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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BUILDING SEAGRAM
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.

At the time when Mies chose Johnson as his New York associate on the Seagram Building project, Lambert notes, only Johnson was a “powerful figure in New York City.” It is a reminder that Bronfman’s distilling business and his alleged dealings with bootleggers were often impediments to the social and professional prestige that he so desired. In midcentury New York, Prohibition was not the strange and distant historical episode that it is today. Bronfman’s line of work, not to mention his Jewishness — which Lambert merely mentions, providing no elaboration on its significance — was no help in gaining entrance to elite New York society.

Enter 375 Park Avenue. The new Seagram Building allowed Bronfman to express, in material form, his achievements and his arrival as an industrialist.

“The Seagram building was to be more than a company headquarters,” Lambert writes of her father’s ambition. “I believe he came to see it as a monument to the opportunities that business afforded in the New World, a monument to his company, which was his own doing, and therefore, ultimately, a monument to himself.” Ironically, Bronfman’s estranged daughter helped him to achieve that vision.

Lambert writes of her cool relationship with her father: “He considered only his sons to be in the line of business succession, and as a child with a strong aversion to all talk about business and money, I was a self-imposed outsider, immersed in art, committed to sculpture by the age of nine, constantly dreaming about becoming an independent artist.” That self-imposed barrier included an ocean. After divorcing her husband in 1954, Lambert moved to Paris to live as an artist.

The details of this adventure abroad are only tantalizingly suggested here (the reader gets the feeling that Lambert could write more than a few memoirs centering on her life as an artist and as the daughter of Samuel Bronfman), for Lambert is laser-focused on her subject. There is also an impressive lack of name-dropping, beyond that relevant to the story, for a book in this genre of personalized history.

For all of Bronfman’s and Lambert’s differences, it was the father’s success that not only facilitiated his daughter’s early artistic sojourns (private sculpture lessons as a child proved formative, and Lambert’s Vassar education provided her with a strong art history basis), but also brought Lambert into the orbit of architecture, where she found her calling as an artist.

When Bronfman mailed his 28-year-old daughter plans for the new building, her artistic sensibilities were so offended that she wrote an impassioned reply, outlining what she believed were his ethical responsibilities: “You must put up a building which expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society. You have a great responsibility and your building is not only for the people of your companies, it is much more for all people, in New York and the rest of the world.”

The result was a phone call from Samuel Bronfman, asking his daughter to come to New York “to choose the marble for the ground floor” of the new building. The job evolved after Lambert returned to New York; she selected the building’s architect and became the intermediary between the company’s executives and its design staff. In the process, and particularly through contact with Mies, Lambert blossomed as an architect.

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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