The International-Style Skyscraper
Lever House was followed a few years later by the Seagram Building, diagonally across the street from it on Park Avenue. The Seagram company purchased this site with the intention of building a corporate headquarters, but they were not particularly interested in architecture to start with. They hired a local, not particularly talented, firm that designed a building of great banality. So Phyllis Lambert, who was the daughter of Seagram's president, went to her father and said, "You cannot do this. This is going to be the corporate headquarters in New York. You really have to design a great building." |
So her father let Phyllis choose the architect. Cost was really no object. And Phyllis, who was a trained architect, went to Mies van der Rohe, the great Bauhaus master, who was teaching in Chicago. Mies van der Rohe designed one of the great buildings of the twentieth century. It is a building of extraordinary complexity in its design. It is a slab and has no setbacks. So how, for example, under the 1916 zoning law, which was still in effect in the 1950s, did this building—and indeed Lever House—get away with building a slab? The reason is that these buildings occupy only 25 percent of their lot, and in the zoning law you could build a tower of any height on 25 percent of your lot—thus the slender tower on the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building, and thus the slabs with no setbacks on the Seagram Building and on Lever House. Because cost was no object, Mies van der Rohe was able to clad this building in bronze, actually a bronze that is given a dark tint. The bronze is not actually structural, but it covers the structural members of the building and gives it this very solid, dramatic quality on Park Avenue. The entire bronze slab is set back on a plaza with very subtly designed shallow fountains in the front, so that as you go into the building, you are walking through this beautiful, simplified landscape into the lobby. Then the lobby, in contrast to the dark quality of the building's exterior, is done in magnificently cut white travertine. So you have this wonderful contrast between the outside and the inside.
The building is also very complex in its geometry. You have these tall, rectangular windows and below is a spandrel panel of bronze. If you look at the spandrel panels below the windows, you will notice that there is a channel running around each so it appears that the spandrel is floating. The same thing is true of the windows. There is a recessed channel going all the way around each window, as if each element is freely floating on the building. So these transparent, floating glass windows and floating bronze panels relieve the massiveness of the structure.
Mies understood that the geometry of his building would be perfect until people got involved. Once people moved in, they would be putting ornamental things along the window sills, they would be hanging all different kinds of curtains, and it would destroy the geometry. So there are no window sills; there is no place for you to put plants on the window. He supplied every single office with curtains, and all the curtains are exactly the same. And he supplied every window with venetian blinds, and the blinds open all the way, or they close all the way, or they stop halfway—those are the only places you can stop them, because he did not want venetian blinds everywhere or blinds set at angles. He wanted to try to make the building a useable one that people would want to be in, but he also wanted to protect the grandeur of its design.