The Seagram Building is a skyscraper, located at 375 Park Avenue, between 52nd Street and 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. It was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in collaboration with Philip Johnson. Severud Associates were the structural engineering consultants. The building stands 516 feet tall with 38 stories, and was completed in 1958. 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 with the active interest of Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Samuel Bronfman, Seagram’s CEO.
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 all large buildings 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 — so Mies 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. 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 1,500 tons of bronze in its construction.
On completion, the construction costs of Seagram made it the world’s most expensive skyscraper at the time, due to the use of expensive, high-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.
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. One aspect of a façade which Mies disliked, was the disordered irregularity when window blinds are drawn. Inevitably, people using different windows will draw blinds to different heights, making the building appear disorganized. 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 several decades. It appears as a simple bronze box, set back from Park Avenue by a large, open granite plaza. Mies intended to create an urban open space in front of the building, despite the luxuriousness of the idea, and it became a very popular gathering area indeed. In 1961, when New York City enacted a major revision to its 1916 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 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 socializing around the plaza. It shows how people actually use space, varying from the supposed intent of the architects.