Remember that scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s when Holly (Audrey Hepburn) and Paul (George Peppard) pause in midtown Manhattan, with a fountain and bronze office building in the background? To me it defines urban sophistication. What a great place for an outdoor lunch, or a heart-to-heart with your lover, alone in the crowd. They are on the plaza of the Seagram Building, an oasis of civility in the center of New York.
But this building almost didn’t happen this way. It almost became just another hack midtown office building, the story Phyllis Lambert relates in her new book, Building Seagram (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
Instead, Lambert, a recently divorced, emerging artist living in Paris, wrote to her father, Samuel Bronfman in 1954, saying “NO NO NO NO NO” when she saw his plans for a new headquarters building for The Seagram Company. Her father, probably thinking, “well, if you’re so smart who would you hire?” put her in charge of selecting the architect for the job.
She viewed the task as getting a building “…which expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society.” In her view, with advice from Philip Johnson, then Director of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, the only architect for the job was Mies van der Rohe. Mies was a German émigré architect, dean of the school of architecture at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology, and pioneer of modern architecture. Her father hired him, and put her in charge of managing the project as Seagram’s Director of Planning.
By 1957, The Seagram Company moved into their offices in the new building. Widely considered one of the masterpieces of mid-century modernism, the building was quickly acclaimed for its expression of structure, use of materials and proportions. Lambert takes us behind the scenes as the building’s form emerges as the clients needs are resolved in the context of zoning laws and the urban setting. She explains at length how Mies developed the plaza as an integral part of the design, which is now considered one of the most successful public spaces in New York.
The second half of the book is the story of Lambert fulfilling her self-defined role as steward of the building, insuring “…that the original architectural idea continues to be communicated to the public as a marker in the evolution of a shared culture.” This is easier said than done, especially when The Seagram Company sells the building to a new owner.
She prepared incredibly specific design guidelines (setting the position and angle of window blinds, for instance) and bound the new owner with a clause in the sale contract requiring the owner to not only maintain the building, but to seek the tenant’s (Seagram’s) permission for any changes, and to pursue designation by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission as soon as the building was eligible, at age 30. She makes all this happen. The building with its plaza, the first floor lobby, and the interior of the Four Seasons restaurant all received landmark protection. All the while Lambert maintained an active schedule of art exhibitions in the building, earned an architecture degree, set up her own practice, and founded both Heritage Montreal, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture.
Her book sets the record straight about many particulars of who designed what (Mies or Philip Johnson), as well as how threats to Mies’ vision during design and construction were overcome. She clearly defines the architectural qualities of the building and what makes the plaza such a successful urban oasis. And she is eloquent on the need for stewardship of our cultural treasures to ensure that we pass them on to the future. Born to wealth and privilege, she nonetheless rolled up her sleeves and got to work making the world a better place. Quite a lady!