A book we’ve waited decades for! Author Phyllis Lambert was a mere 27 when, the adventure started in the summer of 1954, and it was one that was to change her life forever. The daughter of a good middle-class family lived in Paris at the time, and was trying to make it as an artist, when she received a letter from her father Samuel Bronfman, CEO of Seagram, the Canadian whisky empire. In it he described for her the plans he had to erect a new headquarters for the US market – in New York. His daughter responded aghast: NO NO NO NO NO, or so the first five words of her reply. She caught the next flight home – which may have been her father’s secret intention – and turned everything upside down. The crash of her NO to mediocre architecture sent the architects who had been signed up for the job packing. And the NO gave birth to a milestone in architectural history.
The high-rise as coherent large structure
Phyllis Lambert was hired as a consultant and with a good portion of brashness compiled a list of potential architects: Marcel Breuer? Too suburban! Louis Kahn? His preference for honest fair-faced concrete was much too moral! At the end, only two names remained: Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. And Mies it was who was commissioned to design the Seagram Building. His first office high-rise was home to the no less important Four Seasons Restaurant designed by Philip Johnson, and both were inaugurated in 1959.
Phyllis Lambert could have written the book “Building Seagram” back then, told the tale of how Mies and Philip Johnson, whose relationship was not always easy, rented joint office space in New York, where Mies never showed before 11 a.m., before going to lunch an hour and a half later, something that always started with two Martini cocktails, whereas in the office he sat silently, lost in thought, puffing away at a cigar. Or told us of the difficulties of obtaining the brown-toned glass for the window panes – because Mies was insistent that the high-rise with the bronze façade should have the appearance of a large coherent entity. And of course we have always wanted to know how they managed to convince the Seagram company to use only half of the plot for the building and thus opt for only half the possible volume, leaving space for a quite marvelous forecourt, the plaza with the two pools, a free public space on Park Avenue.
But Phyllis Lambert simply had not time to write it all down in 1959 as she started studying architecture under Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), graduating at the age of 36. In 1979 she founded what was henceforth to be one of the world’s most important museums of architecture, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montréal. She worked as a curator, as museum director, as architect and at the CCA still holds the decisive strings in her hands.
A monument after only 30 years
We have every reason to be happy that she has taken her time. Over half the book outlines what happened after the Seagram Building was commissioned and extends up to today. It’s a novel of a tale about the rise and fall of self-confident entrepreneurialism. Never was the whisky business as buoyant as in the years when Mies was busy designing the headquarters. In 1979, the company sold the high-rise to a pension fund, which, at Phyllis Lambert’s initiative, was duty-bound by countless stipulations to maintain it true to the original. In 1989 the building was listed as a monument, and in 2000 it again changed hands. Large parts of the interior design were removed, and only the “Four Seasons” has survived as a gesamtkunstwerk – including a stage curtain created by none other than Pablo Picasso. Until his death in 2005, Philip Johnson had a table permanently reserved for him in the “Grill Room” opposite the bar. By that time, the life’s work of Phyllis Lambert’s father had long since disappeared behind anonymous joint stock corporations with no sense of tradition whatsoever.
Air rights still available
The high-rise is interesting for today’s owner not least because Seagram and Mies certainly did not exhaust the “air rights” above the block on Park Avenue. Shortly after the building was commissioned in 1959, the city tax office asked why Seagram had shelled out 36 million dollars for a high-rise that given the fact that only half the plot had been used only took in rental receipts equivalent to those for a building worth 17.8 million dollars. The company objected, but lost each time it went to court. Seagram was punished for having used so little of the available space and for having gifts New Yorkers the plaza! Today, “air space rights” can be transferred within a block, and the City of New York has changed its laws, which now take their cue from the Seagram Building. Investors who create public space are now allowed to build higher than otherwise permissible. To date, the economic crises of recent years have prevented a neighbor to the rear of the Seagram Building acquiring the air rights to construct a far higher edifice.
by Phyllis Lambert
306 pages, hardback, countless illustrations, text in English
Yale University Press, 2013
Right: The stage curtain by Pablo Picasso at the Four Seasons Restaurant. Photo: Ezra Stoller, 1959 © Esto