The Worthy Client

News Review

Fonds Phyllis Lambert (right), Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.
Courtesy United Press International

Building Seagram
Phyllis Lambert
Yale University Press
$65.00

In her prologue for Building Seagram Phyllis Lambert begins with a question: “How could Philip Johnson ever have dreamed of being the partner of Mies van der Rohe? Why would my father [Samuel Bronfman, CEO of the Seagram Company] have placed me, without managerial or professional experience, in the position of selecting the architect for the Seagram building? And why would he have agreed to my appointment as director of planning for the building?”

In the years that followed the completion of Seagram, Lambert was to become a distinguished architectural historian, an effective preservationist, and a leading philanthropist. In 1963 she earned a degree from the School of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology, on the campus designed and built by Mies. By then, however, Mies no longer taught there, but his influence prevailed. Later, after achieving a license to practice, she was to become architect and planner for other family related projects. In the summer of 1954, however, her credentials were understandably few. Only 27-years old, a 1948 graduate of Vassar, and recently divorced from a French banker after a 5-year marriage, she was living in Paris, working as a sculptor.

In June of that year she received from her father a sketch by Pereira & Luckman, an architecture and planning firm in Los Angeles. It was an image depicting the basic design theme for Seagram on the site finally chosen—Park Avenue, between 52nd and 53rd opposite the Racquet and Tennis Club and Lever House. With the hapless desire to please his daughter, Bronfman described the design as “Renaissance Modernized” recalling the visit they had once made together to the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. “I found it horrifying,” Lambert writes.

She promptly sent an eight-page closely typed letter with marginal notes in her own hand to “Dearest Daddy,” in the hope of making him aware of his folly and begging him to abandon the Luckman plan. It is a remarkable document, a facsimile of which is reproduced in full in an appendix of her book. A noteworthy paragraph lectures her eminent parent on the ethics of building. “You must put up a building which expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society. You have a great responsibility and your building is not only for the people of your companies, it is much more for all people, in New York and the rest of the world.” As the story goes, her letter by itself left him unmoved. He responded with a telephone call suggesting that she come home to choose the marble for the ground floor of the Luckman building that, in spite of her, he soon intended to construct. Her mother, believing that “Daddy” simply wanted her to come home from Paris, suggested he invite her to New York to possibly be of some real help. Lambert, however, explains, “It was the fire and conviction with which I wrote of the importance of the role of architecture in society and my belief that my father really wanted a great building that must ultimately have engaged his attention at a moment when the business-as-usual procedures that Seagram executives and professionals were applying to the project could hardly have galvanized him.”

Lambert believed herself to be living in an era when “the greatest contemporary architects, who were equal to those of the Renaissance were still alive.” She soon chose to come to New York to begin a comprehensive search to find the right genius for Seagram. Lou R. Crandall, president of George A. Fuller Company, the construction firm that had been chosen by Bronfman to build the yet to be fully designed skyscraper, had the intelligence to intervene in Lambert’s behalf. He persuaded her father that his daughter’s knowledge of architecture made her the ideal leader for this effort. He joined her and Philip Johnson in a six-week period during which the three visited the offices and significant completed work of Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, I.M. Pei, Paul Rudolph, Eero Saarinen, SOM, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Minoru Yamasaki, among others. Johnson, known for the Glass House and Brick Guest House on his estate in New Canaan, was about to leave his post as curator of architecture at MoMA to develop his practice, and as it turned out had been spending his time well with Lambert and Crandall.

Their criterion was first aesthetic, then pragmatic. To be chosen was a creative and inventive architect whose strengths Lambert would come to understand and approve, if she hadn’t already. Ideally there would be a built urban skyscraper or two in his portfolio. Nevertheless, although manifestly successful, he must not be overburdened by major projects at the moment. Mies met every measure including a very important one—he shared Lambert’s conception of the ethics of building and the meaning of form. She quotes him, “Form is not the aim of our work, but only the result,” and adds that in 1922 he stated, “We should develop the new forms from the very nature of the new problems.”

Crandall, without whom Lambert might never have prevailed, favored Mies because working with him would be “do-able.” It was widely known that Le Corbusier, though the boldest vanguard choice, would be anything but. Lambert writes,” When Mies met my father at his apartment in New York (the conversation was facilitated by the presence of my mother and Philip Johnson, who both spoke German), they took each other’s measure with genuine respect.” After the selection of Mies, Crandall was highly influential in the formation of the Seagram design and construction team. It was he who suggested that Johnson and Mies become associated on the project. Mies then offered Johnson a partnership for the work in gratitude for the more than 25 years that the younger architect and curator had critically supported his architecture. On December 1, 1954, five months after her famous letter to “Daddy,” Crandall named Lambert director of planning. Design began, the site was cleared, and construction promptly followed. The official designation of the Seagram building as complete occurred on September 29, 1959.

Lambert’s 306-page book is a straightforward account of what it was like to hold the power of client during the years of building Seagram, but it is ever so much more than that. The new skyscraper had become a great financial success. The company occupied 128,387 square feet of the space and the rest was filled with tenants paying among the highest office rents in New York City. Because Seagram no longer dominated the distillery industry, and there were other incentives, by 1976 her brother, Edgar M. Bronfman, who succeeded his father as CEO, began to consider selling the building (the senior Bronfman had died in 1971). In February 1980 the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America bought it. As the major tenant Seagram could and did establish controls over the building’s future architectural life. Thus began Lambert’s long and successful battle to get the tower, the plaza, and the Four Seasons Restaurant established as a New York City landmark in 1989.

In the book’s epilogue “Changing Hands” Lambert gives an unflinching account of the end of her family’s connection to Seagram. Edgar Bronfman had been selling the family’s liquor businesses to competitors, thereby enabling him to buy media and entertainment companies. These investments were failing. By 2002 Seagram no longer existed as a business because all its assets were gone, which was followed by its departure from the splendid building Mies created 43 years before. Yet, thanks to Lambert’s intensive efforts it is safely landmarked and remains an unforgettable presence in the city. But sadly, Seagram doesn’t live there anymore, except in Lambert’s honest and comprehensive book.

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