Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Mies van der Rohe and Phyllis Lambert (Photo: The Canadian Centre for Architecture)
Following her visit to the Darwin Martin House in April Phyllis Lambert kindly sent me a copy of her new book, "Building Seagram" (Yale University Press, 2013). I used to think that the Martin House had claim to being the best documented major building in the entire history of architecture but I was wrong, Seagram is. Ms. Lambert objected to her father's initial choice of architect (she wrote an eight page single-spaced typed letter to him from Paris in which she insisted "NO NO NO NO NO NO," and as a result, at age 28, found herself in New York supervising the process so as to ensure that her architect of choice, Mies van der Rohe, would get to build the building he envisioned). She also meticulously recorded every step of the way, and her account is beautifully written. Imagine if Darwin Martin not only saved all of his letters to Wright and those from Wright, but also became a licensed architect and wrote a book about building the Martin House. "Building Seagram" is that and more.

Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, Seagram Building, N.Y.,1954 (Photo by Ezra Stoller)
Frank Lloyd Wright weighed in when he learned through his son-in-law Kenneth Baxter, a Seagram executive (and father of actress Anne Baxter), that the company was planning its headquarters on Madison Avenue.  Although he was deeply involved with the Guggenheim Museum project, Wright offered to build them the tallest building in the world, and boasted that it would be worth a million dollars in advertising. Samuel Bronfman, president of Seagram, was skeptical: "I don't want to meet my maker so soon." For a representative view of Wright by the Seagram executives at the time Lambert quotes Ellis D. Slater : 

Wright will undoubtedly design the most unique building in New York and it will surely be good architecture... but he cannot get beyond the sketch stage...the roof will probably leak; the heating system and the lights probably won't work; he will make it extremely difficult to house your employees because he will place them where he wants them, not where they are practically located. When you get through (if you ever finish it) it will cost twice as much as any other building.(Lambert, "Building Seagram" p. 28)

Slater was probably right in many respects but the Seagram Building, clad in anodized bronze and crafted like a Stradivarius, did cost twice as much as any other building and it was well worth it.
What Wright had in mind? "The Mile High" 1956 (The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation)

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