By Eric Furman
Upon seeing the Seagram Building for the first time, you might say it simply looks like a lot of other office buildings. But you'd be wrong; a lot of other office buildings look like it. Located on Manhattan's Park Avenue, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building is the most imitated high-rise of the last 50 years and what The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp dubbed "the millennium's most important building." Functional, simplistic, and unadorned, the Seagram Building is proof that Mies knew exactly what he was talking about when he famously declared, "God is in the details."
The story of Mies' matriculation to Modernism is an unlikely one. Born in 1886, he grew up, plainly, Ludwig Mies. He lived in Aachen, a provincial city in Germany's Rhineland filled with medieval houses, Gothic cathedrals, and plenty of decorative lions' heads. In other words, as far from the clean lines and austere approach of Modernism as you could get. Still, Aachen was important to the formation of young Ludwig's architectural philosophy because it was there he learned to appreciate the way a structure was built—from the inside out, with careful precision and top-grade materials. Mies didn't attend design school; his stonemason father believed it too pretentious. Instead, he attended a trade school, where he learned drawing and other useful workshop skills. But apparently, that was all the formal training Mies needed. After moving to Berlin at age 19, he found his way into an apprenticeship for Peter Behrens, the most renowned architect in Germany. And just like that, his talent and reputation set him on a rapid trajectory toward success. Shunning his Aachen roots, Mies adopted his mother's maiden name (Rohe) and became Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
A Tale of Two Countries
Mies' career is distinctly halved by World War II—between a European era and an American era. No doubt the capstone of Mies' European years was his German Pavilion, commissioned by the German government for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, otherwise known as the World's Fair. Almost futuristic in style, the German Pavilion looked like no other structure on the fairgrounds, and it was incredibly well received, especially by King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain. In fact, Mies designed a special chair (throne) for the royal couple. Known simply as the Barcelona Chair, it's a furniture classic still manufactured in large quantities today.
Alas, brilliance was not enough to save Mies from Nazi meddling. (It wasn't enough to save his pal Kandinsky and his paintings from the Reich's bonfires, either, but that's another story.) In 1933, the Nazis closed down the famous Bauhaus school, where Mies was serving as director. Then, a few years later, the proud German architect was roughed up by a couple of Gestapo officers in his Berlin home. Mies saw the writing on the wall. He left Germany in 1937, never to live there again.
Once in the United States, Mies landed a spot as the director of architecture at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology, in addition to more than his share of commissions. Among the more memorable achievements of this period in his career are the Farnsworth House (Mies' residential crowning achievement) and the Lake Shore Drive apartments, which saw the origins of the all-glass-faÃ§ade skyscraper. But the grandest and most iconic of all Mies' American designs is undoubtedly the Seagram Building.
When Mies accepted the Seagram commission, he had a reputation for not taking the environmental context of his projects into consideration. Rather, he would design buildings that were independent from (read: superior to) their surroundings. With the Seagram project, however, Mies couldn't have strayed farther from his rep. He built a cardboard model of Park Avenue from 46th Street to 57th Street and studied it endlessly, contemplating how his creation could blend, enhance, or even obfuscate the midtown environs.
Mies also knew what he didn't want: a "wedding cake building," known as a ziggurat. The ziggurat was a popular design form in New York City in the late 1950s, mostly because the zoning laws required a building's tower to cover no more than 25 percent of the plot. Most architects, consequently, layered their buildings toward an apex. But not Mies. Thoroughly devoted to simplicity of form (he's been credited with the saying "less is more"), he couldn't bring himself to erect another ziggurat. On the other hand, he didn't want to copy directly off of the square-towered Lever House, located just across the corner.
Mies ultimately settled on a 38-story rectangular tower, with side elevations 30 feet from the street. He also recessed the building 90 feet from Park Avenue, creating a now-famous plaza that allows pedestrians to see the entire faÃ§ade without ever crossing the street—a wholly unique sensation among the tight quarters of the neighborhood. Actually, it was fairly remarkable that Mies got away with the plaza concept, because that meant he was using only 40 percent of permissible building space, which translated to 40 percent of possible office-space revenue. Luckily for Manhattan aesthetics, the Seagram family valued architectural gain over economic return.
Because of that mindset—and because of his upbringing in the trade school—Mies used the best materials he could find. The plaza is composed of pink granite bordered by Tinian marble, and the building itself houses a gray glass mosaic, pink gray glass windows, and of course, its famous bronze I-beams. The beams are particularly important because they dispel a long-held belief that Mies was a "form follows function" kind of architect. While it's true that it was a precept of the international style, Mies also believed structural elements should be externally visible. Trouble was, New York City building codes wouldn't allow Mies' steel frame to be exposed, requiring it be covered in a more fire-resistant material like concrete. To comply, Mies used a concrete frame, but also ran decorative bronze I-beams all the way up the face of the structure—an ingenious plan that is commonplace today.
The more you study the Seagram Building, the more fitting it seems that Mies is famously linked to the phrase, "God is in the details." (Incidentally, he's often credited with coining the maxim, but his biographer never found anyone who heard him actually say it.) The Seagram Building is filled with details, right down to the meticulous design of the window blinds. See, Mies hated the way a building looked when its tenants drew their blinds in different directions. For his Manhattan masterpiece, he installed blinds that only worked in three positions: fully drawn, half drawn, and fully open. Sure enough, photographs of the Seagram Building tend to show off a classy kind of uniformity.
Building with Red Tape
Mies saw the Seagram Building as his opportunity to make his mark in the world's greatest city. Unfortunately, what he didn't know was that his professionalism would be questioned by the New York Department of Education, which, after construction began, suddenly started reminding the world-renowned architect that he didn't have a license to practice architecture in the state. Essentially, they informed him that he had to pass an exam that basically proved he had the equivalent of a high school education. Insulted, Mies walked away from the project, and architect Philip Johnson continued in his absence. Fortunately, a school Mies had attended in Aachen supplied authorities with the proper records. He returned to the project, but it might be no coincidence that New York City only lays claim to one of his commercial buildings.
Still, Mies did O.K. for himself. When the Seagram Building was completed in 1958, it became the most expensive commercial building in the world, at a cost of about $40 million. Yet its brilliance has remained unquestioned. By the time Mies passed away in 1969, every major city in the Western world bore his imprint. No small feat; but also no surprise for a guy who hailed from Aachen, looked to the future instead of the past, and found God where nobody else thought to look.
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