How a 27-Year-Old Whiskey Heiress Gave Manhattan a Modern Architectural Icon

How a 27-Year-Old Whiskey Heiress Gave Manhattan a Modern Architectural Icon
Seagram Building
(Courtesy danie; via Flickr)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1958 Seagram Building is a landmark that hardly needs introduction. The handsome Manhattan office tower — famously set back from the street to form a dramatic Park Avenue piazza — has consistently garnered praise for its pristine proportions, its refined detailing, and its direct dialogue with urban space. Though the building’s patron, Canadian whiskey empire Seagram, has faded from the corporate limelight, the eponymous tower still invokes the distiller’s trademark obsession with quality. In a seeming crescendo of the midcentury zeitgeist, founder Samuel Bronfman’s principled business approach found formal significance in Mies’s polished modernism, and the American cityscape was forever transformed. Yet to accept this storybook union of architect and client would be to overlook the most important and hard-won victories of the Seagram project. “Building Seagram,” the newly published account from the perspective of Bronfman’s daughter Phyllis Lambert — who was 27 when she personally chose Mies van der Rohe as the architect for her father’s Manhattan high-rise — properly positions the modernist landmark not as a static icon of an idealistic past but as an active element of a city constantly in flux.

With detailed recollections, snippets of personal letters, poignant anecdotes, and sharp analyses, Lambert’s tome delivers a fascinating insider’s report of the events leading up to Seagram’s construction as well as the legacy that has followed. “I wanted to give the story about the site, the architect — about how all of this happened,” Lambert told ARTINFO over the phone recently. Her lengthy involvement with the project is extraordinary in itself, given her young age at the time of the commission and her initial detachment from her father’s corporate world. Lambert was living in Paris when she received a letter from the elder Bronfman detailing preliminary plans for his Park Avenue site. Her reaction to the unremarkable proposal — an emphatic “NO NO NO NO NO” followed by eight typewritten pages explaining the tremendous statement Seagram could potentially make, were it approached with the right architectural aspirations — helped convince Bronfman to take a leap of faith and trust his 27-year-old daughter, who had a liberal arts degree and no prior managerial experience, to assist in envisioning a better Seagram.


Yet assist could hardly be the right word to describe Lambert’s involvement in the project. From working with Philip Johnson to arriving at Mies van der Rohe as Seagram’s designer, to skirmishing with bureaucracies and naysayers to ensure the architect’s vision would be realized as he saw it, to sourcing paintings, tapestries, and sculptures to complete Seagram’s dynamic spaces, Lambert proved to be an essential force in constructing a corporate monument “for all people, in New York and the rest of the world,” as she urged her father to do. This story of resolve and triumph dominates the first five chapters of “Building Seagram,” in which Lambert traces in detail the many individuals, ideas, trials, and tensions that produced the building’s ambitious forms and programs. She duly acknowledges Philip Johnson's deep involvement with the design and recounts interactions with Constantin Brancusi, Mark Rothko, and other artists who responded to Seagram's contemporary art agenda. Arguably one of the most critical contributions of “Building Seagram,” however, is the way it illuminates the history of not just the monument itself but also the social climate in which Seagram’s extraordinary effects were felt.

In the final two sections of her book, Lambert revisits the resistance that Seagram encountered from the very modern society it sought to embody. On the one hand, Seagram’s gracious plaza inspired the 1961 Zoning Resolution that permits developers to build in greater bulk in exchange for providing public spaces; on the other, the city heavily taxed the Seagram Building, penalizing the corporation for relinquishing so much potentially rentable floor area to make room for its sweeping public space. Seagram’s avant-garde design also proved problematic during the later landmarking process, when new property owners argued that a number of parts seeking landmark status were, after several decades, economically unsustainable. In the end, it took an enormous effort to preserve the holistic vision that so many refused to compromise during Seagram’s construction.

“Architecture demands an equivalent commitment in the domain of stewardship,” writes Lambert, “a form of watching over that carries a high degree of moral responsibility.” As these final chapters reveal, this stalwart stewardship established the laws and precedents that allow many to appreciate Mies’s design and recognize the midcentury bravura Seagram symbolizes today. Lambert’s story importantly conveys that the success of a building cannot hinge on a profound design alone; without the social forces to defend an architectural idea, the material form — no matter how progressive — has its limits. “Architecture changes society, and society changes it,” as Lambert put it simply to ARTINFO. “[The Seagram Building] certainly isn’t talked about as the newest, best, or tallest thing, which is how we like things to be these days. But when you walk down Park Avenue,” Lambert continued, letting out a faint nostalgic chuckle, “it’s such an amazing thing to see that building and its plaza — just the way it sits there. It still stands there, so strong.”