By Michael Webb
“Dearest Daddy,” wrote Phyllis Lambert to her father, Samuel Bronfman, CEO of the Seagram Distillery Company. It was 1954, she was working as an artist in Paris, and he had sent her a rendering of the tower he planned to build on Park Avenue as his New York headquarters. In eight closely-typed pages she ridiculed the design by Pereira and Luckman, and pleaded for architecture of the highest quality. “You have a great responsibility,” she told him, “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.” He was persuaded, put her in charge of the project, and she selected Mies van der Rohe, partnered with Philip Johnson, to create the greatest corporate tower in America.
A half century later, she recalls the birth pains of the Seagram Building, which opened in 1959, the same year as Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. The struggle—with corporate bean-counters and city regulators—was arduous, but she fought relentlessly to ensure that Mies would realize his vision, with no compromises. As an architectural historian, she traces the influence on Mies of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the greatest of 19th-century German architects, and Bruno Taut, the early 20th-century apostle of glass architecture. She finds the seed of this masterpiece in the 1921-22 sketches he made for glass towers in Berlin. And she sees his Barcelona Pavilion as a model for the fusion of building and plaza—an open space she likens to a clearing in the forest of the city. Urbanist William Whyte described this plaza as “one of the great urban places of the world, in its way as significant as the Piazza San Marco in Venice.” Having shepherded Mies’s great work to completion, Lambert remained a vigilant custodian, securing landmark protection and fighting threats to its integrity.
Seagram is a total work of art, not least for Philip Johnson’s Four Seasons restaurant and the many works of sculpture displayed on its plaza. Impeccably built from the finest materials, it has grown in value as other buildings of that era have required costly retrofits. Few American corporations have the vision or will to aim so high, and most developers slash costs to boost profits, with little concern for excellence. Lambert’s 1954 letter and the book that grew from it should be required reading for everyone who plans to build in the public realm--particularly in Los Angeles where clients routinely settle for the mediocre.