Martin Pedersen, the critic and former Metropolis editor who co-wrote a blistering attack on modernism in the New York Times last December, has loosed an excellent fusillade against the Seagram Building, completed in 1958. Writing in the Fast Company blog, Pederson’s “Hate Your Soulless Office Tower? Blame the Seagram Building” lets the icon designed by Mies van der Rohe have it with both barrels.
… A fuller appreciation of the Seagram Building has become a kind of intellectual exercise, requiring architectural tour guides. Its subtle beauties, I would argue, aren’t readily apparent to the man or woman on the street. The building is beautiful-upon-closer examination (a distinction, for me, that is somewhat similar to Sex and Talking About Sex). Unless you’re an architect, you don’t pull up to 375 Park Avenue, open the cab door, and cry: Look at that magnificent curtain wall! Those perfectly detailed mullions! That austere-yet-classical symmetry! You don’t think—as people often do, gazing up at the Empire State Building, staring slack-jawed in front of a Gothic cathedral, or even pondering the sheer lunacy of a half-mile high tower in Dubai—how could human beings have possibly built this? Instead you’re likely to glance to Mies’s crowning achievement, standing pristine and perfect, amid a forest of vastly larger and inferior knock-offs, and think: nice office building.
Perfecto! I once visited Park Avenue expressly to view the Seagram Building. I could not tell which one it was. When I finally identified it, I stepped close, looked up and tried to determine what it was about it that sets modernist hearts aflutter. I could not figure it out. I probably need to give my brain a set of modernist-appreciation exercises.
Since honesty is one of the most preenworthy things about modern architecture, I would need some sort of depretzeling exercise to come to grips with the dishonesty at the heart of the “beauty” of the Seagram. Its structural steel beams had to be coated with fire-resistant concrete, and so, to articulate the “structure” that is supposed to be evident in modernist design, Mies had non-structural I-beams copper in color attached to the concrete. I have no problem with that kind of “dishonesty” in architecture, but modernists do. Or at least they say they do. But they overlook it in the case of the Seagram Building. It goes unmentioned by Pedersen.
He does regret all the Mieslings who designed buildings up and down Park Avenue and its neighbors, whose main effect was to … – I was about to say steal Seagram’s thunder, but that would be to grant it thunder. I do not. Pedersen does. Well, I’ll let him say it:
All of these buildings loosely employ the same vocabulary as Seagram (with none of the refinement and charm), but all of them were executed for maximum profit. What this has done — besides create a somewhat dreary and overscaled pedestrian streetscape — is rob the Seagram Building of its visceral punch.
So, yeah, okay, steal its thunder. Pedersen is too kind to the Seagram. He says that the knockoffs had “none of the refinement and charm.” What refinement? What charm? It’s a glass slab. They are glass slabs. I fail to see the difference. “God is in the details” is what Mies said about his brand of architecture, meaning that a beam had to be really pure in its straightness or curvature in order to protect structure from weather. Traditional detail, such as pilasters and stringcoarses, protect joints from water; modernism relies on its component parts being so meticulously machined that they fit too closely together for rain to get in. Usually they are not. Hence, cheap knockoffs. So even if the work is truly meticulous, it’s hard to perceive so fine a result.
And of course “all of these buildings loosely employ the same vocabulary.” Modernism threw all but the bluntest vocabulary out the window, so is it any surprise that it all looks the same – in spite of its official mantra against copying the past?
I suppose I am traveling beyond Petersen’s point. Even as his sharp critique of the Seagram gives it too much credit, it remains a breath of fresh air.