SHAPING SEAGRAM (originally published in AArchitecture 22) Review

by Assaf Kimmel, AA 3rd Year
17 October 2014 Lecture Hall, Architectural Association   Phyllis Lambert was only 27 years old when she took over the search for the architect who would build the new Seagram Building in New York City. Commissioned by her father, Samuel Bronfman, founder of the Canadian distillery dynasty, Seagram, she embarked on a six-week tour to architectural practices to find the right architect to make a statement on Park Avenue. ‘There were those who could but shouldn’t,’ she explained. ‘There were those who should but couldn’t, and there were those who could and should: Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.’ This exploration finally led Lambert to commission Mies for the design, along with Philip Johnson. In 1959, the elegant, deceptively simple 38-storey tower finally rose in Midtown Manhattan, with its famous seatback from the avenue.   Speaking at the AA as part of this winter’s public programme, Lambert provided an unprecedented personal history of her experience in managing the Seagram Building design and construction, and told of her working relationship with Mies and Johnson. This lecture coincided with her recent publication, Building Seagram (Yale University Press, 2013), which tells the biography not just of this important building, but of the culture of postwar design, including the significant role corporate patronage played in the era’s real estate development, and of the project’s substantial role in shaping landmark legislation and zoning laws in New York City.
[caption id="attachment_3539" align="alignnone" width="360"]Phyllis_Lambert_Lecture©AF_2014_02_26_001 Phyllis Lambert in the AA Lecture Hall
Image credit: Alexander Furunes[/caption] Lambert, still unyielding at 87, is founding director of the Canadian Centre for architecture in Montreal. She is an architect, preservationist, lecturer, historian, scholar, curator, patron, citizen activist and critic of architecture and urbanism. For the Seagram project, she was director of planning and therefore in charge of the liaison between the architects, the engineers and the construction company. Lambert explains that her ambition as a client managing all these different forces was ‘to allow Mies to build the building he wanted to build’.
The conception of this building, as described by Lambert, shows the extent to which a client can help shape a project when architects learn to see beyond the imagination of their own minds. As both the director of planning and daughter of the client (in a way the client herself), Lambert had an active role, from participating in decision-making regarding the site and the plaza in front of it, to meeting with Mark Rothko and Picasso in an attempt to commission works for the project.   Looking back at this period of time, Lambert feels that building in New York in the decade after the Second World War belongs to a simpler and more forward-thinking time. ‘There was a boundless conviction that we would make a better world’, she recalled. ‘We felt that we could do whatever we wanted to do, the optimism was enormous.’ This is evident in a letter Lambert wrote at the time to her father: ‘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.’   For more information: Phyllis Lambert Lecture Video AArchitecture 22