women, and rich and poor, were being replaced by fluid definitions of race and gender, while the range of participants in political, economic and social life were broadening into a rainbow soon memorialised by the flag of that name. The city that was soon to almost go bankrupt was a mess, but a vital one whose graffiti spoke both of the need to somehow, desperately, make one’s mark in the city and also show the emergence of a new aesthetic of messiness and syncopation.

An integral part of the varied scene was the coalescence of various forms of non-heteronormative identities into the LGBT, then LGBTQ, then LGBTQ+ community. Spearheaded mainly by white men who constructed their sense of identity at least in part out of same-sex desires, the community had forged itself into a form of both unity and public ‘outness’ through such events as the Stonewall riots of 1969, which developed in protest to a police raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village, as well as through visual art and literature that increasingly celebrated same sex desires. The term ‘queer’, which denoted a sense of deliberate and even subversive otherness, began to replace the older terms ‘gay’ and the more clinical ‘homosexual’ as the preferred self-moniker. The AIDS crisis, which began in the early 1980s, then turned this community into an activist one, leading eventually to the legalisation of most forms of what had previously been defined as deviant sexuality.

Meanwhile, even as the outlying boroughs descended further into poverty and neglect, in Manhattan’s midtown and downtown cores, art galleries were hosting new forms of art and design, and allusive skyscrapers and forms and colours that pulsed to a syncopated beat were rising.1 Figuration was back in art as well as architecture, disco and punk were vying for attention, and, only a few years after the disastrous blackout of 1977, the whole structure of this island headquarters of capitalism felt unsure. In that scene, the announcement and construction of the new AT&T Corporation’s headquarters (550 Madison Avenue), designed by Philip Johnson of the firm Johnson/Burgee in 1977 and constructed by 1984, stood out as a beacon of something – although of something new or something old, something grand or something ironic was hard to say.2

That building belonged not just to architecture, but to another scene as well. New York in 1980 was also a time and place when queer culture of a certain kind was at its peak. Almost two decades after the revolt at Stonewall, and in response to both political repression and the looming AIDS crisis, a culture created and refined especially by white men in the United States and Europe starting in the seventeenth century reached a peak of vivid imagery and popular acceptance. No longer just the province of interior decorators, hairdressers, performers and fashion designers, its modes and methods were now in the spotlight not just at Studio 54, but in magazines, on television and in the movies.3 In both architecture and interior design, the return of decoration that used multiple materials and colours in overlapping schemes, and the acceptance of historic styles, broke through decades of minimalism. Instead of white, black and grey, colours, especially pastel ones, were now everywhere in rooms and publications alike. Furniture could come from any period and could be composed in multiple ways. The connection between form and function, or appearance and intrinsic character, had already been made irrelevant by the rise of semiotics, but also by new techniques and effects coming from popular culture – from airbrush to Hollywood’s increased array of special effects in graphic design, high-effect colours and collage began to similarly attack reductive compositions. In art, the body in all of its beauty and agony re-entered the frame. This was not just the result of high-culture developments: much of the imagery and taste culture seeped up from those discos, as well as from popular culture.

Although we now understand that this culture was not nearly inclusive as it might have been – as it did not fully acknowledge the ranges of sexuality and gender self-definition, not to mention the complications of the intersections of race, class and sexuality that are now integral to our understanding of a broader, more social, and continually changing sense of self as part of many communities – its vibrancy was at the time bracing and innovative.

The architecture scene of New York in 1980 was perhaps not as hot as the dance floor and balconies of Studio 54, but it was certainly a place of bright lights and flashy moves coursing through the semi-dark of a city that was just coming out of a period of malaise. It was here, blazing in studios and interiors behind the often trash-filled and tawdry streets, and before anywhere else in the country, that the orders and certainties that had governed the production of architecture with grids and abstraction gave way to the expressive, allusive and multihued forms that came to make up what was already being called Post-Modernism.

The year 1980 also saw the pivot from the last gasp of extruded-glass boxes and tortured concrete forms to the playful performance that was architecture there and elsewhere, especially in London (the NATO group and neo-punk) and Italy (the group that soon coalesced into Memphis) in the 1980s and 90s. The Strada Novissima, the centrepiece of Paolo Portoghesi’s manifesto for Post-Modernism, opened that year,4 while Charles Jencks’ codification of the movement in his Language of Post-Modern Architecture had come out three years before and was then dominating the drafting rooms of architecture schools.5 The Architectural Association in London and the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York were bringing together several generations of designers and critics, from Reyner Banham to Rem Koolhaas, whose designs and images blew up the previous Modernist certainties into colourful shards floating over resurrected fragments from a long-forgotten past.6 Overseeing that whole three-ring circus was Philip Johnson.

