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Gordon Bunshaft, Lever House

Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Lever House, 1951-52 (390 Park Avenue, NYC) Speakers: Dr. Matthew A. Postal and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Voiceover] This is Steven Zucker. I'm with Matthew Postal, who's an architectural historian, and we're looking at Lever House. We're on Park Avenue and 53rd Street in New York City. Lever House is really one of the great iconic post-war international style buildings. It's gorgeous and it's so perfect. - [Voiceover] It was restored several years ago by the architects who designed it, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. - [Voiceover] So they brought back the original, well not the original team, but they brought back the original firm. - [Voiceover] Yeah, the chief designer, Gordon Bunshaft, had passed away, but they had the original blueprints and they could get it back to where it was. - [Voiceover] It is so pristine, and it's so much about reflectivity and about light. What makes this building significant? - [Voiceover] Well it's the first glass curtain wall office building in Manhattan. - [Voiceover] This building is now completely inundated by much larger buildings that are also glass and steel, but what did this look like originally in 1952 when it was finished? - [Voiceover] Can you imagine when it was finished all of the buildings that surrounded it were faced in brick and stone. - [Voiceover] This really must have stood out. It must have been incredibly radical. How is it that a corporation could have been that brave to do something so extraordinary, not to mention Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill? - [Voiceover] I think a lot of it has to do with the patron. One of the chief officers at Lever was a man named Charles Luckman. Not only had Luckman trained as an architect, but he had been at Johnson Wax when they worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on their signature headquarters. - [Voiceover] So that's really interesting. He saw firsthand the value that really innovative architecture might have on a company and the way that could produce a really sort of important public face for the firm. - [Voiceover] Yeah, it definitely about publicity. - [Voiceover] And of course Lever, interestingly enough, made soap, didn't they? And this building, it really just speaks of a kind of cleanliness, and a kind of sharpness, and a kind of clarity. - [Voiceover] And that feeling would have been even stronger when it was completed, because the limestone and brick buildings that surrounded it would have been 30 or 40 years old at that time, and they probably would have needed a good cleaning. - [Voiceover] And so this building is this gorgeous reflective green glass, clear glass, this steel trim. - [Voiceover] Aluminum. - [Voiceover] Aluminum, and then there's this beautiful marble. This is white marble that it just amplifies the sense of modernity and of a kind of industrial nature. It's really very strict in its geometry, in the way in which it's balanced. The building's really made up of two buildings isn't it? - [Voiceover] It's two forms, one horizontal and the other vertical. - [Voiceover] Right, of course it's actually integrated physically, but visually it really does look like two objects, one stacked on the other, almost one floating over the other. - [Voiceover] I found them balanced against each other. - [Voiceover] So was Gordon Bunshaft really developing these ideas himself or were these ideas that he was borrowing, where does this come from? - [Voiceover] It's in the air. When I look at this building, rather than pointing at one source, I'd rather point to two different sources, and that would be the ideas of the French architect, Le Corbusier, and the architect Mies van der Rohe. - [Voiceover] And both of them were really interested in taking an industrial culture and introducing that to what had up to that point been a fairly, you know architecture had been fairly old-fashioned and really historical in its view. So it's really interesting that we have an American then putting into practice these European ideas. How did that work? - [Voiceover] The Great Depression of the 30s, the Second World War, we were one of the few places where one could attempt to put those ideas into place. - [Voiceover] But now here in a corporate environment, right? - [Voiceover] They had used these ideas at the United Nations a year or two earlier, but this is the first time that an American corporation embraces these ideas, kind of set the trend. - [Voiceover] So one of the things that I'm really interested in about this building is this interior but still exterior space, because you know when you look at the building from across the street it's the horizontal slab, it's the vertical slab, but you come underneath-- - [Voiceover] Into the courtyard. - [Voiceover] Into the courtyard, and the whole space opens up-- - [Voiceover] Yeah, but where else in New York can you sit in the center of the space and look out in three directions into the next block? - [Voiceover] And the whole building feels open in that way. When you look through the vertical slab for instance, especially the corners, you can see in one pane of glass and then out the other. - [Voiceover] Right through. - [Voiceover] It's fabulous. It's almost as if the exterior is almost permeable membrane and it's just simply holding in the heat. It's just holding out the rain. It's so different from the way that architecture traditionally had been constructed and the way that a building usually felt. - [Voiceover] Yeah, it doesn't feel solid, and it probably took a little getting used to. (piano music)