In 1954 Samual Bronfman, Chairman of the board of Joseph Seagram and Sons, decided to construct a “building of fine quality” to house the company’s head office in New York City. The construction of their new corporate headquarters signaled the evolution of the Seagram Company from family-owned manufacturers of “branded” consumer products to a diversified multinational corporation. The Seagram Building was the first in a series of high-rise curtain wall monoliths that were erected on Park Avenue following construction of Lever House in 1952 that transformed Park Avenue into a monument to the International Style. The Seagram Building represents the felicitous convergence of art and commerce. It combines themes that had preoccupied Mies van der Rohe since the 1920s with the modern business and marketing requirements of his client.

      Bronfman had expressed little enthusiasm for modernist architecture. Morris Lapidus had designed the Seagram Company’s first New York City offices in the Chrysler Building in “a Tudor style, complete with fake fumed fireplaces and pegged linen-fold oak panels.” Charles Luckman of the California architectural firm Luckman and Pereira (and president of Lever Brothers) created the initial blueprints for the Seagram Building, which called for a massive structure in the “set-back,” or “wedding-cake” style prescribed by zoning laws and prevailing taste. An article about Luckman’s proposal in the “New Yorker” prompted Phyllis Lambert (Samual Bronfman’s daughter) to return to New York from Paris to persuade her father to select another architect. He put her in charge of the selection process. After rejecting Frank Lloyd Wright (“His is not the statement needed now.”) and le Corbusier (“One is fascinated by his spaces, his sculptural forms, but are not people likely to be blinded by these and skip over the surface only.”), a committee that included Philip Johnson recommended Mies van der Rohe (“Mies forces you in. You must go deeper”), “despite Father’s edict ‘no stilts.’”

     The 1916 ordinance was still in place in 1954. Mies’s first challenge was zoning compliance: “On the Seagram Building, since it was to be built in New York and since it was to be the first major office which I was to build, I asked for two types of advice for the development of the plans. One, the best real estate advice as to the types of desirable rentable space and, two, professional advice regarding the New York Building Code.” Rather than making maximum use of the zoning “envelope,” Mies restricted his building to one quarter of its site, rejecting “setbacks” in favor of a monolithic tower. The building is set back 100 feet from the sidewalk, creating a public plaza with twin fountains. The Seagram Building” indulges in the luxury of empty space”. Real estate consultants determined the building’s volume by combining the area required by the Seagram Company with a figure considered optimally marketable to leaseholders (the building contained offices in units as small as 500 square feet). The total they arrived at was well below that permitted by the New York City Building Code.


      The advent of steel-frame construction and the elevator at the end of the nineteenth century had made the construction of buildings of seemingly unlimited height and bulk feasible. In 1900, Cass Gilbert described the skyscraper as “a machine that makes the land pay.” For George Hill “An office building’s prime and only object is to earn the greatest possible return for its owners, which means that it must present the maximum of rentable space possible on the lot, with every portion of it fully lit.” Opposition to the unregulated construction of skyscrapers in New York emerged early in the twentieth century, and a limit on building heights was promoted by citizens and government officials concerned about the degradation of the city’s infrastructure. Progressive reformers expressed concern about the aesthetic deterioration of the city and the immorality of the huge profits generated by such development. Ultimately, the real estate industry itself, in an effort to stabilize the market, brought about the revision to the zoning law effected in 1916 that restricted for the first time the height and bulk of new construction.

      The plaza had other consequences. It removed the building from its surrounding context, creating a vantage point from which it could be contemplated as an autonomous object, and from which neighboring buildings could be viewed. The Bronfmann family, like the owners of Lever House, eschewed lucrative street level commercial enterprises. In fact, Gordon Bunshaft, designer of Lever House, tried unsuccessfully to persuade his client to include commercial properties in the ground floor of his design. Two restaurants, designed by Philip Johnson, are located under the plinth, and have discrete entrances. Automobile parking, linking the building to its corollary suburban developments, is also concealed beneath the plinth. The way that the restaurants and parking facilities are incorporated into the overall scheme demonstrates the extent to which form and function conflict. An important element of visible human activity has been eliminated by the concealed parking facilities. Visitors go directly from the parking garage to the interior elevators. A low wing overlooking the plaza accommodates the Four Seasons Restaurant, restoring some of this visible activity to the building. Evidence of urban infrastructure is also suppressed. Traffic signals are situated on the median that runs down the center of Park Avenue; there are no pedestrian crossing signals. Commercial traffic is prohibited on Park Avenue, and there are no public bus stops or subway station entrances.

      Mies’s ambition was to create a work of art, and his success has tended to be judged by the extent to which the Seagram Building achieves a universal aesthetic ideal by suppressing whatever is programmatically incompatible with its monumentality: “the Seagram Building is a monument to an idea first and to a corporation second.” Classical resonances, manifest in its Palladian symmetry and mathematical regularity, are invariably invoked in descriptions of the Seagram Building. “The striation of all the columns can be read as an abstract form of fluting, and the three steps leading from the sidewalk to the plaza act as a modernist adaptation of the classical temple stereobate.” It engages in a dialogue with the classicism of the Racquet and Tennis Club across Park Avenue by McKim, Mead and White, “a neo- Florentine palazzo”. The opulence of building materials and quality of construction reinforce the Seagram Building’s stature as a work of art. “The foyer features four ranks of elevators clad in quality travertine.” The exterior vertical I-beams are bronze. The Seagram Building is almost invariably photographed from the north, removing it from the context of its International Style simulacra.

