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Building Seagram, and the Art of Patronage

Building Seagram, and the Art of Patronage

  • Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert discuss the Seagram in front of an image of the building model soon after she helped the architects win the commission in 1955.

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    Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert discuss the Seagram in front of an image of the building model soon after she helped the architects win the commission in 1955.

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    Building Seagram

    Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert discuss the Seagram in front of an image of the building model soon after she helped the architects win the commission in 1955.

  • The Seagram shortly after its completion in 1958, as photographed by Ezra Stoller.

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    The Seagram shortly after its completion in 1958, as photographed by Ezra Stoller.

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    Ezra Stoller, in Building Seagram

    The Seagram shortly after its completion in 1958, as photographed by Ezra Stoller.

  • In December 1956, construction on the Seagram was about halfway done, with 38 floors framed out, glass inserted on the seventh floor, and bronze mullions attached up to the 14th floor

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    In December 1956, construction on the Seagram was about halfway done, with 38 floors framed out, glass inserted on the seventh floor, and bronze mullions attached up to the 14th floor

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    Building Seagram

    In December 1956, construction on the Seagram was about halfway done, with 38 floors framed out, glass inserted on the seventh floor, and bronze mullions attached up to the 14th floor.

  • A spread from "Building Seagram." In the photo on the right page, Mies and other building committee members visit the site in July 1956 as it was under construction.

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    A spread from "Building Seagram." In the photo on the right page, Mies and other building committee members visit the site in July 1956 as it was under construction.

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    Noah Kalina

    A spread from Building Seagram. In the photo on the right page, Mies and other building committee members visit the site in July 1956 as it was under construction.

The first task he set out for her was to choose the marble for the ground floor of the Pereira and Luckman building. But rather quickly Bronfman acceded to her notion of starting the design process from scratch. And by the end of the summer she’d been given the task of overseeing the search for a new architect.

Ultimately, of course, after consulting with the critic Lewis Mumford and other advisers, and considering a list of contenders including Marcel Breuer, Paul Rudolph, and (most seriously) Le Corbusier, she convinced her father and his colleagues to hire Mies van der Rohe. Mies produced for the company one of the great masterpieces of purist Modernism in America, a 38-story, 515-foot-high tower of smoky bronze and dark glass that is set magisterially back from the street with a wide granite-edged plaza at its feet. Along with the 1952 Lever House, located just down the street and designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it ranks as one of the finest skyscrapers produced anywhere in the world in the decades after World War II; perhaps more than anything, it is a building of almost impossible poise.

Lambert’s book is an exquisitely detailed (sometimes over-detailed) chronicle of how the skyscraper came to be: how Mies applied the lessons of his great Chicago buildings to his first New York tower, nearly perfecting the curtainwall as the face of the modern office tower; how he managed a collaboration with the much younger Philip Johnson, who oversaw the design of the Four Seasons restaurant; and how the relationship between the building and the plaza, and in turn the plaza and the sidewalk, is so carefully calibrated.

Most books of this sort, which aim to the tell the biography of a building, or how its architecture evolved, don’t bother to stick around to explain how the structure operates once it’s finished, or how it is received by the people who use it or by the public at large. Lambert does all of that, along with spending a great deal of time examining the public art inside and in front of the building, which includes a giant stage curtain by Picasso, Le Tricorne, in the Four Seasons. MoMA’s Barry Bergdoll, in his foreword to the book, says Lambert “broadens the aperture” of the building monograph.