During the mid 1950’s, the Joseph E. Seagram and Sons Corporation began planning the construction of its own building in anticipation of its hundredth anniversary. The Director of Planning, Phyllis Lambert, commissioned Mies van der Rohe with the task of designing a building that held architectural merit while at the same time adhering to the strict local zoning laws and the practicality of office/rental space.
The resulting masterpiece, The Seagram Building, represents the quintessence of Mies’ direction in architecture in his appreciation for the simplicity of art as a result of technology, the free form plan of the architectural promenade, the relationship between interior and exterior elements, the manipulation of perception with various elements, and lastly, the attention given to classical traits. One of the defining traits of Mies’ is his reasoning for architecture as a product of technology and structure, and this is overwhelming evident on the skeleton and skin exterior facade of The Seagram Building.
Mies’ relished in the beauty of architecture developed from pure structural forms. Fritz Neumeyer puts this concept in an analogy in his book titled The Presence of Mies. “…one should not think of art in order to create art, because, as Mies stated, ‘Form is not the goal but the result of our work. ’” The Seagram Building’s form did not result from a preconceived idea forced to reality, but it was the result of the bronze steel grid and the tinted windows. In addition, the I-beams running down the facade of The Seagram Building are another element that exemplifies Mies’ approval for structural beauty.
They are shown in Figure 1 attached to the metal grid and slightly protruding out. They subtly represent classical pillars supporting the building as stated by Fritz Neumeyer: “the I-beams that run down the facade lay ready, waiting simply to be recognized as the primary element by being brought forward to replace the subtly classical brick pillars…the I-beam was turned into the abstract pilaster of the machine age. ” The simplistic geometry that is also prevalent to Mies’ work is demonstrated in The Seagram Building by the every aspect of its “slab” like nature.
Local zoning laws required buildings built in Midtown Manhattan to have setbacks in the building structure to minimize shadow. Mies opted to build a smaller but perfectly rectangular building with dimension of 5:3. Mies’ firmly believed that having such irregular patterns caused by setbacks did not relate to his architectural principles. Not only was the physical facade of the building very typical of Mies, but the architectural promenade of the floor plan also bears resemblance to earlier completed works.
His typical project does not structure movement through the building. In stead, it encourages a meandering type of movement that was also advocated by Le Corbusier in his “free plan. ” This is evident in the Barcelona Pavilion where slits in walls allows for percolation through different segments of the house. In the case of the Crown Hall of the Illinois Institute of Technology, there is not even a single wall to suggest movement through the building. To a lesser extent, this is equally true for The Seagram Building.
The expansive plaza in front of the building provides a wide area for people to freely move about. In fact, even the sidewalk area is incorporated into the plaza, further emphasizing the idea of free movement in not only the building area itself, but also in peripheral spaces as well. The entrance to The Seagram Building is also another hallmark of Mies van der Rohe in terms of architectural promenade. In many of his previous projects, the entrance to building is found by going through the sides.
Similar, in The Seagram Building, the two main entrances are located behind the main slab and are beside the two flanking subsidiary buildings. One of the elements of this architectural masterpiece that makes the architectural promenade possess its unique free flowing quality is the similarity between interior and exterior, yet another central concept for the German architect. This characteristic is perhaps the strongest in Crown Hall. The large glass windows and the absence of walls allow an observer to be confused of its position in relation to the building: inside or outside.
Likewise in the lobby of The Seagram Building, there is no obvious indication of interior and exterior. As shown in Figure 2, the interior of the lobby appears to only contain “the necessary elevator and mechanical chores, (but even those are) sheathed with Roman travertine. ” Consequently, the interior seems to be just as simply bare as the plaza. The plaza and the lobby also use the same type of high grade granite adding to the effect of free flow of space. Even the elevator walls are decorated by bronze ornaments akin to the blinds installed on the windows.
The pair of shallow pools flanking the plaza also contributes to the interweaving of interior exterior space in two different ways. Firstly, one of the bar-restaurants in the complex is a “variation of his plan for an aqueous plaza … surrounding a walled pool with tables and classic Mies-designed chairs. ” The tables and chairs bear resemblance to the granite benches located on the plaza. Secondly, under certain lighting circumstances, the reflection of the building appears on the watery pool surface, further emphasizing the direct intermingling of different elements of the building.
