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Name   The Seagram Building
     
Architects   MIES VAN DER ROHE
     
Date   1958
     
Address   375 Park Avenue New York, NY 10152, New York, USA
     
School    
     
Floor Plan   78876 SQ.M.
     
Description  

Of all the American monuments to the International Style, it is the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe that fully defines the aesthetic and time of high modernism, the era of postwar corporate and urban consciousness. In glass, steel, and bronze, the Seagram symbolizes the bricks and mortar and martinis that were the 1950s.

The Seagram, a 40-story slab skyscraper of amber glass within a grid of bronze I beams, rises above a fountained plaza on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. The body of the building, in typical Mies fashion, is supported by a templelike entry that is reminiscent, within a thoroughly modern composition, of the earliest post-and-lintel roots of archaic architecture. The design is of interest not only for the glass slab that rises suavely above mid-town Manhattan but also for the invention of the plaza fronting Park Avenue and the resulting relationship of urban architectural object to its opposition, void space, within the city grid. Architectural historian William H.Jordy, in his definitive analysis of the building, spoke of the Seagram as modern expression of “the potential of structure to create noble order, in the sense in which it created noble order in the past” coupled with “truth of its time.”

For modernism, the Seagram is an ideal, perhaps even a Platonic ideal, of perfection and purity of form. It symbolizes the type form of the gridded glass skyscraper, emblem of the 20th century. The building has always seemed the epitome of form and function united in its most integrated and reductive sense, the clearest expression of Mies’ edicts that “form follows function” and that architecture is “almost nothing.” It is émigré Mies’ American sublime manifestation of his German utopian renderings.

Like its creator, the Seagram is both simple and complex. The simplicity is the gridded steel frame with glass-curtain wall as a modern extension of the archaic building. The complexity is inherent in the expression of that simplicity through the applied bronze I beams, which, although they symbolically stand for the meaning of structure, are themselves unstructural. Thus, the aesthetic of truth-in-structure is expressed through an untruthfully convoluted visual metaphor.

Over the four decades since its design, the Seagram has drawn architecture and urban planning into a number of problems. The primary problem is the truth-in-structure problem, but other, more prosaic problems also exist. Unlike the ideal type-form buildings of the past, such as the Parthenon and the Pantheon, the Seagram as a type form was created within the fastest paced civilization in history. Thus, the Modern type form engenders its own imitation and reaction within its lifetime. Thinking architects, after the Seagram, wrestled with the questions of, “Where can construction go after total reduction?” and “How can the art of architecture follow perfection of form?”

For the thoughtful architect, the Seagram has been inspirational, a standard against which tall buildings will always be judged. Less-gifted builders have simply lowered the standard set by Mies for the gridded glass-and-steel skyscraper. His work has been exploited, copied, and shortchanged as a standardized form by developers the world over, cheaply, in terms of both dollars and aesthetics. Thus, it is critical for an appreciation of early skyscraper design never to read the chronology of modern architecture backward, blaming the beautiful early type forms, such as the Seagram, for the debased works of later imitators.

A further problem engendered by the Seagram is inherent in the design of the slab versus the plaza. For this revolutionary design, revised zoning rules had to supersede the famous New York setback skyscraper law that had been passed to ensure that giant buildings would not block light and air within the crowded Manhattan grid. As the rules of the 1916 zoning law had dictated the aesthetics of the setback skyscraper, so now with the Seagram plan would new zoning standards allow for new forms in American architecture. The Seagram plan meant that skyscrapers could go straight up to higher elevations without setbacks, in giant continuous slabs. In exchange for height, the footprint of the building would cover only a small percentage of the site, allowing an open plaza to be created.

The assumption of city planners was that a public urban amenity would thus be created and financed through private corporate funding. Although the concept of a plaza of negative space could be fully animated by Mies, by a less-deft planner the modern plaza has all too often proven to be no urban amenity. Poor imitation of the Seagram plaza has led to urban plazas that are not, as Mies’s is, confined voids in an aesthetic dialectical relationship with the solid form of a building but rather simply voids of leftover space. Planners have learned that it is better to maintain a continuous street setback than to disrupt it arbitrarily.

It is possible that the Seagram’s influence on architectural style has been even wider than Mies could have expected, for the perfection and reduction of this building perhaps engendered the reactionary excesses of Postmodernism. After working with Mies on the Seagram, architect Philip Johnson left Mies but continued to react to the Miesian influence for decades. Johnson’s prolific later ornamental Postmodernism, the antithesis of his own International Style tenets, may be read as a reactionary comment on his own work on the Seagram Building.

The high-rise building, as it developed in the United States during the very early twentieth century, was a response to the increasing demand for city-centre space and was made possible by rapid technological developments.

