How Phyllis Lambert Changed the Architecture of New York

Memoir Details Architect's Involvement With Legendary Building

Room at the Plaza: Phyllis Lambert was influential in enlisting Mies van der Rohe to design the Seagram Building.
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Room at the Plaza: Phyllis Lambert was influential in enlisting Mies van der Rohe to design the Seagram Building.

By Rachel Gordan

Published August 04, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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The best example of Mies and Lambert’s collaboration was the Seagram Plaza. The city’s first private open space, Seagram’s Plaza provided an oasis of calm on Park Avenue. Picnickers, readers and people watchers lounged along the plaza’s marble bench, proving that a company’s corporate headquarters could play generous host to a cross-section of the city. This was one of the places, in addition to the building’s restaurant (The Four Seasons) and its public art exhibition spaces, where Lambert could realize her original vision of Seagram’s giving back to the world.

There is a telling photograph in Lambert’s book, showing the first day that her father occupied his office in the new Seagram Building. In this 1957 snapshot, a 30-year-old Lambert stands beaming in a room full of Park Avenue suits. Her father grasps her arm firmly. Although the caption on this photograph reads “Samuel Bronfman commending Phyllis Lambert,” it is impossible to make out the traces of fatherly pride on his face.

To the right of Lambert stands Edgar Bronfman, but nothing about their posture reveals their sibling relationship. With a glass of wine (we are in the House of Seagram, after all), Saidye Bronfman sits with her back to the camera, so there is no record of how she felt about her daughter’s accomplishments. In this photograph, only Mies’s expression reveals the warmth and pride in Lambert that seems appropriate for the day. From Lambert’s description, Mies seems to have had the kind of presence that made others feel not only his depth, but also something of their own.

Lambert’s book, then, is more than the story of “the life of the building in the city,” as she puts it. Although Lambert is not forthcoming about her family’s life or her own, we get something of the mood of her visits to her parents’ home in Tarrytown, N.Y., and the distinctive ways in which both her father and Mies loomed as “great men.” More unusual is the picture provided of Lambert’s emergence as a mover in the world of architecture at a time when women in the field were rare. For those uninterested in the arcana of New York’s zoning laws, there is enough here to make an interesting read. Yet, Lambert has performed an impressive job of reconstructing even these details, from the archives and from her own records, into a fascinating story about New York’s built environment and those who have made it a livable space.

Rachel Gordan is the Ray D. Wolfe postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.


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