LUDWIG MIES VAN DER ROHE AND PHILIP JOHNSON IN THE HEART OF MANHATTAN
When I say : ‘New York City’, probably one of the first things that come to mind is its unmistakable skyline.
The grid of Manhattan is dominated by its highest and, subsequently, most iconic high rise buildings. True, the Empire State and the Chrysler stand tall like king and queen on a giant chess board. The problem with these skyscrapers is that the closer you get, the more difficult it becomes to see them. You can be standing at the front door and not even realize that they are towering above your head. Mies van der Rohe must have fully discerned this tricky problem of urban planning.
His Seagram Building is not the most famous building in Manhattan. Neither does it have a drastic impact on the skyline. But Mies surely didn’t want it to just evaporate in the Midtown concrete jungle. To make sure that his building would not go unnoticed when you pass by it, he insisted on leaving an empty plaza in front of it. This allows a perfect view. It also means that the building itself recedes way behind the street’s front line. In a city where the price per square foot is rocketing, this way of constructing was unheard of and engendered numerous envious comments. A huge open place, clad in Roman travertine? Pure luxury.
The Seagram Building, commissioned by a Canadian liquor company, was finished in 1958.
The only high rise office building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, it’s one of the finest examples of the International Style. It has put its mark on American architecture ever since.
Mies thought that a building’s structural elements should be visible. It’s one of the principles he’s most renowned for and which he rigorously applied in his constructions. The most beautiful examples are the Farnsworth House near Chicago and the German Pavilion in Barcelona.
This Seagram Building, too, is a construction of steel beams from which non-structural glass walls are hanging. But to avoid the risk of melting in case of fire, New York regulations required that the inside beams be covered with a fire and heatproof material, in this case concrete. To Mies it must have been sacrilege. To give at least the impression that the structural elements could be seen, he installed his famous vertical I-beams on the outside of the building. But they have a purely esthetic function, not structural at all!
Mies van der Rohe lived, or at least tried to live, by his credo of strict balance and proportions. He did anything in his reach and power to achieve his goals. To prevent people opening the blinds at different heights, thus giving the building a disorderly aspect from the outside, he implanted a system that only allowed three different positions: open, closed or 50/50.
The outside beams are bronze and are regularly treated with oil to prevent oxidation. It’s also Mies’s explicit wish that the front plaza stays completely empty, except for the reflecting pools and fountains. With the exception for maybe some temporary installation, no art work or trees are ever to be admitted to divert any attention from the building itself.
Where Mies van der Rohe controlled the building’s structural and outside design, it was Philip Johnson who signed for the interior. The two architects had a very successful cooperation and even had their offices in the building. But they will also forever be referred to as these good friends and competitive rivals. Van der Rohe designed the Farnsworth House. Johnson designed the Glass House. Some will gladly go into lengthy discussions to prove who got the idea for the house first.
The Seagram Building is also home to the famous Four Seasons Restaurant, which also has a list of firsts. It was the first restaurant in America to offer a menu according to the seasonal markets. It was the first place on the east coast to have a wine list of American wines, and not only French ones.
Another first were its menus in English, and not French. And The Four Seasons was also the first to reintroduce fresh wild mushrooms instead of the commonly used dried ones in those days. The restaurant is also called the Pool Room because it repeats one of the outside pools in the middle of the restaurant.
Since its opening in 1959 the interior of The Four Seasons has stood unchanged. Plates, cutlery, glasses and furniture are still the same and also figure in the MOMA’s permanent design collection.
Last but not least, The Four Seasons can boast a small but impressive art collection. “La pièce de résistance” would be the huge curtain that Picasso designed for Les Ballets Russes.
To say that The Seagram story is one of total success and unfaltering perfection would be an overstatement. Because of the use of expensive material like bronze, travertine and marble, the Seagram was the priciest skyscraper ever built. And when it comes to energy efficiency, it has the lowest rating of any building in New York.
The landmarked Four Seasons restaurant may be in danger. It is one of the priciest places to eat in New York. But the generous income of the restaurant is unlikely to be enough to compensate an imminent raise in rent. The restaurant is currently paying a ridiculously low lease that is 80% below the average market rate. Some sources say that, when in three years the Four Seasons restaurant’s lease expires, an “adjustment’ to the normal market value is probably looming over its existence. Others say that the Seagram Building without its Four Seasons Restaurant is just unthinkable.
Whatever way the story goes, for the time being, just looking at the building or having lunch at the restaurant is a treat.
The Seagram Building, 375 Park Avenue, between 52nd Street and 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan
The Four Seasons, entrance on 52nd street
Also see my posts:
July 23, 2013 : FARNSWORTH HOUSE : a river runs through it…sometimes
November 13, 2012 : THE GLASS HOUSE