… I too am harried even in my very center and a strange throb of emotion fills the Seagram Building …” – Frank O’Hara, The Lay of the Romance of the Associations (1959)
Imagine, for an instant, that you’d never seen it before. The critic Paul Goldberger, reflecting on the wave of imitations it inspired, remarked that the copycats only “clouded its glory”, making it difficult to picture the original as it first appeared in 1958 – a lone, smooth sliver of a building, surrounded by an early-20th-century city of bricks and mortar. Recapturing that effect is all the more difficult since the design itself appears so elemental, so seemingly inevitable, that is almost hard to imagine not imagining it. To commandeer Voltaire’s famous formula, if the Seagram Building did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent it.
That it does exist relieves us of a task that—for all of the design’s apparent simplicity—would actually be nearly impossible to reproduce. The design of the 38-story tower on 53rd Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan was an undertaking of immense logistical and bureaucratic difficulty: from the licensing problems that prevented Mies van der Rohe (at first) from working in New York City; to the local building code that obliged the designer to perform a double aesthetic backflip, covering the structural steel piers in concrete only to encase the concrete in bronze; to the local tax officials who levied a hefty tax on the building for its luxurious expanses of marble and glass, driving up the overall price to a then-astonishing $36 million. In the words of one of the project’s other key players, the whole process was a test case in “the arcana of commissioning buildings in New York City after World War II”.
The player in question was Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Seagram chairman Samuel Bronfman and, at the time of the building’s development, an aspiring artist with a budding interest in architecture. Acting entirely on her initiative, Lambert overcame the first of the many hurdles the building would have to face, prevailing on her liquor-tycoon father to put aside an earlier proposal from the firm of Pererira & Luckman that, as she declared, possessed “nothing whatsoever commendable”. In retrospect, it’s hard not to agree with her. As seen in the surviving models, the rejected design looks like a monumental cigarette lighter, the kind of thing a staid mid-century businessman (which is precisely what Charles Luckman was) might have believed modern architecture was supposed to be.
Still, it might actually help to keep the nixed design in mind when considering the single greatest challenge confronting Mies when he took over the commission. In the late 50s, even after modernism’s relative triumph on these shores, there was no firm consensus as to what American modernism should look like, with New York itself proffering an assortment of stylistic flavors: the bland modern-lite of the 1939 Museum of Modern Art, only a couple blocks away from Seagram; the self-effacing corporate Bauhaus of Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House, just across Park; and the United Nations Headquarters, a grander but basically inimitable Corbusian ensemble whose technical difficulties (the solar gain on the secretariat windows was enough to break the glass) did not make the curtain wall seem like a promising approach. None of these formal tendencies would ever vanish from the American city. But after Seagram, there was no question which modernist mode was in the ascendant, especially for skyscrapers and especially for New York.
… he could hardly have done a better job of posing Seagram for the cameras
To again cast our minds back, and to try to adopt the outlook of someone seeing Seagram for the first time, what exactly did they see? And what was it that so captured their imagination? Well, for starters, there’s the plaza: a nearly quarter-block-deep stretch of travertine, set off with fountains and trimmed with a ledge perfect for the outdoor-lunch crowd. The piazza fronting the Park Avenue side was the first and most manifest of the building’s innovations, all but unheard of for a private office tower. Even for visitors not otherwise struck by the sleek black-and-amber shaft, the plaza made the building impossible not to notice, insisting on its own importance and monumental presence.
As to the tower itself, the reasons it struck such a chord are manifold, but one in particular bears special consideration. Architectural theorist Kenneth Frampton was among the first to observe, in an essay from the mid-80s, how “architecture has been influenced by … advances in photo reproduction” – for decades, designers have created buildings with an eye to making a splash on the pages of glossy magazines. Mies, famously severe, monastic, reputedly unconcerned with the public reception of his work, might have been innocent of such a charge, yet he could hardly have done a better job of posing Seagram for the cameras. In an era of black-and-white photography, the architect’s stark material palette made for eye-catchingly high contrast images every time. Ezra Stoller, the acclaimed architecture photographer, was among the first professionals to shoot the building. Captured around dusk, the tower appears to float magically above its glowing rez-de-chausse like an elegant ghost. Accident or not, Seagram made for good press copy. Which of course, was exactly how most Americans ultimately came to know it.
That they did so is in no small measure a credit to one final ingredient in the building’s success—an element that ensured the building got noticed not just by passers-by and readers of the nation’s newspapers, but by the right readers and passers-by. Rounding out Mies’s band of insiders, Philip Johnson was already well-established as America’s foremost architectural tastemaker. It was he who steered Lambert towards Mies; it was he who helped guide the project past myriad obstacles, all while designing much of the building’s interior, in particular the lower-level restaurants that helped make it a meeting ground for New York’s upper crust. Where Mies was retiring and gnomic, Johnson was ebullient, adept with the media and the public at large, and generally responsible for pushing Mies’s modernist vision to the forefront of the American scene.
For all of Seagram’s objective merits, the most important thing to recall in summoning the subjectivity of 1958 may well be this: it was a world in which everyone, from poets to scholars to socialites, instantly proclaimed the building’s genius and that of its architect. Scarcely anyone, in other words, ever had a ‘pure’ encounter with the Seagram Building. It was canon from the word go.