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Building Seagram: A Memoir of Mies and Modernism

Phyllis Lambertʼs compelling and incisive account of the commissioning, design and construction of the Seagram Building is both a critical history and personal memoir of a pivotal moment in architecture

Arriving as a fourth-year graduate student from Cambridge at the new TWA Terminal at JFK, my first thought was to make my way to see two buildings, the most iconic in New York for European visitors: Lever House, completed for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill by Gordon Bunshaft in 1952, and the Seagram Building, finished in 1957 by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.

The former impressed me as elegant in its green glassed Modernism and refined courtyard; the latter, following a detailed study of Greek architecture with Peter Smithson, and an introduction to Schinkel from Colin Rowe, seemed to incarnate, in its bronze dignity, the principles of antiquity and modernity all at once. My intuition of neo-classic Modernism was confirmed by viewing the reflection of the triple arches of the balcony of the Racquet and Tennis Club centred in the glass entrance of the Seagram − after all McKim, Mead & White had quoted Jacques-Louis David’s triple-arched scene for his painting of Brutus in their facade, and Mies must have followed the cues. But the back-story of Seagram’s design and construction took a long time to emerge, and with Phyllis Lambert’s extraordinary historical study − Building Seagram − it is now clear.

Reflections of McKim, Mead and White's Racquet and Tennis Club in the Seagram's lobby enclosure, 2010

Reflections of McKim, Mead and White’s Racquet and Tennis Club in the Seagram’s lobby enclosure, 2010

The book’s frontispiece sets the scene: to the left Philip Johnson; at centre Mies van der Rohe; and to the right a young and vivacious Phyllis Lambert. Johnson is gesturing with his pencil; Mies, head on hand, holds a cigar, and listens to Johnson; Lambert, engaged and smiling is ready to draw, pencil at the ready over a roll of tracing paper. Behind is a photograph of the model of the proposed new headquarters of the Seagram Company. Taken in 1955, this image stages the fascinating story that Phyllis Lambert recounts in this unique and deeply felt narrative of the complex processes that led to the construction of Mies’s New York masterpiece.

This book is unique because, as an active participant in the selection of the architect, director of planning, and, as she writes serving ‘in effect, as “client” from 1954 to 1959’, and consultant to the company to 2000, Phyllis Lambert has written a ‘memoir’, but one that is also, as researched over a decade, a critical history based on archival evidence and interrogation of sources. As such it is a testament to the successful efforts of the daughter of Samuel Bronfman to persuade her father to sponsor the best of modern architecture, but also to the daughter’s evolution as an architect, historian, institutional creator and mentor to generations of researchers, scholars, preservationists and public officials, in her role as the founder-director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

The resulting book, published by Yale, in bronze covers, with a plethora of rare archival photographs, and a foreword by Barry Bergdoll, is in turn a narrative of the building of an icon, a revelation of the intricate aesthetic and political forces behind the scenes, a study in depth of New York’s zoning laws at mid-century and of the social importance of the Seagram plaza, a review of the later history of the building, its art collection and patronage role, and a movie-worthy story of the interaction of the three unlikely collaborators at different stages of their careers.

Building Seagram by Phyllis Lambert

Building Seagram by Phyllis Lambert

As a ‘memoir’ the voice is authoritative, the facts established by research, and the story fascinating. A prologue describes the lead-up to the selection of Mies − the history of the Seagram Company from its beginnings as a single distillery built by Samuel Bronfman in Ville LaSalle near Montreal in 1924, to its consolidation as the Distillers Corporation Seagrams Limited four years later. Seagram’s first offices as it expanded in New York were in the Chrysler Building with interiors designed in Tudoresque and Moderne style by the young Morris Lapidus in 1934, 20 years before the completion of his signature hotel, the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.

From her account, young Phyllis Lambert was ‘a self-imposed outsider’, distant from her business-occupied father, who ‘considered only his sons to be in the line of … succession’. A sculptor, she became interested in modern architecture in her last year at Vassar College, preparing an exhibition on the relationship of art to architecture, following this with courses at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

Living in Paris and working from her studio, her first intimation that Sam Bronfman was planning to build in New York came in a letter from her father showing her a plan for the new headquarters, drawn up by Charles Luckman, the developer architect of the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed Lever House on the Park Avenue site opposite that selected for the Seagram Building, and now a partner in Pereira & Luckman. Horrified, Phyllis wrote her father a letter in return.

