The Seagram building rises over New York’s Park Avenue, seeming to float above the street with perfect lines of bronze and glass. Considered one of the greatest icons of twentieth-century architecture, the building was commissioned by Samuel Bronfman, founder of the Canadian distillery dynasty Seagram. Bronfman’s daughter Phyllis Lambert was twenty-seven years old when she took over the search for an architect and chose Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), a pioneering modern master of what he termed “skin and bones” architecture. Mies, who designed the elegant, deceptively simple thirty-eight-story tower along with Philip Johnson (1906–2005), emphasized the beauty of structure and fine materials, and set the building back from the avenue, creating an urban oasis with the building’s plaza. Through her choice, Lambert established her role as a leading architectural patron and singlehandedly changed the face of American urban architecture. Building Seagram is a comprehensive personal and scholarly history of a major building and its architectural, cultural, and urban legacies. Lambert makes use of previously unpublished personal archives, company correspondence, and photographs to tell an insider’s view of the debates, resolutions, and unknown dramas of the building’s construction, as well as its crucial role in the history of modern art and architectural culture.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) has long been considered one of the most important architects of the 20th century, and his significance to the field of modern architecture is beyond dispute. In Europe, before World War II, Mies emerged as one of the most innovative leaders of the modern movement, producing visionary projects for glass and steel and executing a number of small but critically significant buildings. In the United States, after 1938, he transformed the architectonic expression of the steel frame in American architecture and left a nearly unmatched legacy of teaching and building. Mies began his career in Europe, becoming one of the pivotal leaders of the architectural avant-garde by the early 1920s. Born in 1886 in Aachen, Germany, Mies van der Rohe had his most important early apprenticeship in the offices of Peter Behrens between 1908 and 1911.
After World War I, Mies joined the utopian artists of the Novembergruppe and founded the avant-garde magazine G (Gestaltung). Around 1920, Mies designed several projects for glass skyscrapers in central Berlin, in crystalline, vertical facets of glass and suspended floor planes, just as German expressionists such as Bruno Taut and Hugo Häring were calling for a revolutionary architecture of transparency and organicism.
After 1923, Mies’s style shifted, and he came heavily under the influence of Dutch neo-plasticism and Russian suprematism. The former influence, along with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, drove Mies to experiment with independent walls and ceilings arranged in an open, pin-wheeling manner. The latter influence drove Mies to consider the reduction and abstraction of these elements into dynamic and contrapuntal compositions of pure shapes in space.
These experiments culminated in one of Mies van der Rohe’smost significant works, the German Pavilion built for the Barcelona World Exposition in 1929. Commonly known as theBarcelona Pavilion, this small, temporary structure, has been reconstructed, and remained one of the most recognized objects in the architectural history of modernism. Composed mainly of a raised terrace and a simple rectangular structure with eight cruciform columns, it set an important precedent for the Farnsworth House.
In 1930, Mies succeeded Hannes Meyer as director of theDessau Bauhaus, remaining in that position until the Bauhaus was forcibly closed by the National Socialist government in 1933. After his arrival in the United States in 1937, Mies vander Rohe went on to significantly change the American architectural landscape, particularly during the rebuilding that immediately followed World War II.
It was in the United States that Mies had his most prolific period, both in terms of the number of projects he was able to build and in terms of the number of followers and disciples he influenced, either directly or indirectly. During this period, he transformed what had been primarily a pragmatic construction technique for large buildings, the steel frame, into a refined art form in which the steel itself became one of the primary expressive elements. At the same time he monumentalized his abstraction of space, moving away from the dynamic, pin-wheeling forms of his 1920’s works, and returning to a more severe classicism, with cubic volumes, often raised over carefully paved plazas and asymmetrically balanced against surrounding buildings. Such classicism, however, was interpreted in a radically modernist manner, with the transparent walls and continuous ceiling planes extending sight lines beyond the interiors, in the attempt to represent infinitely receding space.
Following a trip to Wyoming in 1937, Mies van der Rohedesigned a house for a rural site, the unbuilt Resor House, whose rectangular form would have bridged a small stream. Soon afterwards, he accepted a position as head of the architecture department at the Armour Institute of Technology, soon to be renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology. At his inaugural lecture as director of the department in 1938, Mies stated:
“In its simplest form architecture is rooted in entirely functional considerations, but it can reach up through all degrees of value to the highest sphere of spiritual existence into the realm of pure art.”
This sentence summarized what had become Mies van derRohe’s consistent approach to design: to begin with functional considerations of structure and materials, then to refine the detailing and expression of those materials until they transcended their technical origins to become a pure art of structure and space.
