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Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building

The Seagram Building, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is a bronze-clad skyscraper in New York. It's a blend of modern and classical architecture, with a symmetrical design, vertical mullions, and a bronze exterior that's maintained with oil. The building's design pays homage to Greek and Roman architecture, offering a unique architectural experience. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Steven] 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 Mies van der Rohe's the Seagram Building. - [Matthew] It's built between 56th and 58th. 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. - [Steven] There 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. - [Matthew] He moves to the United States. He designs the campus of the Armour Institute. - [Steven] And then he has this commission, Seagram 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 wanted to have their headquarters in New York. - [Matthew] 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. - [Steven] Which was that first real modern icon to show up on Park Avenue. - [Matthew] The 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. - [Steven] Bronfman, who ran Seagram's. - [Matthew] The model is sitting in his office. His daughter, Phyllis Lambert, she was studying at Harvard in the School of Architecture and Design. She says, "Dad, that's the most awful thing I've ever seen." She says, "Dad, we're gonna go over to the Museum of Modern Art, and you're gonna speak to Arthur Drexler, the Chief Curator of Architecture." And Drexler said there were three choices. There was Le Corbusier, too difficult to work with, he said. There was Frank Lloyd Wright- - [Steven] The obvious choice, the American. - [Matthew] But too old. He was almost 90 years old. And he suggested that they go with Ludvig Mies van de Rohe. - [Steven] And that's what they did. - [Matthew] Well, he's built a relatively simple form, a bronze-clad slab of a tower. - [Steven] Okay, hold on a second. It's bronze, and his sculptures are made out of bronze. - [Matthew] 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. - [Steven] 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 would. So it's not just a uniform dark brown/black. It's actually got some subtlety to the color in, really, an enormously sophisticated way. - [Matthew] 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. - [Steven] Oh, that's great. So it doesn't turn green or red, or what have you. - [Matthew] 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. - [Steven] So that's really interesting, because they do have these vertical striations, so it is a kind of fluting, and in fact, the whole building is up on this platform. It's almost like a Greek stylobate, as if we were looking at the Parthenon. - [Matthew] Absolutely. - [Steven] 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, 'cause this is a big building. And the Greeks were working on a much smaller scale than the Romans were working on, a slightly larger scale, but nothing like this. - [Matthew] That's the challenge. How do you distill the lessons of the ancients in a building that's made of metal and glass? - [Steven] And 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? - [Matthew] Mies 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. - [Steven] 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 trimming that comes to mind is vertical velocity. - [Matthew] Like an ascent. - [Steven] We just rocket upward visually. - [Matthew] 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. - [Steven] They're not simple mullions. They look like I-beams. They're girders. - [Matthew] They serve no purpose other than decoration. - [Steven] 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. - [Matthew] When the building was constructed, they talked about industrial materials 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. - [Steven] And 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 depurposed. They're reflecting what's inside the building, the actual interior structure. - [Matthew] Yeah, on a smaller scale. - [Steven] 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 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. - [Matthew] I think it's a stereotype about modernists to think that it's without any decoration. - [Steven] Because there is actually gorgeous use of not only the bronze exterior, but the mosaic's marble, granite, and you've got these beautiful reflecting pools in front of the building. - [Matthew] 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 aluminum. - [Steven] It's fortunate it's mostly copper. - [Matthew] Look at the travertine that the elevator banks are wrapped in. - [Steven] 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. - [Matthew] I think they give the building real solidity. - [Steven] So that's what visually holds it up. - [Matthew] Yeah, and it also makes reference back to the ancient Romans. - [Steven] How so? - [Matthew] 'Cause that's Roman travertine, though again, Mies is constantly referencing antiquity. - [Steven] The building is really not using much of its footprint. The building is really deeply set back on Park Avenue. - [Matthew] 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 Racquet and Tennis Club directly across the street, that he did not want to overwhelm that great Italian palazzo by McKim, Mead, and White. - [Steven] And 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. - [Matthew] 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. - [Steven] But there's something else here. It feels like this is a public space, a 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. - [Matthew] He kept the seating at the edge to a minimum. There never appears to have been any intent to encourage people to stay here. - [Steven] So that's an interesting issue. One of the faults that is found with modernism is its antiseptic quality, its coldness, 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? - [Matthew] I think it depends where you come from. (gentle music)