Johnson did so both as an architect and as a self-appointed godfather. In the latter role, he would pick out those designers he felt showed promise (and respect), and then promote them both publicly in the press and through his network of corporate and institutional contacts. As a member of the economic and cultural elite, born to money, education and contacts, he was a believable figure in the circles of power. As a gadfly – who had started the Architecture and Design Department at the temple of Modernism, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York – critic and frequent presence at architecture schools, he had bona fides as an auxiliary member of whatever happened to be the avant-garde at the moment. His work, which appropriated the latest trends and then translated them into corporate or institutional structures that were very highly visible – either because of their size (IDS Tower in Minneapolis, several major bank buildings in Dallas), their importance (the addition to the Museum of Modern Art, structures at New York University, and other major colleges) – managed to make what was considered outré believable and buildable.

Part of his success in selling the new was his persona. As a more-or-less openly gay man,7 he fulfilled the role of the elite business person, to the manor born and familiar with all the rules of etiquette, who then queered that position into something a bit more difficult to grasp and define. His collection of art, his taste in decoration (on view at his estate in the tony suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut), his liaisons with famous men in the arts and, above all else, his unrivalled wit, which brought a bit of Noël Coward to the field of architecture, all combined to make him the charming and artistic dinner guest at the corporate party. That he had taken his posing and privileging as far as being not just a Nazi sympathiser, but the leader of an American fascist group who had literally (if only reportedly) slept with the enemy (an SS commander) was an extreme that neither he nor his friends or, until later in the 1980s, his critics discussed. He could dismiss his early sympathies as play-acting, whether they were or not.

At the time Johnson obtained the work, AT&T was one of the most prestigious companies in the world. It was the largest employer in the United States, and it connected the whole country together through its network of telephone companies. At Bell Labs, it produced groundbreaking research that set up the coming digital revolution. Its stock was at the very core of the market, widely held as one of the most secure investments available. Yet AT&T’s days were numbered, and the construction of the new headquarters was an attempt to give it the kind of respectable yet with-it identity that its chairman, John DeButts, thought would allow it to survive in a technological landscape that was obviously already changing. What was more important, the building would be a concrete fact and monument to continuity at a time when the company was reaching the end of a long battle with the US government about its monopoly on telecommunications. It did not work. The company was broken up before the building was finished and, though it hung on in Manhattan for a few more years and even occupied part of the tower, it was eventually merged into a Texas-based company.8 The grand building was taken over by the symbol of a new form of global capital and consumer- and experience-oriented economy, Sony Corporation.

The AT&T commission, and what Johnson made of the job, was the highlight of his career. It also produced – in its historic allusions, its blowing up of a piece of furniture, and a historically styled one (Chippendale highboy), to the scale of a building, its use of decorative detailing and lush materials in some of its more formal interiors, and in its posing a naked boy in a provocative position in the lobby – the queerest building to ever be built at such a scale. His achievement was both remarkable and queer. As he dressed with great care in a manner that was both correct and, in its tailoring and in small touches as his dramatic glasses, made it clear he was not just another businessman, and as he pushed all his buildings to a degree of expressiveness his colleagues eschewed, so he here was able to deliver a design for a major company that was correct and yet provocatively posed. He housed the corporation in a simple shaft that followed most, but not all, of the laws and codes governing the layout of skyscrapers. He then styled that built office machine, however, in a cloak that referenced the earlier age in which AT&T had risen to power, but also made the building the largest piece of Pop art ever conceived: a Chippendale highboy 37 stories tall. As if to emphasise the absurdity of the design, Johnson had himself photographed for the 9 January 1979 issue of Time magazine holding a model of the building like a trophy.9

That photograph summed up the odd power of the design. The fact that it appeared as one of the very few cover images of what was then the central periodical of American mass culture pointed to both Johnson’s and his architecture’s importance. The architect was dressed in a cloak, in the manner of the other master of media manipulation, Frank Lloyd Wright, and wore black round glasses like those sported by the Picasso of Modernist architecture, Le Corbusier. He was playing dress up with the attributes of artistic and avant-garde architects, but underneath he was wearing a tailored suit like a good businessman.

