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Current time:0:00Total duration:9:09

Modern and contemporary art

Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) Mail voiceover: I'm with Matthew Postal who was an architectural historian. We're on Park Avenue at 53rd Street and we're standing in front of one of the most important buildings in the history of architecture in the United States. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's, The Seagram Building. Male voiceover: It's built between '56 and '58. Male voiceover: Can you give me a quick overview of why this is so important? Male voiceover: It's important on a lot of levels. Mies has been designing buildings of this kind since the 1920s, but he never had a chance to build an office building. It's the first opportunity to see his ideas. Male voiceover: There was a lot that intervened. Mies was developing his ideas first on paper in the late teens, then in the '20s as you said. Then, you have the revolution in Germany, you have the war, the end of the depression. Male voiceover: He moves to the United States, he designs the campus of the Armour Institute. Male voiceover: Then, he has this commission, Seagram Building. Seagram was a Canadian company, it's a liquor company. Perhaps, the worlds largest liquor company at that time. I think they did really well because of prohibition, if I remember correctly. Male voiceover: Because they're based in Canada. Male voiceover: Because they're based in Canada and all of that liquor could be smuggled down to Chicago, across the Great Lakes. Then, one of them had their headquarters in New York. How did this come to be? Male voiceover: The background of the Seagram building is, that they decided to build a headquarters in the mid '50s. They looked across the street. They were impressed by all the notoriety that Lever House had garnered. Male voiceover: Which was that first real modern icon to show off on Park Avenue. Male voiceover: First curtain wall building in Manhattan. Male voiceover: Okay. Male voiceover: Charles Luckman, who had been one of the chief executive officer at Lever, had been trained as an architect and had left Lever to open his own firm. Male voiceover: Did Bronfman, who ran Seagrams, turn to Luckman then? How did that ... Male voiceover: He hires Luckman and Luckman gets way past the preliminary drawings. There's a large model. The model is sitting in his office when his daughter comes to visit, Phyllis Lambert. Male voiceover: What did she have to do with it? Male voiceover: She was studying at Harvard, in the graduate school of architecture and design. She said, "Dad, that's the most awful thing I've ever seen." Male voiceover: (laughs) I hope Luckman's not listening. What does she do? Male voiceover: She says, "Dad, we're going to go over to the Museum of Modern Art" "and you're going to speak to Arthur Drexler," "the chief curator of architecture." Male voiceover: MoMA is only a few blocks down the street, on 53rd as well, so this was not a long stroll. What did Drexler tell Bronfman? Male voiceover: Drexler said there were three choices. There was Le Corbusier. Male voiceover: The French architect. Male voiceover: Right. Too difficult to work with, he said. Male voiceover: Okay. Male voiceover: There was Frank Llyod Wright. Male voiceover: The obvious choice, the American. Male voiceover: But, too old. Male voiceover: Ahh. Male voiceover: He was almost 90 years old. Male voiceover: He suggested that they go with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Male voiceover: That's what they did. What has Mies done here? Male voiceover: He's built a relatively simple form, a bronze clad slab of a tower. Male voiceover: Hold on a second. It's bronze? Male voiceover: It is bronze. Male voiceover: Sculptures are made out of bronze. Male voiceover: That's why I always say that this is not only one of the modern icons of architecture in New York, but it's also one of the most classical buildings in the city. Male voiceover: That's interesting. You're thinking classicism in terms of the ancient Greeks creating sculptures. This is a building that actually has a patina like a sculpture would. It's not just a uniform dark brown black. It's actually got some subtlety to the color in really an enormously sophisticated way. Male voiceover: It's a little darker than it originally was, but imagine that each year, at least once a year, they rub it with oil, so that it does not oxidize. Male voiceover: Oh, that's great. So that it doesn't turn green or red or what have you. Male voiceover: Yes. Male voiceover: Any of the chemical reactions that the bronze might have. Male voiceover: Mies really loved Greek architecture over all other things, so he designed a building that is very symmetrical, it's a very disciplined aesthetic. If you look at the various pillars that run across the front, they look vaguely like fluted columns. Male voiceover: That's really interesting, because they do have these vertical striation, so it a kind of fluting. In fact, the whole building is up on this platform. It's almost like a Greek style, as if we were looking at the Parthenon. Male voiceover: Absolutely. Male voiceover: There's a sense of proportion here that feels very classical and it's incredible to be able to say that despite the buildings height, because this is a big building. The Greeks were working on a much smaller scale. The Romans were working on a slightly larger scale, but nothing like this. Male voiceover: That's the challenge. How do you distill the lessons of the ancients in a building that's made of metal and glass. Male voiceover: Is that even an absurd project, to try to take an industrial culture and an industrial material and wed it somehow to buildings that are 2,500 years old? Male voiceover: Mies would say, "No." Male voiceover: Why is that