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The Seagram Building: A Midtown Office Space Dream

March 27, 2012

Then and Now

First, take a highball glass and fill with ice.

First, take a highball glass and fill with ice. Add a healthy dose of Seagram’s Seven Crown Whisky and top with 7 Up. Garnish with a lemon wedge. Arguably the luckiest drink in the world, the Seven & Seven is a refreshing summer cocktail whose popularity helped fund one of the great architectural masterpieces of the 1950s, Mies Van der Rohe’s The Seagram Building.

The Seagram Building is a truly magnificent work of art and there are many excellent articles all over the web that describe it in all its glory. However, the allure is more than the building itself. When Mies Van der Rohe designed the plaza in the 1950s, it was a departure from the norm and led to a sea change in the architectural design of outdoor public spaces in Manhattan. At the time all skyscrapers had to follow a city building code that forced them to recess at certain heights, which is still the case thesedays. Office towers like the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building adhere to the code and are sometimes referred to as ‘wedding cakes’ because of the tiered upper levels. The Seagram Building’s revolutionary design recessed at the bottom, therefore creating a spacious outdoor public plaza and setting the standard that would be followed around the city, and around the world. Three years after the completion of the building, New York City enacted a revision to the zoning regulation offering incentives to developers who incorporate “privately owned public spaces” into their design.

Of course, the building itself is even more remarkable. The stunning amber bronze and glass structure is a testament to what seemed like unlimited funds, as van der Rohe was given carte blanche to do as he saw fit. Not surprisingly, upon completion it was the most costly skyscraper in the world. The luxurious marble for the plaza benches, travertine for the lobby walls and floor, tinted glass and bronze for the curtain walls and the carefully controlled customized details that pervade the building remind the viewer that this building is not the result of rationalized industrial production and construction techniques but rather the offspring of an architectural genius.

The Seagram Building is still the most elegant example of curtain-wall architecture in New York City and perhaps the world. Van der Rhoe was so concerned with the esthetics of the building that he even installed window blinds that could only open at three levels to give the exterior a more consistent look. He wanted to use exposed I-beams but, when told that building code required the use of structural steel, he opted for bronze-toned non-structural steel instead, which of course is famously visible from the outside.

In conjunction with Mies van der Rohe, the interior aspects of the building were designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate Philip Johnson, who also designed the dining room of the Four Seasons, one of two famous restaurants that make their home in the Seagram Building, and often said to be the birthplace of the ‘Power Lunch’. The other famous restaurant, Brasserie, was one of the only formal dining rooms open late in the Plaza District and thus brought nightlife to an area known as a daytime business hub. Today, in honor of Mies Van der Rohe’s 126th birthday maybe we should stop in and order a Seven & Seven.