The building operated in a similar manner. Although there were relatively few floors o offices, Johnson and his collaborators at his firm Johnson/Burgee, and the engineers and planners with which they worked, decided that the only way to make the relatively narrow sixty by twenty-seven metre site work was by lifting that office space above the retail spaces mandated by zoning at the base, thus creating extra height for the building to impress itself on the skyline. The addition of the pedimented roof, which hid some of the mechanical equipment, further lengthened the shaft so that the complete building, like a tall drag queen rising to full height and dressing herself in a costume not designed for their body, stretched itself out to almost two hundred metres.

The cladding, which like in any modern skyscraper was a cloak draped over the steel skeleton with no relation to the underlying structure, was made with an assertively expensive and vivid material: red granite from Connecticut. The firm used so much of the material, of such thickness (up to 10 centimetres at times), and detailed it with such care, that there did wind up being a relation between façade and structure: the latter had to be reinforced to hold the unusual weight. That detailing was designed to tailor the building, accentuating its height along the shaft and then transforming that bulk into an equally stretched version of a classical gallery that sheltered both the stores and the company lobby. Johnson/Burgee emphasised the ribbing between the window stacks and flared-out sills and bases to sculpt the stone into an expression of weight, punctuated by a rhythm of openings at the top and the voids of the gallery at the bottom that questioned that very heaviness.10

Similarly, the pedimented top was underlined with several lines of coping and then cut at the centre into an oculus, exactly in the manner of the crowns of Chippendale highboys and armoires. The only thing missing was a finial in its middle. There was no functional reason for this gesture, other than to lighten and create a variation on what would have otherwise been an allusion to traditional gables. It also was the quirk that made the AT&T Building look most like a piece of furniture.11

At the base, the space the building left was absurdly tall, dark and awkward. It did not function well as a retail environment, while the lobby in the centre was completely empty. It was really no more than a gesture, as the lifting up of the shaft meant that the executives had to take a shuttle lift to the fourth floor, where a bank of regular cabs took them on to their offices above. That second space was slathered in white marble, with large geometric cutouts mirroring the pediment far above, creating an abstract and stage-set like version of the kind of corporate introductory spaces that are meant to impress and not do much else. On the executive floors, Johnson/Burgee continued the colonial references in heavily panelled offices and conference rooms.

It was in the small lobby at the bottom, however, that Johnson crafted the building’s queerest gesture. He had rescued a sculpture of Mercury, AT&T’s patron god (as he was the messenger deity) from atop the company’s former headquarters. There Golden Boy, as he was popularly known because of his colour, had been a lithe, but rather innocent symbol. Here Johnson placed him on a pedestal, posed against a backlit and gold-leafed cutout in the granite behind, above the height of the viewer. In that position, every visitor to AT&T had to view him in all his splendour and, upon exiting the building, be in a position to admire his sculpted behind. Here, in other words, Johnson allowed one bit of actual same-sex desire to sneak into the daily operations of the building. Though it was noted in queer circles at the time and certainly since then, it was – as most queer behaviour was – left unsaid, not noted publicly.

What was remarkable at the time was the manner in which the building was accepted by the corporate world as a fitting home for the corporation, while architecture critics saw the structure as representing an advanced mode of Post-Modernism. No less a figure than architecture critic Reyner Banham, who had been identifying and promoting cutting-edge architecture for three decades by then, commented that:

If AT&T is the most publicised defection from [Modernism] so far, it is appropriately so. Johnson has, so to speak, killed off his own most famous offspring and in the process has, with perfect irony, produced a text-book example of that ‘Critical Regionalism’ by which Kenneth Frampton has proposed (in The Anti-Aesthetic) that a living architecture should defend itself against the dead hand of the International Style. AT&T is so intensely regional as to be almost parochial, an insider’s Manhattan one-line jest – or would be if Manhattan were not a world city and Johnson a world figure.12

Banham thus identified the building not as queer, but as regional, the designated area being Manhattan and its corporate culture. Within that realm, he went on to say, Johnson had created a monument to Post-Modernism, commenting that, ‘Whether or not Philip Johnson actually invented the term “Post-Modernism” (his denials are unusually modest), his obliquely erudite relationship to the practice of the International Style marks him as one of Post-Modernism’s true progenitors’, and that ‘… whereas the AT&T Building’s witticisms and ironies are expressively superficial, it is a work that – in Manhattan – one must take very seriously indeed.13