legitimate? Male voiceover: Because I think that the modern movement in architecture was always looking for some discipline. It was always looking to balance old and new. This was one of the solutions that he found. Male voiceover: Let's take a look at the building. It's very clean. When you look up at it from below, it just soars. The term that comes to mind is vertical velocity. Male voiceover: LIke an ascent. Male voiceover: We just rocket upward, visually. How is he pulling that off? Male voiceover: Look carefully at the vertical mullions that are between the window bays. They basically rise without interruption from the base of the tower to the top. Male voiceover: I'm looking at those now and they're not simple mullions, they look like I-beams. They have girders. Male voiceover: Right. Male voiceover: What's going on? Male voiceover: They serve no purpose other than decoration. Male voiceover: Decoratively, they make the surface so that it's not flat, they give it some texture. Male voiceover: A little depth. Male voiceover: They give it a little depth. It gives it a bit of a play of light as well, and shadow. Male voiceover: I think that when the building was constructed, they talked about industrial material and honesty and those kinds of issues, but as time has passed, they recognized that it wasn't beyond Mies to experiment with a little bit of decoration. Male voiceover: It's decorative, but it's a kind of decorative symbolism, isn't it, because the I-beam is the thing that's actually holding the building up? These are de-purposed, if that makes sense. Male voiceover: Not these I-beams. Male voiceover: Right, not these I-beams. Male voiceover: That's right. Male voiceover: They're reflecting what's inside the building, the actual interior structure. Male voiceover: Yeah, on a smaller scale. Male voiceover: I assume that the inside, they're actually steel, they're not bronze. Male voiceover: Right, and you would never want to see them. They would be kind of unattractive. Male voiceover: Mies has got these I-beams and they really do raise us upward. They do function then, in a decorative sense. Of course, we were talking about the classical a moment ago and the Parthenon for instance, was heavily decorated, so there's no prohibition there, but it does seem to be a little bit anathema to the way that we generally think of Mies van der Rohe or we think of the modern movement as really wanting to strip away the unnecessary and the decorative. Yet, he's allowing for it. Male voiceover: I think it's a stereotype about modernism, to think that it's without any decoration. Male voiceover: Because there is actually gorgeous use of not only the bronze exterior, but the mosaics, marble, granite and you've got these beautiful reflecting pools in front of the building. Male voiceover: Based on this kind of square-foot budget, this is one of the most expensive buildings of it's time. Male voiceover: Because it's not using it's entire ... Male voiceover: It's not using the entire lot, but no, because of the materials. Bronze cost a great deal more than aluminum. Male voiceover: It's a fortune. It's mostly copper. Male voiceover: Look at the travertine that the elevator banks are wrapped in. Male voiceover: You know what I find really interesting? When you look at those elevator banks, - and what, there are four of them - they actually move past the glass membrane that encloses the lobby. The glass is like a soap bubble and they've pushed through it. Male voiceover: I think they give the building real solidity. Male voiceover: That's what visually holds it up. Male voiceover: Yeah, and also it makes reference back to the ancient Romans. Male voiceover: How so? Male voiceover: Because that's Roman travertine. Male voiceover: Oh, it's travertine. Of course. Right. Male voiceover: Though again, Mies is constantly referencing antiquity. Male voiceover: You had mentioned, just a moment ago, this forecourt. The building is really not using much of it's footprint. The building is really deeply set back on Park Avenue. Male voiceover: Yeah, about as far back as it could. Although, it has a couple of smaller editions in the back. When Mies was asked why did he set the building back so far, he said that he wanted to pay respect to the Racquet and Tennis Club directly across the street, that he did not want to overwhelm that great Italian Palazzo by McKim, Mead and White. Male voiceover: It's actually one of the great buildings in New York. This is quite an intersection. You have Lever House, Tennis and Racquet and you've got Seagram. That's a hell of a triumvirate. Male voiceover: I think he wanted to create a corridor for his building to be viewed. I think by coming up those steps at the end of the Palazzo and looking up at the building, it provides an architectural experience that people don't often have in New York. Male voiceover: There's something else here, maybe it's a classical element as well, it feels like this is a public space, a place where people gather. In fact, as we're here, there are people who walk and stop and talk, there were people sitting by the reflecting pools. It becomes a kind of social space. Is that something that Mies was interested in? Male voiceover: You know, I think if you look at it critically, he kept the seating at the edge to a minimum. There never appears to have been any attempt to encourage people to stay here. Male voiceover: That's an interesting issue. One of the faults that is found with modernism is it's antiseptic quality, is it's coldness, it's lack of humanity in human scale. Do you think that Mies has created something that allows us to occupy it comfortably, or is this something that is alienating in some way? Male voiceover: I think it depends where you come from. (upbeat piano music)
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