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.