Banham goes on to parse the various references in the building, critique the ways in which Johnson stretched, mixed and deformed them in the skyscraper and, in the end, praise it as a semi-secret send-up of its role and place in corporate America:

Some time may be needed, suspect, before even smart-alec New York comes to understand what it has gained here. Once again, the finished building is something that the model, even, could barely predict. Unexpected, enigmatic, slightly disturbing, and thus much like its designer, it will sit around in Manhattan defying the conventions of its neighbors ancient and modern, annoying the mature and established, and doubtless-fulfilling their worst fears by corrupting the young. That was what they killed Socrates for doing, of course!14

Charles Jencks, who was in fact the person who had invented the word Post-Modernism, at least as it was applied to architecture, acknowledged the impact of the AT&T Building despite being less than generous in his assessment:

Philip Johnson’s AT&T tops the monumental slab form in a very effective way with an up-reaching split pediment. This crown is dignified, indeed almost grave-like, culmination to all the verticals that shoot up around it and through it. The further one is away from the building, the better is the upturned profile. Unfortunately, when one gets too close the kitsch detail and Golden Boy of AT&T, placed on the High Altar of the Pazzi Chapel, become not funny enough. Kitsch for commerce, pediment for skyscraping – this is the double formula.15

Thus Jencks saw the AT&T Building not so much as passing its queer persona as straight, but as having a divided one, in which it played it straight on the skyline (no matter the furniture reference), while being not so much queer as crassly commercial at the ground level.

The AT&T Building, in other words, was not perceived at the time that it appeared to be anything other than a mark of the ways in which mainstream architecture was changing to accommodate the critiques that had been developed not only by Banham and Jencks, but also by architects such as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Paolo Portoghesi, and Charles Moore. While those designers had worked mainly on houses and public and private institutions such as colleges and universities, Johnson now transported their experiments into the heart of power.

Is it therefore appropriate to see the AT&T Building not only as an icon of Post-Modernism, but as also representing the manner in which queer culture and attitudes – developed over the previous few centuries in the closet and the cruising grounds, not to mention the salons and clubs, of Western Europe and the United States – now became part of the way the power structure was housed? Although the building was very much part of the dominant and business-oriented elite, its queerness came during a period that queer culture made a similar journey into popular imagery and fashion, as exemplified most purely by Bruce Weber’s photographs of nude and semi-nude men for Abercrombie & Fitch a few years later. It was also, however, the time of AIDS and the demonisation of queer culture by the dominant right wing culture under President Reagan.16

Whatever its intention, the actual construction of such buildings at scale by queer architects (some of whom very thoroughly in the closet, but known or suspected to be queer, ranging from Aldo Rossi to Venturi himself)17 and the overtness of their winks at and borrowing from queer culture, certainly acted as a major legitimising factor for this embattled, but also nascently proud, group. If Golden Boy could stand where he did, and if a piece of furniture, as mentioned above – the stock-in-trade of the interior design profession to which most queer architects have found themselves relegated if they were out about their orientation – could be a corporate headquarters, then it was indeed possible for a queer man (and a few women, although they were still not in the same power position as men) to be out, proud and productive in the discipline of architecture.18

Moreover, the AT&T Building was emblematic of a wider manner in which queer culture had taken the imposition of grids and abstractions, the large-scale neutrality and efficiency, and the emptying out of classical allusions that constituted Modernism of the International Style sort, and reimbued it with illusions as well as allusions, a sense of bodily presence and pose, and a theatricality and witticism. These modes were not, of course, the exclusive province of queer culture, but they were located there more than in any other subgroup feeding into both the popular and the elite production of imagery, form and messages.

The stage sets Moore had pioneered in his homes were built at a huge scale on the streets of Manhattan. The witticisms and double entendres Venturi had mined out of neoclassical architecture and had merged with objects of daily life in a Warholesque mode were now erected in a fully knowing manner. The ways in which not just Johnson, but many other queer men of the period, could wear a suit with a cape with a luscious lining, thus signalling their double identity, was now constructed.

