“NO NO NO NO NO.” What better way to begin the story of one of the world’s most iconic buildings than with such emphatic disapproval? This was Phyllis Lambert’s protest, in the form of an emotional eight-page letter to her father, the CEO of the Seagram conglomerate, Samuel Bronfman, who had shared with her a proposal for his new Manhattan headquarters. The plan was by architect Charles Luckman. Lambert detested it and implored: “there was one alternative, and one alternative only: you must put up a building which expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society.”
And with that, in 1954 the search for the right architect was on. Lambert, along with Philip Johnson, then-curator of architecture at MoMA, and Lou R. Crandell, head of construction, appointed émigré Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, choosing him over Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. The final touch was Crandell’s suggestion of a partnership between the cigar-puffing Mies and his fervent advocate Johnson. Five months after Lambert’s letter construction commenced, and by September 29, 1959, the Seagram Building at 375 Park Avenue in Manhattan was officially complete.
Mies was a solid oak tree of a man, hulking in stature and pithy in wisdom. Although he was known for his aphorism “less is more,” he often quoted Saint Augustine: “Beauty is the radiance of truth.” For Mies, architecture was about the pursuit of a clarity of spirit and mind. In his work (influenced by Karl Friedrich Schinkel) he sought to unify landscape, architecture, and human activity. He called this concept Baukunst. His 1921 photomontage entry for the Berlin Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Project competition crystalized his genius in a revolutionary idea: a skyscraper sheathed completely in glass.
Mies left Germany in 1938 and joined the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago as director of the Department of Architecture. It was in Chicago, at 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, that he first placed high-rise tower blocks on a raised podium, heralding the indelible Miesian style that would go on to define the 38-story Seagram Building.
Traveling along 52nd or 53rd Street toward Park Avenue, pedestrians are greeted with the bliss of sheer open space. Its siting is one of the many unprecedented marvels of the Seagram. Mies pushed the tower back about 100 feet from the Park Avenue sidewalk, and raised it on a platform that served as a plaza. Cradled by the symmetrical verde marble ledges, foliage, and coruscating pools on each side, the wide, open space of the plaza provides a calm respite from the busy sidewalk. It is also an ideal viewing platform, where any vantage point offers vertiginous views of the stately monolith. The tower’s converging lines rush upward to the heavens. Try looking up while on the move — Mies has uplifted the body as well as the spirit.
A monument to posterity, the Seagram’s luxurious minimalism was achieved through material maximalism. How better to embody less than to invest more? The plaza is laid in Vermont granite and slabs of antique verde marble, the lobby walls lined in milky travertine, and likely the largest I-Beams ever extruded in bronze. All purely decorative, the bronze curtain-wall of I-Beams, mullions, and spandrels accentuate the building’s handsome bone structure, and produce a provocative cadence of umbra and penumbra. Johnson, with lighting maestro Richard Kelly, orchestrated a symphony of soulful illumination at the Seagram. The Four Seasons restaurant, where New York’s elite flocked to dine in chiaroscuro, confirmed that light can define status.
In 2000, real-estate tycoon Aby Rosen bought the Seagram; since then it’s become less a civic space than Rosen’s personal portfolio. Picasso’s “Le Tricorne” (1919) was expelled from its home in the Four Seasons and the historic restaurant shuttered in 2016. While the Seagram has been revolutionary in many respects, impacting New York’s attitude toward civic spaces, and even the city’s zoning laws, it is increasingly taken for granted — its significance further obscured by parasitical Seagrams copycats nearby.
Today (March 27) is Mies’s birthday. It would behooves us to remember the indomitable spirit of this Modernist masterpiece and all it still has to offer.