The Seagram Building
Located at 375 Park Avenue, between 52nd Street and 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan, the Seagram Building was designed by Mies in collaboration with Philip Johnson and was completed in 1958. It is 516ft tall with 38 storeys. Severud Associates were the structural engineering consultants.
It stands as one of the finest examples of the functionalist aesthetic and a masterpiece of corporate modernism. It was designed as the headquarters for the Canadian distillers Joseph E. Seagram's & Sons, thanks to the foresight of Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Samuel Bronfman, Seagram's CEO.
Often regarded as the pinnacle of the modernist high-rise architecture, the Seagram has become an icon of the corporations’ growing power in the 20th century.
In a bold and innovative move, Mies chose to set the tower back from the property line to create a forecourt plaza and fountain on Park Avenue. Although now acclaimed and widely influential as an urban design feature, Mies had to convince Bronfman's bankers that a taller tower with significant ‘unused’ open space at ground level would enhance the presence and prestige of the building.
Mies' design included a bronze curtain wall with external H-shaped mullions that were exaggerated in depth beyond what is structurally necessary, brushing off criticism that he had committed Adolf Loos's ‘crime of ornamentation’. Philip Johnson had a role in interior materials selection and the plaza and he designed the sumptuous Four Seasons Restaurant, which has endured un-remodelled till today. The Seagram Building is said to be an early example of the innovative ‘fast-track’ construction process, where design documentation and construction are done concurrently.
This structure and the International Style, in which it was built, had enormous influences on American architecture. One of the style's characteristic traits was to express or articulate the structure of buildings externally. It was a style that argued that the functional utility of the building’s structural elements when made visible, could supplant a formal decorative articulation; and more honestly converse with the public, than any system of applied ornamentation. A building's structural elements should be visible, Mies thought. The Seagram Building, like virtually every large building of the time, was built of a steel frame, from which non-structural glass walls were hung. Mies would have preferred the steel frame to be visible to all; however, American building codes required that all structural steel be covered in a fireproof material, usually concrete, because improperly protected steel columns or beams may soften and fail in confined fires. Concrete hid the structure of the building — something Mies wanted to avoid at all costs. He used non-structural bronze-toned I-beams to suggest structure instead. These are visible from the outside of the building and run vertically, like mullions, surrounding the large glass windows. Observers see a ‘fake and tinted-bronze’ structure covering a real steel structure. This method of construction using an interior reinforced concrete shell to support a larger non-structural edifice has since become commonplace. As designed, the building used 1,500t of bronze in its construction.
Another interesting feature of the Seagram building is the window blinds. As was common with International Style architects, Mies wanted the building to have a uniform appearance. Inevitably, people using different windows will draw blinds to different heights, making the building appear disorganised. To reduce this disproportionate appearance, Mies specified window blinds, which only operated in three positions - fully open, halfway open/closed or fully closed.
The Seagram Building and Lever House, which sits just across Park Avenue, set the architectural style for skyscrapers in New York, for the next several decades. It appears as a simple bronze box, set back from Park Avenue by a large, open granite plaza. Mies did not intend the open space in front of the building to become a gathering area, but it developed as such and became very popular as a result. In 1961, when New York City enacted a major revision to its1916 Zoning Resolution, the nation's first comprehensive Zoning Resolution, it offered incentives for developers to install "privately owned public spaces" which were meant to emulate that of the Seagram's Building; the following 40 years of development in Manhattan did so with relatively little success.
The Seagram Building's plaza was also the site of a landmark planning study by William H. Whyte, the American sociologist. The film, Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, produced in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society of New York, records the daily patterns of people socialising around the plaza. It shows how people actually use space, varying from the supposed intent of the architects.
The 38 storey structure combines a steel moment frame and a steel and reinforced concrete core for lateral stiffness. The concrete core shear walls extend up to the 17th floor and diagonal core bracing (shear trusses) extends to the 29th floor.
According to Severud Associates, the structural engineering consultants, it was the first tall building to use high strength bolted connections, the first tall building to combine a braced frame with a moment frame, one of the first tall buildings to use a vertical truss bracing system and the first tall building to employ a composite steel and concrete lateral frame.
On completion, the construction costs of Seagram made it the world's most expensive skyscraper at the time, due to the use of expensive quality materials and lavish interior decoration including bronze, travertine and marble. The interior was designed to assure cohesion with the external features, repeated in the glass and bronze furnishings and decorative scheme.