The Seagram building rises over New York’s Park Avenue, seeming to float above the street with perfect lines of bronze and glass. Considered one of the greatest icons of twentieth-century architecture, the building was commissioned by Samuel Bronfman, founder of the Canadian distillery dynasty Seagram. Bronfman’s daughter Phyllis Lambert was twenty-seven years old when she took over the search for an architect and chose Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), a pioneering modern master of what he termed ‘skin and bones’ architecture. Mies, who designed the elegant, deceptively simple thirty-eight-story tower along with Philip Johnson (1906–2005), emphasized the beauty of structure and fine materials, and set the building back from the avenue, creating an urban oasis with the building’s plaza. Through her choice, Lambert established her role as a leading architectural patron and single-handedly changed the face of American urban architecture.
Looking at the past through the eyes of the present, it might be assumed that the commissioning, design, and construction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building were politically driven by the world of power and intrigue. In face, Building Seagram is not a story of architectural or corporate power plays but rather one of unlikely convergences, extraordinary coincidences, and ironic turns. In 1951, when the building project got under way. my father, Samuel Bronfman, whom I still refer to as SB, the ‘client’, de jure, was still effectively an outsider in New York, Mies was living in Chicago, and I was working as an artist in Paris. Only Philip Johnson, through his longtime position as director of the Department of Architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, was any sort of powerful figure in New York City at the time. Real estate development, on the threshold of a postwar boom, did not yet wield the influence that it would eventually assume. Though it is difficult to comprehend today, architecture itself was generally considered to be little more than a commercial product at the beginning of the 1950s.
This book is based on my involvement with the Seagram building from its beginnings – identifying the architect, serving as director of planning and, in effect, as ‘client’ from 1954 to 1959, building the company’s collections, and continuing to be involved with the maintenance and stewardship of the building as well as the artworks and programs through the end of the twentieth century. It is a personal account of how Mies designed the Seagram building as well as Philip Johnson’s role, both as I experienced the process at the time and as I see it now, some fifty years later. Ultimately, it is very much about the life of the building in the city. This post-World War II phenomenon is seen against and within the coming of age of architecture and the arts in New York, transformations from war technology to building construction, the first real changes in zoning regulations in New York City, the evolution of real estate from individual practices to a highly structured and influential industry in the city, and the onset of legislation aimed at sustaining the urban fabric.
The story of Building Seagram offers insight into the arcana of commissioning buildings in New York City after World War II. In this volume I have sought to explain in some detail Mies’s approach to building – Baukunst, he called it, the building art. This encompasses the questions he posed about the time he lived in, the logical, the less than logical, and the spiritual, as well as the instances of his auto-generative process. Rising prominently on park Avenue, New York’s broadest and most majestic street, Seagram was immediately perceived as the great exemplar of the prototypical American building type. What industry and lesser architects learned from it was not its exemplary form and proportions, not its refined details, not its astute siting (which changed the concept of public space in New York City), but the idea of the glass and metal curtain wall, which was roughly copied and deployed in countless buildings insensitive to site, context, or proportion, and, one must say, far removed from the philosophical and cultural foundations of the art of architecture in which Mies was immersed. Like all, or almost all, of the buildings Mies forged, the Seagram tower was bound to an open platform forming a podium establishing a vista and an oasis in the grid of the busy city. Mies had explored the spatial interrelationship of building and landscape from his first built work in the first decade of the twentieth century. The glass towers he drew in the early 1920s as revolutionary manifestos remained theoretical for forty years, until the circumstance materialized in which they could be built. However, neither his low rise structures nor his towers were entities in themselves. Rather, each was resolved as a union of house and garden or building and plaza, as elements bound together to become clearings in the ‘forest’ of the city. In looking back at the birth and life of the Seagram building, it is not enough to recount what happened, as complex and compelling as that might be: It is also necessary to examine the unfolding of Mies’s course in architecture, the evolution of his ideas over half a century, from his independent building of the 1909 to the completion of Seagram and its plaza in 1958. Similarly, it is necessary to revisit Philip Johnson’s Glass House to understand his contribution to the building. It is equally vital to consider the impact of the Seagram building in the public realm of the city over the next fifty years, from 1959 through the first decade of the twenty-first century, when the Seagram company ceased to exist.