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Monday, September 09, 2013

Book Review: Building Seagram

Building Seagram by Phyllis Lambert
Yale University Press, 2013
Hardcover, 320 pages

In lieu of one of the many iconic photos of the Seagram Building at 375 Park Avenue (between East 52nd and East 53rd Streets) in Midtown Manhattan, this book by Phyllis Lambert (the daughter of Seagram's founder Samuel Bronfman) is covered with a photo of the building's construction. The photo reveals four phases of the 35-story tower's construction—from open steel at the top to glass enclosure at the base—as well as the plaza that fronts the building on Park Avenue. Yet this account of the 1958 building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson is about so much more than the its physical realization.

Lambert goes into depth on how the Seagram company commissioned Mies (of course Lambert played the most important role in this) as well as Philip Johnson's contribution to the lighting and design of the interiors and landscape, the art housed inside the building, the impact the project had on the city, how the masterpiece has been preserved, and much more. Above all, Lambert emphasizes how the building and plaza are one; they are two interrelated parts of the project, not separate entities. As anybody who has experienced the building can attest, the space on Park Avenue practically makes the Seagram Building what it is.

On starting the book I knew it would be a rewarding read, having come to it after just about every publication—architecture and otherwise—reviewed it. But they didn't prepare me for how good the book actually is, how even the most apparently mundane details (fashioning the dies for the bronze curtain wall, the taxes levied on the building and eventual sale of the building 20 years after completion, for example) are fascinating. This arises from Lambert's thorough yet accessible writing but also the way she treats every detail as important, perhaps an inadvertent hommage to the architect who said, "God is in the details."

Given that Lambert worked on the project for five decades, she tells a story that nobody else can. Along the way my appreciation for the building (one I've always liked but never to the extent of, say, Herbert Muschamp, who called it "the millennium's most important building") expanded greatly. Every building is the result of choices being made and forces acting upon it by a litany of people and entities (not to mention nature itself), but that the Seagram Building and plaza achieved a sort of mid-20th-century perfection is astounding. Lambert calls the project the result of "unlikely convergences, extraordinary coincidences, and ironic turns," and we are better off for her ability in conveying these events in such an eloquent manner.

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