The Seagram Building in progress. Here the tower steel frame is 18 floors high, with concrete fireproofing extending to 10 floors. The east-wing fireproofing is completed and the ground-floor bronze mullions attached to the east wing. This view was taken at 52nd Street looking west, on 27th September 1956

The Seagram Building in progress. Here the tower steel frame is 18 floors high, with concrete fireproofing extending to 10 floors. The east-wing fireproofing is completed and the ground-floor bronze mullions attached to the east wing. This view was taken at 52nd Street looking west, on 27th September 1956

Dated 28 June 1954, this extraordinary missive − eight single-spaced typed pages long with penned annotations reproduced in full in her book − demonstrated a detailed knowledge of modern architecture, and in particular, of the qualities of Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House. This letter deserves to be recorded in the annals of critical moments in the literature of architecture, as it not only deployed every argument possible, practical and aesthetic, filial and emotional, but was so spectacularly successful in its effect. Following an appropriate Shakespearean opening, neatly reversing Lear’s cry to his daughters, ‘No, No, No, No, No’, she immediately took issue with her father’s characterisation of the project as ‘Renaissance modernized’. Her argument still rings true after two decades of postmodern pastiche: ‘You can’t modernize the Renaissance − you can only learn from it.’

Presciently, and four months before her efforts had resulted in the choice of Mies van der Rohe, she advanced the idea of a noble public space of entry from the street level, anticipating her later championing of the plaza, and imagining the effect of a glass curtain wall with its ‘surface due largely to changing reflections … a mosaic out of this lovely pattern of many panels of glass and colour through the light reflecting on each section and the reflection of the sky and other buildings in the glass, and of course the basic field of colour from the glass itself’.

An evocative view of the finished Seagram Building, from the north-west at dusk

An evocative view of the finished Seagram Building, from the north-west at dusk

Her dramatic critique of the Luckman-Pereira plan in the voice of a man-in-the-street wowed by its flashy effect, her analysis of the emerging modern style as represented by the UN Building and Lever House, her call for a humanising Functionalism, and her ethical plea for a ‘building which expresses the best of the society in which you live’, all spoken with the authority of one committed to architecture, who was considering ‘going to school or working with an architect’, won over her father.
‘Now I really have a job,’ she wrote to a friend.

The search for a fitting architect included meetings with Lewis Mumford, Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson, himself just starting his practice after stepping down as MoMA architecture curator. Eero Saarinen was the most helpful, despite his own ambition for the commission, suggesting a list of ‘those who could but shouldn’t, those who should but couldn’t, and those that could and should’. Which left Le Corbusier and Mies. A meeting between Mies, Johnson (who had championed him for the 1932 MoMA show) and Samuel Bronfman sealed the deal, with Mies suggesting a partnership ‘Van der Rohe and Johnson’. In December 1954 Lambert was appointed director of planning, and the trio figured in the frontispiece was complete.

‘Personal rivalries led at one moment to Johnson’s resignation, and at another to Mies’s derogatory remarks on his New Canaan Glass House (a “hot dog stand”)’

The ensuing story is well known in its outlines and entirely new in its details. On a personal level, we are entered into the difficult negotiations with corporate committees and city agencies, plunged into the personal rivalries that led at one moment to Johnson’s resignation, and at another to Mies’s derogatory remarks on his New Canaan Glass House (a ‘hot dog stand’ was the comment). There are accounts of Mies’s dinner conversations, of his working methods, of the various members of the team and their roles, and most interesting, the arguments over specific aspects of the building and successive crises with respect to the New York City Building Code, culminating in the rejection by the local AIA of Mies’s application for a New York State licence − it was suggested that he take the high school graduation exam to qualify.

These, and a hundred more fascinating insights into the design and building process, are deftly welded into a deeper examination of the selection of materials, the concept of the structure and the continuous refinements and often counterintuitive changes made by Mies in order to hold to principle while satisfying technical requirements.