Another characteristic of Mies’ projects is the way the design masterfully allows an observer to have different perceptions of the same area by only changing the observer’s position in relation to the area in question; undoubtedly, The Seagram Building exhibits the same quality. This unique attribute was first widely acclaimed in the Barcelona Pavilion. As explained in The Presence of Mies, Neumeyer explains how the viewer sees an area as an open or closed spaced depending on the person’s location. “From one position the viewer looking into the patio gains the impression of being in an enclosed space, sheltered by walls for all sides.
In moving one step forward the side wall opens and reveals itself to be only a slab, thereby generating an ambiguous space; depending on the point of view this space can be closed as well as open. ” (Figures 3, and 4) On a significantly grander scale, The Seagram Building also plays on the observer’s perception. First of all, the building is set back from Park Avenue, and as such, a car driving up or down the street towards the site would not distinctly see the building looming overhead until the view arrives at the destination.
It is only then that the viewer is suddenly impacted by the immediate presence of the complex. Phyllis Lambert, the Director or Planning of the project, describes this phenomenon: “This solution for the building has promise for terrific things – set back you hardly see it from the street coming up or down the Avenue but now what an impression – when you arrive there – almost Baroque, you don’t know what is there and then you come upon IT. ” Another instance where the observer participates in the construction of spatial dimensions revolves around the adjacent buildings attached to the back of main “slab” building.
Created from the necessity for greater office space, one would believe that these attached sections would normally disturb the simplicity of the main rectangular building. By arranging the compartments in a particular way, Mies was able to hide them behind and in the shadows of the main building from a viewer observing from the front plaza. These additional buildings appear only as the viewer travels up 52nd and 53rd Street. Although, Mies van der Rohe is unquestionably a modern architect, his principals are still deeply rooted in classical architecture.
The dominating presence of classicism in The Seagram Building is best summarized by Franz Schulze in The Seagram Building: “Anyone who examines the completed building from the avenue or the side streets cannot help observing the stern symmetry of the design, which confirms Mies’ well-known reputation as a modernist in style but a classicist in principal. ” Looking at Figure 5, one will also notice that in fact, the entire Seagram complex is balanced. Every element of building including the water pools, supporting pillars, elevators and amenities are symmetrical.
The building structure is also very symmetrical, as the windows are separated by iron I-beams at regular intervals, and the main front entrance is place in the center as seen in Figure 6. One can also note that the opposite building in Figure 6 is also of classical nature thus the entrances of the buildings are in direct alignment. Other elements that add to the classical character of The Seagram Building are the “striation of all the columns (which) can be read as an abstract form of fluting,” and the steps that elevate the land plot above the sidewalk which can be interpreted as a “modernist adaptation of the classical temple stereobate.  Clearly, The Seagram Building is a building that exhibits traditional elements of Mies van der Rohe. Not only is it evident in the structural facade of the building, but the defining characteristics are also found in his architectural promenade, and the similarity between interior and exterior settings. In addition, The Seagram Building allows an observer participate in the construction of spatial perceptions. Lastly, the ubiquitous occurrence of classicism is another characteristic attributable to Mies.
It is therefore, no surprise that just one glance at The Seagram Building is suffice in identifying the monolithic black building as a work created by Mies van der Rohe. Bibliography Mies van der Rohe, Cuito, Aurora, Mies van der Rohe. NY, US. 2002 Muschamp, Herbert. Opposites Attract. Great Buildings Online – The World of Architecture, April, 2, 2005. Neumeyer, Fritz. The Presence of Mies. Princeton Architectural Press, 2000 Schulze, Franz. The Seagram Building Princeton Architectural Press. US, 1999 Spaeth, David. Mies van der Rohe Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
US, 1985 ———————–  Neumeyer, Fritz. The Presence of Mies. Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, pg 76  ibid. pg 74  Spaeth, David. Mies van der Rohe Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. US, 1985, pg 167  Schulze, Franz. The Seagram Building Princeton Architectural Press. US, 1999, pg 10  Neumeyer, Fritz. The Presence of Mies. Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, pg 76  Spaeth, David. Mies van der Rohe Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. US, 1985, pg 164  Schulze, Franz. The Seagram Building Princeton Architectural Press. US, 1999, pg 6  ibid. pg 9  ibid