      Mies frequently subordinated functionality to aesthetic considerations. The compressed profile of the slab makes the offices on the upper floors small and cramped, and circulation inefficient. Phyllis Lambert describes the complications posed by the “intrusion” of the elevators: “They determine your bay system (in a columnar building a bay is the area between columns), the height of your building and heaven only knows what else. On the first try X. called me up-disaster-no building just elevators. Now all is getting in order-the Otis people are constantly consulted and asked to do their most brilliant best-but no matter what you do the elevators take up three bays!” (The role that the elevator has played in the evolution of New York City’s infrastructure is remarkable. Automatic elevators, which eliminated the expense of hiring operators, made the ubiquitous six-story apartment house possible.) The glass and aluminum envelope has little thermal and auditory insulation.

      On the other hand, Mies embraced technology. The Seagram Building reflects his long-standing interest in new techniques and materials. Indeed, the “rationalization” of construction technique, which in practice took the form of a modular system, was a premise of his architecture. Curtain wall construction reduced the cost of construction of the Seagram Building by ten percent over conventional frame-and-infill methods (before the lavish materials are taken into account). The module is more than a matter of utility. The module freed Mies’s architecture from the “straitjacket of historical style imitation.” Based on a grid, the module valorizes the lateral, as opposed to hierarchical, disposition of space: “The modular system tends to abolish the center” It is also the “outward sign of a new order.” Even so, Mies upped the stakes by basing the design of the Seagram Building on a nonstandard 4 ft 7-1/2” module. Artistic intention and rationalized methodology reinforce each other.

      Mies embraced glass as a building material in the 1920s: “The novel constructive principle of these buildings comes clearly into view if one employs glass for the no longer load-bearing exterior walls. The use of glass, however, necessitates new approaches. In my design for the skyscraper at the Friedrichstrasse railroad station in Berlin, intended for a triangular site, a prismatic form corresponding to the triangle appeared to offer the right solution for this building, and I angled the respective façade fronts slightly toward each other to avoid the danger of an effect of lifelessness that often occurs if one employs large glass panels. My experiments with a glass model helped me along the way and I soon recognized that by employing glass, it is not an effect of light and shadow one wants to achieve but a rich interplay of light reflections.” Mies equates the transparency that illuminates the interior (this project predates fluorescent lighting), at least from a vantage point outside the building, with “lifelessness.” The reflective properties of glass animate the building’s exterior. “At first glance the contour of the ground plan appears arbitrary, but in reality, it is the result of many experiments on the glass model. The curves were determined by the need to illuminate the interior, the effect of the building mass in the urban context, and finally the play of the desired light reflection.” Brown-tinted glass installed in the facade of the Seagram Building reflects neighboring buildings.

      Construction of its new corporate headquarters generated tremendous publicity for the Seagram Company. Articles about the building appeared in academic and popular journals and periodicals. Mies’s dictum “less is more” adorned an article in Time Magazine in 1958. The building’s completion also coincided with dramatic changes within the Seagram Company. Sales were slipping. “The top group was getting older. General Schwengel, the figurehead president of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc., was in his seventies, as was Jim Friel just before his death. Bill Wachtel, the head of Calvert, was in his late sixties, and on and on.” Their ignorance of modern marketing techniques had made the old guard expendable. “Part of the problem was that Father and Seagram were far behind the new marketing curve.” Edgar Bronfman, chairman of the administrative committee, urged his father Samual to oust Schwengel and appoint him president of the company. His father complied. After his appointment, Edgar launched a much-publicized campaign to revive a failing product, “Calvert Reserve” whiskey, in “order to prove to my own organization, to the distributors and retailers, and to the industry that I was qualified to run the company.” He demonstrated his awareness of the marketing potential of absence and superfluity by repackaging “Calvert Reserve” as “Calvert Extra,” and replacing every unsold bottle of “Calvert Reserve” in every retail store in the country with a bottle the “new” product.

      In another statement (paraphrasing a Catholic theologian and philosopher named Romano Guardini under whose spell Mies had fallen) that invokes the epiphany of Christian mysticism, Mies conflates technology with transparency, and transparency with truth: “Nothing seems impossible anymore. Thus begins the reign of technology. Everything succumbs to its impact. It detaches man from his restrictions, makes him freer and becomes his great helper, breaks down the isolation of geographical locations and bridges the largest distances. The world shrinks more and more, becomes surveyable and is investigated down to its remotest recesses. The characteristics of people become clear. Their social and economic structures are uncovered. World consciousness and a conscious awareness of mankind results. Technology offers a thousand means to increase awareness. Nothing occurs anymore that is not observed. We survey ourselves and the world in which we stand. Consciousness is our very attitude.”

