After half a century, New York City's Seagram Building remains among the finest examples of Modernist architecture; one of the 20th century's most important buildings; and the corporate high-rise against which all others are judged. But if the original plan had been followed, Manhattan's skyline might have taken a very different shape.
"When I learned my father had chosen Charles Luckman, who was behind the Lever House, to do a typical 'wedding cake' design, I wrote him back a long letter with just one word repeated over and over: No," says Phyllis Lambert, the architect daughter of late Seagram Co. chief Samuel Bronfman.
Dubbed the "quirk in the works" by the building's chief developer, Lambert cemented her place in the pantheon of great architectural benefactors by single handedly convincing her father to hire Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (in collaboration with Philip Johnson) to design the 38-story bronze-and-whisky-hued glass tower, with the then-scandalous "wasted" space of its open-air plaza—key factors why, at the time, it was the most expensive skyscraper per square foot ever built.
With the Seagram Building, Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert—tastemaker, designer, and benefactor, respectively (shown here, left to right, in 1955)—set the standard for the postwar office tower.
Credit: Canadian Centre for Architecture
Now 81, Lambert—who would go on to found the Canadian Centre for Architecture, in her hometown of Montreal, in 1979—is currently working on a retrospective book, due out in 2009, about the building and her behind-the-scenes experiences leading up to its completion in 1958. The Seagram's 50th anniversary seemed like a good opportunity to ask her if, given the chance to do it again today, she would do anything differently.
The answer, unsurprisingly, was an emphatic "No."
"Mies' tower and plaza wasn't just a building," Lambert writes in an e-mail, "but rather a new type of urban form that shaped an oasis in the city's fabric ... Seagram's example inspired ... the development of privately owned public places. Following its example, small plazas appeared all over New York, but it would be more salutary if all of these offered the amenities of Seagram—places to sit and watch, to smooch or to schmooze.
"I would take the same approach today. We are living in different times, but we can make places in the same spirit. I think of the changes that are now being made to Lincoln Center—where street and plaza become spaces of pleasure—and the transformation of the abandoned High Line. ...
"And then again, as I walk along Park Avenue, I always wonder why, in the 50 years that have passed since it was built, architects have not created places so satisfying, and—dare I say it—so simply beautiful."
Giancarlo La Giorgia is a freelance journalist and author based in Montreal.