The Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe ought to be an appraised work of art like his other projects. The 157 mm tall tower was built in 1957 and was Mies’ first attempt at tall building construction. Situated at 375 Park Avenue, it was the first skyscraper to employ steel and concrete lateral frames. The setback from the city grid which is now a famous prototype for office buildings was in fact Mies’ introduction of integration of public urban spaces in a project.

Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Mies’ first attempt at tall buildings - Sheet1
Plaza ©Metropolis Magazine

The Seagram Building derives its minimalism and functionalism from the Bauhaus and De Stijl movement, both of which Mies’ was an integral part of. The building is categorized under the International Style, the ‘modern’ architectural movement that emerged in America following the Bauhaus. The use of industrial materials and highlighting the functional utility of structural elements, the two concepts which were endorsed by the modern movement are quite prominent from the design of the building.

The Seagram Building rightly illustrates Mies’ motto of ‘Less is More’ with its simple yet elegant design. Along with setting a typology for modern corporate building, the building also embodies classical and gothic influences. The symmetrical plan follows a disciplined 8.5 m grid structure; the tripartite division of tower into the base, shaft, and capital; the rhythmic regularity of its columns and bays on the ground floor that lift the mass and the use of bronze comprises the classical elements the building incorporates. The Gothicism of the building is featured in rather subtler ways: the monumentality through height, the verticality by the use of I beams, and the cruciform plan of the tall shaft. The finishes of bronze, marble, and travertine, too can be traced back to the opulence of antiquity. 

Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Mies’ first attempt at tall buildings - Sheet2
View ©375parkavenue.com

The other defining element of Mies’ design is the 30 m setback and introduction of granite paved plaza which integrates the building with the urbanity in the skyscraper. This not only allowed him to construct in just two-fifth of the buildable space but also encouraged socialization of space in the dense Manhattan environment. This setback is also justified as a respect to the Italian renaissance-style Racquet and Tennis Club which sits right across the street. Along with this, it allows to emphasize the monumentality of the building; viewing it from up close rather than streets afar. 

The plaza also allows for a transition from the street to the office towers through columns, delicate curtain walls, and eventually to the elevator shafts that anchor the building to the ground. The elevation of the building from the ground united the plaza to the lobby which is enhanced by continuous travertine paving and slab marquee that forms the overhang. The lobby layout conducts visitors to elevators and first-floor restaurants without leading them to the monumental central space, like the lobbies of the traditional Beaux-Arts style. The lobby features travertine floors and walls, a twenty-four-foot high ceiling covered in gray glass mosaic set in black cement, and exterior walls of clear glass set within bronze mullions.

Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Mies’ first attempt at tall buildings - Sheet3
Lobby ©google images

The facade of the building is predominantly steel and glass which adheres to functional and minimal aesthetics of the International Style. Along with the steel frame; the steel and RCC core provides lateral stiffness. However, since American Building codes required structural steel to be covered in fireproof material, Mies introduced the non-structural bronze I-beams to the facade. Along with suggesting the actual steel structure, these beams accentuate the verticality of the building like mullions. Glass, being another integral material, made up the exterior facade where non-structural glass walls were hung from the steel frame. Mies believed that glass provided a sense of freedom in spatial composing, allowing the articulation of space in ways that one can open it up and connect it to the landscape. Structurally, the Seagram Building became the first of its kind in essentially 3 aspects; use of high-strength bolted connections, vertical truss bracing system, and combination of brace with a moment frame as claimed by its structural consultants. 

The noteworthy feature of the building facade is the length of the blinds. Mies limited the operation of these blinds to only three positions; fully opened, halfway opened, and fully closed to impose an organized exterior appearance. In addition, the mixture of external profiles stained with the crystal tone of the skyscraper contributes to reducing interior temperature and portraying the external image of the building as a dark glass prism in the middle one of the main avenues of New York. 

Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Mies’ first attempt at tall buildings - Sheet4
Blinds ©google images

The Seagram Building thus defined a corporate aesthetic and established an office typology that would set the course of skyscraper architecture for the following years. It has been hailed for its articulation; especially the features of plaza and lobby that provides for open public space in the congested city of New York. Still exemplified as one of the best of its kind, the Seagram Building is one of the most integral architectural masterpieces from the International Style of the New York skyline.

References:

https://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/18/magazine/best-building-opposites-attract.html

http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/1665.pdf

https://placesjournal.org/article/seagram-union-of-building-and-landscape/?cn-reloaded=1

Parita Upadhyaya
Author

A compulsive overthinker and a sky lover, Parita is often found entangled in her paradoxical theories by a window. She believes that a feeling heart and a thinking mind is a disastrous combination worth having. Currently exploring and articulating design through words, she also alternatively outbursts and romanticizes life with them.

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