      Media representations of urban corporate life were prevalent in the 1950s and 60s. A cinematic genre featuring New York City corporate protagonists, frequently advertising executives, who commute form suburban homes to midtown office towers, emerged. Ranging from portentous statements such as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), directed by Nunnally Johnson (primarily a screenwriter and infrequent director) and The Apartment (1960) directed by Billy Wilder, to banal “knockoffs” such as Lover Come Back (1961), starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day, these films project both dreadful and auspicious images of corporate architecture. Protocols that govern relationships between the sexes and between employers and employees are common themes in these films. In The Apartment, the corporation is depicted as a predatory patriarchy. In Lover Come Back it becomes a benign site for a coy “battle of the sexes” between two corporate executives. The fascination of these films may reflect what Rem Koolhaas calls Automonumentality. The architectural grid is not generated infinitely from a single point in space, but begins at the periphery of a habitable spatial configuration, extending inward and outward. In a sense, two approaches to architecture exist; one emphasizes the disposition of exterior configuration over interior functionality, while the other reverses these priorities. Conceived on a grand enough scale, the connection between exterior and interior dissolves, resulting in a break or “surgical severance” between an “honest” façade and the activities it conceals. “In the deliberate discrepancy between container and contained New York’s makers discover an area of unprecedented freedom.”


     The celebrity of the Seagram Building had unanticipated consequences. In 1963, the New York City Commission imposed a “prestige” tax on the Seagram Building, inciting a public outcry that culminated in an article by Ada Louise Huxtable called “Another Chapter in How to Kill a City” published in the New York Times on May 21, 1963. The standard tax rate was “based on a building’s ‘market value’, a figure reached on the basis of net income, capitalized at a customary 6 per cent plus 2 percent for depreciation. By this formula, the Seagram Building comes up with a figure that hovers roughly around $17,000,000. It is no secret that this extravagantly beautiful edifice cost $36,000,000 to build. And there, as anyone can clearly see, is more than another $17.000,000 in untapped taxes in a city starved for revenue.” The State Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court ultimately established a drastically increased tax assessment policy for

“prestige” buildings based on construction cost.

     The Seagram Building was also the impetus for the first revision to the New York City Building Code since 1916. At a symposium in 1992 called “Planning and Zoning New York City: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” Sigurd Grava, Robert Stern, Frances Halsband, Carol Willis, Jerold Kayden, Roy Strickland, Norman Marcus, and Richard A. Plunz discussed the implications of the new Zoning Ordinance. (At this symposium, Robert Stern memorably remarked that “planning is much too important to be left to the planners.”) The following exchange underlines the impact of the Seagram Building on contemporary architecture. “Stern: ‘The 1961 resolution, I am embarrassed to say, was pushed through basically by architects who had an absolute idee fixe about what the city should be like.’ Kayden: ‘And the Seagram Building was literally the aesthetic model for that.’”

     The new ordinance established the first finite limits on volume (and therefore on height) thus reducing not only bulk of buildings but, by extension, the overall density of the city. “Like Chicago, it did so by establishing a FAR (floor to area ratio) formula, eliminating the open-ended provision for unrestricted height over one quarter of the lot. A simple idea with a handbook of variations, FAR keyed the amount of floor space permitted in a building to the area of its lot. The highest basic FAR was fifteen. This could be increased twenty percent to an FAR of eighteen, if a developer included a public plaza or arcade. Such “incentive zoning” was designed to create more open space at street level in the city’s most densely- populated districts. The new ordinance encouraged tower-in-the-plaza schemes by increasing the area of coverage of towers from twenty-five to forty percent of the lot. Thus the FAR formula effectively ended the standard setback massing, not because the new code prohibited it, but because sheer-walled towers in open plazas became more profitable.”

     In fact, real estate developers opposed the new ordinance, and rushed to construction an enormous number of projects before it took effect. Robert Stern attributes the reconstruction of Park Avenue to the 1961 zoning law. The new law also intentionally, though indirectly, imposed limits on the city’s population. In introducing the proposed revision, James Felt, the chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, included as a “fundamental principle of good zoning” a population ceiling of eleven million people, considerably fewer than the fifty-five million that the 1916 law hypothetically permitted.

     An unexpected side effect of the 1961 zoning revision was a precipitous increase in street crime. Public attitudes toward new privately owned public open spaces began to reflect the new danger they represented. An influential book by Oscar Newman called Defensible Space responded to the new public fears and began to influence property owners as well as planners. Illegal grills and fences were erected to protect open spaces at off-hours. Spikes were installed on surfaces, on which people might sit or sleep. Planners and urban designers devised a new bonus: a project that included shop-lined and covered public spaces received extra density.

     The Seagram Building created a sensation when it was completed in 1958. Intended as a monument to Samual Bronfman, its presence in New York City has had profound legal, aesthetic, civic, and media repercussions. It has been designated as a landmark, and it continues to inspire architects. The Seagram Company continues to grow and diversify its operations by purchasing media companies such as Universal Studios and Polygram Records.