By Phyllis Lambert
Yale University Press, 320 pages, $65
Until the 1950s, architecture in New York was not much to look at. Highlights from the early 20th-century included the Gothic revival of the Woolworth Building (1913), as well as the Art Deco of the Chrysler Building (1930) and the Empire State Building (1931). Each, in its own way, was a little frilly, chaotic and overdone. Together they seemed to announce that architecture was not yet a cultural concern in New York.
Phyllis Lambert and the Seagram Building (1958) helped to change that.
Lambert’s new book, “Building Seagram,” is the story of one of the most iconic buildings in 20th-century American architecture. As the director of planning for the new corporate headquarters of her father, Samuel Bronfman, in the 1950s, Lambert selected a German refugee, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, as the Seagram building’s architect. That decision altered the appearance of New York’s urban landscape. It also changed the look of Seagram’s, which had been housed in the Chrysler Building.
While researching her book, Lambert made the unexpected discovery that the interior of the company’s 1930s headquarters was designed by architect Morris Lapidus, who went on to shape modern Miami Beach with a string of luxurious hotels, including the Fountainebleau. Seagram’s moved — from Lapidus’s baroque-modern excess (“Too Much Is Never Enough” was the title of Lapidus’s 1996 autobiography) — to Mies’s “Less is more” minimalism.
In Germany, Mies had been the last director of Germany’s Bauhaus school of design before Hitler banned modernist art, which he deemed “degenerate.” Mies immigrated during the 1930s to Chicago, where he became director of the architecture department in what is now the Illinois Institute of Art — Chicago. The Midwest proved a good fit for Mies. In Chicago, home of the American steel industry, Mies was able to investigate the modern materials that he preferred for the “bones” of his interiors. His modernist International Style also found new influences in the open spaces of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs.
Even before Mies came to the United States, his designs had made an impression in this country. In a 1932 exhibition of modernist architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, Philip Johnson, founder of the museum’s architecture and design department, defined and codified the “International” style of architecture. Johnson placed a Mies design on the cover of the exhibition catalog.
From his perch at MoMA, Johnson continued to champion Mies, along with other European architects of the International Style. Despite this engagement with modernism, Johnson was also an ardent supporter of Hitler for almost a decade (he later recanted). He even left the art world briefly, to work for the political organization of the anti-Semitic broadcaster Rev. Charles Coughlin. Lambert’s book is not unusual in neglecting to mention this shameful past; it has been noted that Johnson was one of those untarnished, although vocal, Nazi supporters who seem never to have suffered a setback careerwise or socially on account of their politics. Nor does Lambert offer a glimpse into Mies’s brief support of Hitler (in hopes of winning the Führer’s patronage). These omissions are revealing of Lambert’s sometimes myopic vision. That she cared intensely about art and architecture is evident. Whether she cared about much beyond that is not as clear.