In 2016, the conglomerate Olayan Group paid $1.4 billion to acquire the former Sony Tower in midtown Manhattan and turn it into a state-of-the-art office. The renovated building won’t be complete until next year, but the lobby has already welcomed its first tenant: a staggering 24-ton sculpture made of a very rare Brazilian stone and suspended just 12 feet above the ground.
Dubbed Solid Sky, the sculpture was created by Alicja Kwade, a Polish German artist who has become known for sculptures that defy the laws of physics, like her popular rooftop commission for the Met in 2019. The sculpture joins an array of other art-studded lobbies in Manhattan—like Jeff Koons’s red Balloon Rabbit at 51 Astor Place, or James Turrell’s Light Box at 505 Fifth Avenue. Usually the art is chosen by the tenants, not the developers. But in this case, it was Olayan that commissioned the sculpture well before any tenants were approved.
This represents the latest unusual attempt to lure tenants back into the office amid the upheaval of COVID-19. Developers and landlords are already pulling out all the stops. The former Condé Nast building in Times Square has a private balcony overlooking the Empire State Building and a cafeteria designed by starchitect Frank Gehry. One Vanderbilt in midtown Manhattan has a four-story observation deck extravaganza.
Kwade’s suspended sculpture at 550 Madison is a decidedly less conventional amenity. But isn’t the first piece of art to live inside the building. In the early 1980s, when AT&T moved its headquarters to this address, the company brought along with it the Golden Boy, a 24-foot-tall statue that had long been a symbol of the company. Then Sony took over the building in the ’90s, and a dazzling pair of abstract murals depicting energy fields settled in the building’s upper lobby. (The building itself has a rich design history: Designed in 1984 by famed architect Philip Johnson, it’s an icon of postmodernism and the youngest building to be recognized as a landmark in New York City.)
Solid Sky consists of a solid piece of Azul do Macaubas cradled in stainless steel chains and hanging from a 70-foot-tall ceiling. With its natural blue hue, it resembles planet Earth hanging in the balance. “Its grandeur feels religious in the scale of it all,” says Erik Horvat, the managing director of real estate at Olayan.
For Horvat, the nature of the stone and its likeness to our planet encapsulates a feeling of unity. The message, however, is clear: This is a place of luxury and refinement for discerning tenants only. For the first time in its history, the building will be home to more than one tenant. (In September, just 45% of the building was leased.) According to Stephen McCoubrey, an art consultant who co-curated and managed UBS’s art collection for 10 years, a striking sculpture like Solid Sky could lure more tenants to the building.
Developers often commission art in the public realm surrounding the building, which gives them tax breaks, but McCoubrey says it’s unusual for them to commission art inside. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and companies from UBS to Microsoft have art collections and curation systems already in place. So when a developer steps in and commissions a 24-ton sculpture hanging from the ceiling before a single tenant has even moved in, the move carries risk. “If it was just a marble lobby, no one would take against it, but no one would be excited by it either,” McCoubrey says.
Horvat refused to disclose the cost of the sculpture, but McCoubrey guesses it is likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And in 2021, expensive art may just be another line item for developers eager to fill their buildings with tenants again. The building’s renovation has been reported to cost $300 million. The new lobby has marble walls and terrazzo flooring inspired by a pattern in the Pantheon. “The money spent on finishes is staggering,” says McCoubrey. “[The art] is gilding the lily of an already beautiful space.”