The final tribute to the success of the AT&T Building’s queering of Modernism into Post-Modernism is, however, how unremarkable it appears today. What you notice instead, walking up and down Madison Avenue or viewing the building from the elite’s privileged place – the garden of the Museum of Modern Art a few blocks away – is how not only normal, but positively reserved it appears. The refinement of the detailing has been copied and flattened in so many other buildings, much in the same manner that the added I-beams of the Seagram Building were emulated, that you have to look hard to notice how particularly overstated, with layer after layer of coursing granite and the indeed neck-stretching scale of the arches, these elements are here. Even the highboy pediment does not astonish after almost half a century of ever more outrageous tops to ever taller skyscrapers.

That normalcy is mirrored by the manner in which queer culture, at least as it was in the period between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis, has dissolved into the mainstream, even while some of its modes have been taken into ever more outrageous and more accepted extremes in drag shows and fashion shoots. To be a queer white man in the United States or Europe is to be as privileged and as searching for identity as the straight version of that kind of human being. The contributions that queer men and women made to architecture culture are thus historical, and exemplified by the building that, mid-construction in the fulcrum year of 1980, brought that particular version of a culture born out of same-sex desires into the heart of power.

  1. One of the best recent evocations of this period in New York is Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016), which describes the punk and art scenes, as well as the life of the corporate elite and suburbanites attracted to the city around the 1997 blackout.

  2. For how Johnson and Burgee obtained the commission, and how their firm was structured, see Franz Schulze, Philip Johnson Life and Work (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).

  3. In this and the following, I rely on the research and writing for my Queer Spaces: The Architecture of Same Sex Desire (New York: William Morrow, 1995), with additional research subsequently.

  4. Charles Jencks reviewed the exhibition in Domus, 610 (October 1980). See www.domusweb.it/en/from-the-archive/2012/08/25/-em-la-strada-novissima-em--the-1980-venice-biennale.html.

  5. Charles Jencks, The Language of Postmodern Architecture (New York: Rizzoli International, 1984), 156–7.

  6. For the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, see Belmont Freeman, ‘The Moment for Something To Happen’, Places (January 2014), doi.org/10.22269/140113. For the Architectural Association in this period, see Igor Marjanovic and Jan Howard, Drawing Ambience: Alvin Boyarsky and the Architectural Association (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

  7. Since the acceptance of people with same-sex desires was in no way complete, Johnson never spoke about his sexuality, but lived more or less openly with men and followed some of the tropes by which ‘gay’ men identified themselves, including flamboyant touches to his clothing and a biting sense of humour.

  8. Steve Coll, The Deal of the Century: The Breakup of AT&T (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1986), also provides a good history of the company.

  9. Time (9 January 1979), front cover.

  10. In the firm’s monograph of the period, the building is shown in elevations that consciously recall the hand drawings of early twentieth-century office buildings, not to mention earlier masonry buildings. See John Burgee and Philip Johnson, Philip Johnson/John Burgee Architecture 1979–1985 (New York: Rizzoli International, 1985), 44–5.

  11. There is a historic analogue to the building and, knowing how voracious Philip Johnson was in his reading and borrowing, a possible source: Hans Hollein’s 1966 repurposing of a Rolls Royce grill, itself a potent symbol of power and privilege, as a proposed skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. See www.hollein.com/eng/ART/Rolls-Royce-Grill-on-Wall-Street.

  12. Reyner Banham, ‘Philip Johnson’s Post Post-Decon Skyscraper’, AD (25 August 1984), 22–8, 25.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid, 26.

  15. Jencks, The Language of Postmodern Architecture, 157.

  16. For a good collection of essays on this period, see Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty (eds.), Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian and Queer Essays on Popular Culture (CITY?: Duke University Press, 1995). None of the writing, however, touches directly on the work of fashion photographers such as Weber and Steve Meisel, though their work has been extensively published.

  17. There is no verifiable proof for these rumours; I rely here on conversations with collaborators and friends of both figures.

  18. The two main critics whose positions were central to New York culture at the time, Ada Louis Huxtable and her successor as architecture critic at the New York Times, Paul Goldberger, treated the building as an example of Post-Modernism pure in their reviews. Ada Louis Huxtable, ‘A Radical Change on the City’s Skyline’, New York Times (22 July 1979), Section D, 27; Paul Goldberger, ‘Major Monument of Post-Modernism’, New York Times (31 March 1978), Section B, 4.

Aaron Betsky
1980 in Parallax: On the Queerness of the AT&T Building
1980 in Parallax