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Modern and contemporary art

Video transcript

[Music] i'm with matthew postal who is 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 miss van der rohe's the sea room building it's built between 56 and 58 mies had been designing buildings of this kind since the 1920s but he never had a chance to build an office building so it's the first opportunity to see his ideas it was a lot that intervened you have the war the revolution in germany mies was developing his ideas first in paper in the 20s as you said and then you have the end of the depression he moves to the united states he designs the campus of the armor institute and then he has this commission secret building now seagram was a canadian company it's a liquor company it was perhaps the world's largest liquor company at the time and they want to have their headquarters in new york 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 which was that first real modern icon to show up on park avenue first curtain wall building in manhattan charles luckman who had been one of the chief executive officers at lever had been trained as an architect and had left lever to open his own firm luckman gets way past the preliminary drawings there's a large model bronfman who ran secret the model is sitting in his office his daughter phyllis lemberg she was studying at harvard in the school of architecture and design she said dad that's the most awful thing i've ever seen 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 and drexler said there were three choices there was luca brucier too difficult to work with he said there was frank lloyd wright the obvious choice the american but too old he was almost 90 years old and he suggested that they go with ludwig mies van der rohe and that's what they did well he's built a relatively simple form a bronze clad slab of a tower okay hold on a second it's bronze it is sculptures are made out of bronze 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 so you're thinking classicism in terms of the ancient greeks creating sculptures this is a building that actually has a patina like a sculpture woods it's not just a uniform dark brown black it's actually got some subtlety to the color in really an enormously sophisticated way 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 that's great so it doesn't turn green or red or what have you yeah mies really loved greek architecture over all other things and so he designed a building that is very symmetrical it's a very disciplined aesthetic and if you look at the various pillars that run across the front they look vaguely like fluted columns so that's really interesting because they do have these vertical striations so it is a kind of floating and in fact the whole building is up on this platform it's almost like a greek style of bite as if we were looking at the parthenons absolutely there's a sense of proportion here that feels very classical and it's incredible to be able to say that despite the building's height because this is a big building and the greeks were working on a much smaller scale the romans were working on a slightly larger scale but nothing like this that's the challenge how do you distill the lessons of the ancients in a building that's made of metal and glass well and is that even an absurd project to try to take an industrial culture and an industrial material and wet it somehow to buildings that are 2 500 years old me's would say no the modern movement in architecture was always looking for some discipline it was always looking to balance old and new and this was one of the solutions that he found so let's take a look at the building it's very clean when you look up at it from below it just soars the terminal that comes to mind is a vertical velocity like an ascent we just rock it upward visually look carefully at the vertical mullions that are between the window bays and they basically rise without interruption from the base of the tower to the top they're not simple mullions look like i-beams they're inverters they serve no purpose other than decoration and decoratively they make the surface so that it's not flat they give it some texture they give it a little depth and it gives it a bit of a play of light when the building was constructed they talk about industrial materials and honesty and those kind of issues but as time has passed they recognize that it wasn't beyond me is to experiment with a little bit of decoration so 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 but these are de-purposed they're reflecting what's inside the building the actual interior structure yeah on a smaller scale and i assume that inside they're actually steel they're not bronze 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 and yet he's allowing for it i think it's a stereotype about modernism to think that it's without any decoration 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 based on a kind of square foot budget this is one of the most expensive buildings of its time because of the materials bronze costs a great deal more than illuminating aluminum it's mostly copper look at the travertine that the elevator banks are wrapped in when you look at those elevator banks and 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 i think they give the building real solidity so that's what visually holds it up yeah and also it makes reference back to the ancient romans because that's roman travertine so again is constantly referencing antiquity the building is really not using much of its footprint the building is really deeply set back on park avenue about as far back as it could although it has a couple of smaller additions 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 racket and tennis club directly across the street that he did not want to overwhelm that great italian palazzo by mckim mead and white and it's actually one of the great buildings in new york this is quite an intersection you have lever house tennis racquet and you've got seagram it's a hell of a triumphant 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 plaza and looking up at the building it provides an architectural experience that people don't often have in new york but there's something else here it feels like this is a public space place where people gather and in fact as we're here there are people who walk and stop and talk there are people sitting by the reflecting pools and it becomes a kind of a social space he kept the seating at the edge to a minimum it never appears to have been any intent to encourage people to stay here so that's an interesting issue one of the faults that is found with modernism is its antiseptic quality its wholeness its lack of humanity and 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 i think it depends where you come from
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