By the end of the nineteenth century it had become possible to construct entire buildings using frames of wrought iron and then steel. This meant that buildings could rise high and fast and possess open-plan interiors that were well-lit and adaptable. Combining the technology of structural frames (with metal later supplemented by reinforced concrete) with the fast and reliable elevator, electric power, and strong plate glass meant that the modern high-rise tower had arrived, in the process introducing a new way of living and working in cities.The new high-rise building type – rooted in metal-frame construction pioneered during the Industrial Revolution in late eighteenth-century Britain and first developed in the United States in Chicago in the late 1880s – developed erratically during the first half of the twentieth century, typically with metal frames clad in masonry skins of various styles, usually ornamented, as with the Chrysler Building. Arguably the skyscraper reached artistic maturity only in 1958 with the completion of the Seagra

These problems, of course, are latter-day events for which Mies should not be held responsible. It is not to his detriment that he sought, through his type form for the modern skyscraper, to create perfect architectural form; nor is it his fault that the imitators of architecture so rarely comprehended the meaning of his architectural ideals. Mies would not have concerned himself with such problems, for his concerns were solely with the significance of his Baukunst.

 

LESLIE HUMM CORMIER

Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3 (P-Z). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005. 

 

 

Further Reading 

The Mies van der Rohe Archives are in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

Jordy, William H., “The Laconic Splendor of the Metal Frame: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 860 Lake Shore Drive Apartments and His Seagram Building” in The Impact of European Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century, by Jordy, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972

Schulze, Franz, Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985

Stoller, Ezra, The Seagram Building, Princeton Architectural Press , 1999  

 

 

 

 

The high-rise building, as it developed in the United States during the very early twentieth century, was a response to the increasing demand for city-centre space and was made possible by rapid technological developments.

By the end of the nineteenth century it had become possible to construct entire buildings using frames of wrought iron and then steel. This meant that buildings could rise high and fast and possess open-plan interiors that were well-lit and adaptable. Combining the technology of structural frames (with metal later supplemented by reinforced concrete) with the fast and reliable elevator, electric power, and strong plate glass meant that the modern high-rise tower had arrived, in the process introducing a new way of living and working in cities.The new high-rise building type – rooted in metal-frame construction pioneered during the Industrial Revolution in late eighteenth-century Britain and first developed in the United States in Chicago in the late 1880s – developed erratically during the first half of the twentieth century, typically with metal frames clad in masonry skins of various styles, usually ornamented, as with the Chrysler Building. Arguably the skyscraper reached artistic maturity only in 1958 with the completion of the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, New York, designed by Mies van der Rohe. It was, and in certain ways remains, virtually the last word in skyscraper design.

One of the most compelling aspects of Mies’ Seagram design is that he made virtues out of the constraints surrounding high-rise construction while at the same time realizing the aesthetic potential of the building type.

Mies had been at the forefront of high-rise architecture, evolving radical ideas for sheer towers of steel and glass while working in Germany before the Second World War. In the United States he developed these ideas, notably and initially at the Lake Shore Apartments in Chicago, which were completed in 1951.

But it is at the Seagram that all the aims and ideas of the urban high-rise for commercial use come together in near-perfection. The steel and glass tower possesses tremendous elegance, with its details a direct result of the demands of the material and construction techniques used. There are no overt references to history and no superfluous ornaments. Unlike earlier skyscrapers, the Seagram does not pose as an over-stretched palazzo with a top ‘cornice’ and spire, a central shaft of repetitive floors, and a podium. Instead it is pure reflective wall, with the entrance distinguished in the most subtle manner by a portico-like display of steel columns. This entrance is a clue to Mies’ aesthetic. Direct reference to history is, of course, eschewed, as is any form of ornament, but Mies’ building is nonetheless rich in historical influence – although of a highly subtle, almost abstract sort. This influence is mostly represented through the use of traditional systems of proportions, used to unite elements of the building with the building as a whole. Or, as with the portico-like columns of the porch, details allude to ancient classical prototypes.

Also temple-like, but in response to planning laws, the tower is set within its own small square, free-standing to be seen in the round, offering wonderful views, and able to enjoy maximum natural light.

In Chicago Mies experimented with cladding the steel frame within a curtain wall of glass. Having no structural role beyond supporting its own weight means that a curtain wall can have minimal structural components, such as the frames carrying the sheets of glass, leaving maximum area for the glazing. The idea was not entirely new, but at the Seagram the system was refined to produce a shimmering skin of amazing sophistication and sleekness with slender steel mullions of the smallest possible dimension.

Inside, the functional and artistic advantage of Mies’ structural system is immediately clear. The interior is open, with no structural walls beyond those enclosing the central service core. Light floods in through the floor-to-ceiling glazing of the curtain wall and the space can be used in virtually any way desired.

Although minimal in detail, the interior has dignity and beauty – and this is to do with proportion. The effect is particularly obvious in the entrance hall, where Mies achieves elegance in a simple manner: the fully glazed walls offer views out and let maximum light in. As Mies said, in imitation of a line in an 1855 poem by Robert Browning, ‘less is more’.

 

Cruickshank D. A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings. Harper Collins UK., 2015.

     
     
     
     
     
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