Seagram Building study in AR December 1958. A coda from Peter Smithson reads: ‘The Seagram Tower certainly communicates a dream of a controlled, spacious, machine age environment, even at the popular level’

Seagram Building study in AR December 1958. A coda from Peter Smithson reads: ‘The Seagram Tower certainly communicates a dream of a controlled, spacious, machine age environment, even at the popular level’

But the overall strength of the book lies in its wide-ranging contextual history of Mies’s and Johnson’s own architectural philosophies and careers, their historical sources, and intersecting if often opposing aesthetic preferences, together with Phyllis Lambert’s special concentration on two major aspects of the building often ignored: the radical nature of the front plaza, and the fundamental role of lighting and especially of the partnership between Johnson and the lighting designer Richard Kelly.

A whole chapter is dedicated to what Lambert calls ‘the urban landscape’ constructed by ‘the union of building and plaza’, and here she performs a close analysis of Mies’s interpretation of Schinkel’s perspectival relations with the external landscape. Here the crucial Modernist intervention was the use of coloured (in this case bronze) glass as an urban, public/private interface, with Mies’s debt to Paul Scheerbart’s utopian vision of Glasarchitektur (1914) seen as the crucial moment in his evolution from neo-classicism to Modernism.

This study of the design of the plaza culminates in Lambert’s history of its subsequent role in the staging of public sculpture − in which she herself played a major part − and the plaza’s incorporation into the public life of the city as attested to by Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (1959) and the celebrated enquiry by William H Whyte’s Street Life Project (1980), in which the Seagram’s outdoor space figured prominently. It was the example of this plaza that impelled New York City to review its zoning code in 1961, introducing the concept of ‘incentive zoning’ and encouraging developers to provide public open space at ground level.

Plaza Panorama taken from the frst setback at 399 Park Avenue (top image) and Joe Shapiro, Untitled, Bronze, 1974-1975, installed on the Seagram Plaza (bottom image)

(Top image) Plaza Panorama taken from the first setback at 399 Park Avenue (Bottom image) Joe Shapiro, Untitled, Bronze, 1974-1975, installed on the Seagram Plaza

Bonding these narratives together is a consistent inquiry into the immense complexities of process and fabrication needed to bring Mies’s aesthetic to realisation. To give only one example − that of the unprecedented bronze skin and the difficulties of the mullion design − as Gene Summers, Mies’s assistant wrote, ‘we tried shapes that were curved, shapes that were rectangular. And we tried in the drawing, and then we tried in sketches, and then we would build it full size … in the final analysis, the simple H-shape … was still the better aesthetic shape’. Problems of the thickness of the extrusion, and finally the patina, applied by hand to prevent the bronze turning green, were solved through the same experimental method, until the rich brown and relief shadows of the resulting facade were achieved.

In a final chapter, not without a sense of irony, Lambert brings the story to the present, through the traumas of the successive sales of the building, of its struggle to attain landmark status, both externally, and internally in the Four Seasons Restaurant, and the final collapse of the Seagram Company with that of Vivendi Universal less than a year after the merger of the two companies. The ensuing destruction of Philip Johnson’s executive offices led to a final letter from Phyllis Lambert, warning Edgar Bronfman Jr of the ‘recipe for disaster’ in the change in ownership. But, as she closes, ‘Seagram didn’t live here anymore, and very soon, neither would Vivendi Universal.’

Also pictured are Mies van der Rohe (right) and Saidye Rosner Brofman (right, with back to camera)

Samuel Brofman congratulates Phyllis Lambert on the first day he occupied his office in the Seagram Building on 23rd December 1957

Perhaps the most moving photograph in the book, a fitting pendant to its frontispiece, is that of Mies standing next to Samuel Bronfman on the occasion of his occupying his Seagram office; Phyllis Lambert is standing on the other side of her father, who gently takes her by the arm in congratulation.

BUILDING SEAGRAM

Author: Phyllis Lambert

Publishers: New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Price: $65

Architects: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson

Photographs: United Press International. Richard Pare, The House of Patria, Ezra Stoller/ ESTO, James Dee (courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery), Joel Sharpiro/ SODRAC, Tommy Weber

All images courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal

Readers' comments (1)

  • Xcom Arch

    Must be a very good read. The catalyst that the Seagram plaza was to NY incentivizing the building of public interface space at ground level, shows the powers of influence that were mobilized on this project. I believe Socrates made similar arguments for public welcome being designed into structures; perhaps this is a times truth?

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