Dump on Seagram Building

Seagram Building, by Mies van der Rohe. (www.eca.ed.ac.uk)

Seagram Building, by Mies van der Rohe. (www.eca.ed.ac.uk)

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.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architects, Architecture, Art and design, Development and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dump on Seagram Building

  1. Nikos, as to your first paragraph, that was precisely my point. The Mieslings’ work is unsatisfying because the Mies itself – Seagram – is unsatisfying. As to the second paragraph, I agree but must continue to criticize on the basis of what I know – which is what I see more than what biology tells us. That’s your job! I will continue to cite biology’s testimony, of course, as I have been doing for a while, but my critique is the critique of the optometrist – what I see is all.

    Like

  2. David,

    This is a good article by Martin Pedersen, who justly criticizes all the pseudo-Miesian copies of the original Seagram Building. But I’m sorry to have to disagree with its fundamental premise. Most of those copies, in fact, faithfully apply the form language of the original. If we think that the second and third generation Seagrams are banal and boring, it is because the original has those characteristics encoded in its genetic material.

    I realize that architects nowadays don’t talk about form languages and genetic coding of design methodology. Let me recommend this as a very useful tool for architectural analysis, even though it leads to conclusions that make many architects squirm in their seats. Sorry, but it is high time to introduce techniques from biology to study architecture, otherwise it is just your opinion against mine! And we are quite fed up with that by now.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s