Building Seagram: A memoir of Mies and modernism

29Nov13

Building Seagram by Phyllis Lambert

The search for a fitting architect included meetings with Lewis Mumford, Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson, himself just starting his practice after stepping down as MoMA architecture curator. Eero Saarinen was the most helpful, despite his own ambition for the commission, suggesting a list of ‘those who could but shouldn’t, those who should but couldn’t, and those that could and should’. Which left Le Corbusier and Mies. A meeting between Mies, Johnson (who had championed him for the 1932 MoMA show) and Samuel Bronfman sealed the deal, with Mies suggesting a partnership ‘Van der Rohe and Johnson’. In December 1954 Lambert was appointed director of planning, and the trio figured in the frontispiece was complete.

The ensuing story is well known in its outlines and entirely new in its details. On a personal level, we are entered into the difficult negotiations with corporate committees and city agencies, plunged into the personal rivalries that led at one moment to Johnson’s resignation, and at another to Mies’s derogatory remarks on his New Canaan Glass House (a ‘hot dog stand’ was the comment). There are accounts of Mies’s dinner conversations, of his working methods, of the various members of the team and their roles, and most interesting, the arguments over specific aspects of the building and successive crises with respect to the New York City Building Code, culminating in the rejection by the local AIA of Mies’s application for a New York State licence − it was suggested that he take the high school graduation exam to qualify.

Seagram Building study in AR December 1958. A coda from Peter Smithson reads: ‘The Seagram Tower certainly communicates a dream of a controlled, spacious, machine age environment, even at the popular level’

Seagram Building study in AR December 1958. A coda from Peter Smithson reads: ‘The Seagram Tower certainly communicates a dream of a controlled, spacious, machine age environment, even at the popular level’

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