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 neighbours, but there are at least 60 taller buildings in the city. It is an inoffensive, creamy colour. 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 façade. 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.
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.