I never would have guessed that the catalyst that set New York’s architectural monument, the Seagram Building, into motion were the candid and outraged ‘NO NO NO NO NO’S’ of a scolding letter from daughter to father in response to a lapse in good taste. In this scenario, the daughter was Phyllis Lambert, the founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the father was Samuel Bronfman, president of Distillers Corporation—Seagram Limited. In 1954, Bronfman, after failing to seek out a ‘suitable’ designer on his own, gave his daughter the task of finding an architect to design the new headquarters for his business empire, eventually leading to the commission of architect Mies van der Rohe. Almost six decades later, Lambert has returned with her book Building Seagram, to tell the tale of the famed project from the perspective of an artist, a person intimately involved with the process, an architectural critic and a protector of the landmark. This in-depth analysis of the Seagram Building explores the story of the tower and plaza from the very moment of its conception to its present life as a building and public space in the city, no longer tied to its original program.
Lambert quickly establishes the cast of key stakeholders in the project—the client, Bronfman; the architects, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson; and, Lambert herself, the enabler. With this core group of characters a lively narrative unfolds and ties together the impressively informative and analytical content. A great deal of tension is spoken of surrounding the partnership between architects Mies van der Rohe, an established master of the international style, and Philip Johnson, at the time, a devoted disciple of Miesian design practices. In the shadow of Mies’ architectural fame, Johnson finds his role in the building design, particularly in interiors and lighting, transforming the tower into a luminous column of light after dusk with his iconic illuminated ceiling tiles. Letters of correspondence, Mies van der Rohe’s sketches, architectural drawings and city documentation are instrumental in the book’s narrative as Lambert rigorously provides multiple viewpoints of the story for many of the issues that arose during the project’s design and construction phases.
At the time the project took place, Phyllis Lambert’s career in architecture had not yet begun and her formal role in the project was restricted to ‘director of planning’. She was trained as a sculptor and well versed in visual arts but it was not until after the project that Lambert received a formal architecture education. With Lambert’s strong visual arts background, it is no surprise that Chapter 5 of the book, Architecture and Art Allied, is dedicated to the Seagram’s collection of art, most of which was purchased or commissioned by Lambert on behalf of Distillers Corporation—Seagram Limited. Lambert explains how the Miesian grid provides an immaculate vessel for the display of art. In some instances, the proportions of the grid are engaged in the artwork itself, as in Richard Lippold’s Bronze Rod sculptures that are suspended from the ceiling of the building’s Four Seasons Restaurant. The spacing between each rod in the metallic cloud is in perfect proportion to the size of the room that houses it, anchoring it to the architecture of the space.
Phyllis Lambert’s comprehensive account of the Seagram Building is ambitious, but what’s equally impressive is that she’s distilled dense information into a highly enjoyable read. Not only is the building explored as a piece of architecture but she considers its function as a communal urban space, a site for the display of art, and a vehicle for building science, technology and lighting design. Above all, Building Seagram tells the landmark’s engaging story ‘of unlikely convergences, extraordinary coincidences, and ironic turns.’