Seagram Building, 375 Park Avenue, New York (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, 1954-1958).

Mies's Seagram Building (built for the drinks consortium) rises kitty-corner from Bunshaft's slightly earlier Lever House. While Mies continued along the lines pioneered by Bunshaft (and others), the Seagram Building is rightly considered to be the classic statement of American international-style architecture.

Like Lever House, the Seagram Building occupies only a fraction of its lot (52%, in this case), the trade-off necessary for building a slab structure so as not to infringe on the air and light rights of neighboring lots. In this case, the building rises in majestic isolation at the rear of the lot, which is otherwise kept clean, featuring only a pool, shrubs, fountains, and a low green-marble boundary wall. The effect is not that of a trade-off at all, however, but of an architect so confident of his powers, and a corporation so confident in its dedication to art, that 50 percent of the lot can serve merely to highlight the building. The effect is spectacular.

Mies always plays visual tricks. He's raised the lot by putting in a low granite platform into which the landscaping is set, and on which the building rises. This podium is the stage for the building to rise on a series of pilotis (bare steel girders which, though hidden above the second floor, allow the observer to deduce the building's structural mechanism); otherwise, the double-height first floor is glassed in, giving the building as a whole the feel of floating.

The exterior of the slab is not as smooth as Lever House; the rows of floor-to-ceiling bronze-tinted windows are set off by I-beam-shaped bronze mullions and inter-floor bronze spandrels. This was the first building clad with a glass curtain wall without parapets, that is, there were no opaque panels rising from the floor to waist-height to quell the feeling of being about to fall out. The bronze tinted windows were meant to aid the air conditioning, but in fact, the whole building, with its palette of bronzes, is astonishing to look at. The building's color, therefore, works to set it off just as its large surrounding plaza does.

Modernist architecture was characterized by a strong commitment to avoid decoration, considering the latter to be mere goop applied to cover a building's honest structural elements. Mies courted censure here by having his bronze mullions in the shape of I beams. They look as though they ought to be holding the building up, but in fact, they are . . . just decorative! Mies was obsessed with the idea of painstakingly detailing his structures ("God is in the details"), and he often fiddled with exposed interlocking I beams of his buildings' structures to do this. The New York fire code required the Seagram Building to have its steel frame encased in concrete; Mies, however, just finessed it by putting nonstructural I beams on the exterior. (They say he kept a section of an I beam on his desk for handy reference.)

The interiors, including the famous Four Seasons restaurant were designed by the architect Philip Johnson, a major exponent at the time of the international style (the restaurant's tableware is by Garth Huxtable, husband of Ada Louise Huxtable). Whenever you pass by a glass box sitting in its own corporate plaza, you are looking at a direct descendent of this building.

URLs. (Good color photos.) (Excellent color photos.)

Khan, H.-U. 2001. International Style. Modernist Architecture from 1925 to 1965 (pp. 126-128).
Kidder Smith, G.E. 1996. A Source Book of American Architecture. 500 Notable Buildings from the 10th Century to the Present (pp. 420-421).
LeBlanc, S. 1996. 20th Century American Architecture. A Traveler's Guide to 220 Key Buildings, second edition (p. 105).
Morrone, F. 1998. The Architectural Guidebook to New York City (pp. 165-66).
Willensky, E., and White, N. 1988. AIA Guide to New York City, third edition (p. 248).

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