Archi-Roast

Liz Diller’s hilarious tribute to Phyllis Lambert and the Four Seasons

Architecture East
(Courtesy Aislinn Weidele)
(Courtesy Aislinn Weidele)

The long, drawn-out farewell to the Four Seasons has had its share of heavy-hearted tributes and bittersweet final toasts. In anticipation of the closing of the restaurant and the auctioning of the Philip Johnson and Mies Van der Rohe furniture, DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State gave a festive send-off to everyone’s favorite midcentury hangout, honoring Phyllis Lambert, the mastermind of the Four Seasons interiors and the Seagram Building in which they sit. Liz Diller, who worked as the architect of the Brasserie downstairs, gave formal remarks, giving some rare insight into the architectural process and the powerful character behind it all. Here are some excerpts of Liz’s speech.

Tonight is a tribute to Phyllis, but, so far, I’ve been talking about the Four Seasons. But is it possible to decouple Phyllis from The Four Seasons anyway and from the Seagram Building?  Never has a relationship between a building and a human being been as inextricable as between Phyllis Lambert and the Seagram. Indeed, Phyllis has said “I consider I was born when I built this building…”  

…My first experience with Phyllis was precisely about not screwing up this building. It was around 1999. The Brasserie was originally designed by Philip Johnson in the base of the building under us and it was destroyed by a fire. The restaurant operator, Nick Valenti, had hired an architect to design a new interior, whose roots were in France. It was some strange idea about how to redecorate the Brasserie. The construction documents that were completed had to be approved by Phyllis. The operator had no idea who Phyllis was. Phyllis took one look at the drawings and said, “Over my dead body.” Thereby throwing away years of planning. Phyllis then submitted a list of acceptable architects to Valenti, including my studio.

We got the commission, and about a year later we thought it would be a good idea to get Phyllis’s blessing for our design. She flew over to NYC from Montreal and we were terrified. We knew she was brutally honest, intellectually rigorous, and very tough to please. It didn’t help that she arrived in our studio in a very foul mood. In fact, she was irate. Her flight had been delayed, she couldn’t find her driver, and when she did, the car had to fight through rush hour traffic to get to Manhattan, and when she got to our buiding she was interrogated by our doorman for 10 minutes, and our elevators weren’t working very well. So Phyllis burst through the door in kind of a rage, and every other word was an expletive. I quote, “I hate your effing building, I hate your effing airport, I hate your effing city, I hate your effing country.” My staff dispersed, and I offered her some tea, and told her it might calm her down. She said, “I don’t want to calm down.” Ricardo decided to respond to an alleged emergency on another project, which I have never forgiven him for.

I was alone with Phyllis and a set of drawings and a year’s worth of work that was at stake. But it took all of about three minutes to soften her mood and to tame Phyllis and to draw her into a dialogue the design and about architecture. Architecture is Phyllis’s medium. She breathes it, she eats it, and we bonded at that time and have remained very good friends ever since. I consider her my mentor.

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(Courtesy Aislinn Weidele)




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