In 1939, he began preliminary designs for the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology on the south side of Chicago. Its composition of low-slung rectangular buildings, arranged as subtly juxtaposed figures on a cleared urban site would constitute one of the most important examples of modernist urban design. In 1946, Mies would begin his work on the Farnsworth house, in which he was able, as in the Barcelona Pavilion, to pursue his ideas of structure and space, with minimal requirements of program. After World War II, Mieswould become perhaps the most significant designers of American skyscrapers, transforming the common steel frames of such structures into subtle expressions of module, proportion and detail. Buildings such as 860-880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago (1949-51) and the Seagram Building in New York (1958) have become canonical monuments of modernism and are studied by scholars and architects all over the world.
The Farnsworth House is one of the most significant of Mies van der Rohe’s works, equal in importance to such canonical monuments as the Barcelona Pavilion, built for the 1929 International Exposition and the 1954-58 Seagram Building in New York. Its significance is two-fold. First, as one of a long series of house projects, the Farnsworth House embodies a certain aesthetic culmination in Mies van der Rohe’s experiment with this building type. Second, the house is perhaps the fullest expression of modernist ideals that had begun in Europe, but which were consummated in Plano, Illinois. As historian Maritz Vandenburg has written in his monograph on the Farnsworth House:
“Every physical element has been distilled to its irreducible essence. The interior is unprecedentedly transparent to the surrounding site, and also unprecedentedly uncluttered in itself. All of the paraphernalia of traditional living –rooms, walls, doors, interior trim, loose furniture, pictures on walls, even personal possessions – have been virtually abolished in a puritanical vision of simplified, transcendental existence. Mies had finally achieved a goal towards which he had been feeling his way for three decades.“
In many ways also, Mies van der Rohe was able to realize spatial and structural ideals that were impossible in larger projects, such as the Seagram Building. For example, the I-beams of the Farnsworth House are both structural and expressive, whereas in the Seagram Building they are attached to exterior as symbols for what is necessarily invisible behind fireproof cladding. In addition, the one-story Farnsworth house with its isolated site allowed a degree of transparency and simplicity impossible in the larger, more urban projects.
The significance of the Farnsworth House was recognized even before it was built. In 1947 a model of the Farnsworth House was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Describing it, along with the unbuilt Resor House, as a “radical departure from his last European domestic projects,” Philip Johnson noted that it went further than the Resor house in its expression of the floating volume: “The Farnsworth house with its continuous glass walls is an even simpler interpretation of an idea. Here the purity of the cage is undisturbed. Neither the steel columns from which it is suspended nor the independent floating terrace break the taut skin.” In the actual construction, the aesthetic idea was progressively refined and developed through the choices of materials, colors and details. While subsequent debates and lawsuits sometimes questioned the practicality and livability of its design, the Farnsworth House would increasingly be considered, by architects and scholars alike, to constitute one of the crystallizing and pivotal moments of Mies van der Rohe’s long artistic career
First conceived in 1945 as a country retreat for the client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, the house as finally built appears as a structure of Platonic perfection against a complementary ground of informal landscape. This landscape is an integral aspect of Mies van der Rohe’s aesthetic conception. The house faces the Fox River just to the south and is raised 5 feet 3 inches above the ground, its thin, white I-beam supports contrasting with the darker, sinuous trunks of the surrounding trees. The calm stillness of the man-made object contrasts also with the subtle movements, sounds, and rhythms of water, sky and vegetation.
The dominance of a single, geometric form in a pastoral setting, with a complete exclusion of extraneous elements normally associated with habitation, reinforces the architect’s statement about the potential of a building to express “dwelling” in its simplest essence. While the elongated rectangle of the house lies parallel to the course of the Fox River, the perpendicular cross axis, represented by the suspended stairways, faces the river directly. With its emphatically planar floors and roof suspended on the widely-spaced, steel columns, the one-story house appears to float above the ground, infinitely extending the figurative space of the hovering planes into the surrounding site.
At the same time, the prismatic composition of the house maintains a sense of boundary and centrality against the vegetative landscape, thus maintaining its temple-like aloofness. The great panes of glass redefine the character of the boundary between shelter and that which is outside. The exterior glazing and the intermittent partitions of the interior work together dialectically, shifting the viewer’s awareness between the thrill of exposure to the raw elements of nature and the comforting stability of architectonic enclosure.
The architecture of the house represents the ultimate refinement of Mies van der Rohe’s minimalist expression of structure and space. It is composed of three strong, horizontal steel forms - the terrace, the floor of the house, and the roof - attached to attenuated, steel flange columns.
Since its completion in 1951, the Farnsworth house has been meticulously maintained and restored. The most important restoration took place in 1972, when then owner Peter Palumbo hired the firm of Mies van der Rohe’s grandson, Dirk Lohan, to restore the house to its original 1951 appearance. A second restoration took place in 1996, after a devastating flood damaged the interior. Although the house was built to resist floods in 1951, building in the surrounding area has caused higher flood levels in recent decades.