A lady not for turning

Eleanor Young takes her hat off to Phyllis Lambert, start-to-finish champion of the ground-breaking Seagram Building

from left: Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe and Phyllis Lambert.
from left: Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe and Phyllis Lambert. · Credit: United press international

Phyllis Lambert was no ordinary client. A 27 year old budding artist, she manoeuvred her father into commissioning Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson for his headquarters in New York. In 1951, while living in Paris, she was sent the first plans for the building (by other architects). She wrote home, in no uncertain terms, that her father needed to think again. ‘Dear Daddy, … no, no, no’; her letter went on for eight tightly typed pages, fascinatingly reproduced in Building Seagram

And so Lambert became a lynchpin in commissioning the team that designed the Seagram Building (1959), selecting the architect then becoming director of planning for the building. Now, after a lifetime in architecture, including as founder-director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Lambert looks back on the process; on her little cubicle near Mies’ little cubicle, on the bronze facade (her father SB’s expressed preference when asked about materials) and on bringing the plaza to New York City. This is no anecdotal ‘when-I-was-young’ set of recollections: not only does Lambert have a superb analytical eye for the breadth of forces acting on architecture, she has also put work into this book. 

She draws on the testimony of an associate and one-time student to illuminate Mies’ thinking on the form of the skin from 860-880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. There are plenty of references to letters, newspaper and architectural magazine cuttings and a sense Lambert is cross checking her dates and accounts with others (‘According to Rothko, this was in spring 1958’). She admits that researching the book made her realise the pivotal role Johnson played in the lighting, for example – a major re-evaluation for her, despite her presence in the office during design. 

Lambert describes Johnson as using ‘powerful theatrical effects’, particularly a ceiling band around the edge of the building, lighting the tower as dusk came. This strategy continued with the Four Seasons Restaurant’s sophisticated shimmer of promise from the street. ‘The form is Mies’s, but the drama belongs to Johnson,’ she writes.

This concern for the building as a public object is precisely what taxed Lambert from her first letter to her father on the subject. Because of that she includes in these pages details of working with bay widths, modelling the plaza steps, debates over public (and less public) art and zoning and tax law. Tax law? Yes, Seagram lost a very public battle with the city over how the value of the building was calculated, thus penalising the company for not building out its plot to the max, argues Lambert. A New York Times editorial described it as  ‘A Blow for Architecture’ and a ‘tax on excellence’. 

But in other ways Lambert feels the city did respond positively to the Seagram Building with a change to zoning regulations in 1961 that encouraged pockets of commercially sponsored public space (offset by greater floor space). And, ultimately, the building was recognised and protected as a landmark. 

It is clear that the hope and joy she felt at the prospect, and then completion, of the Seagram Building have more than ebbed through the succeeding battles, particularly those fought without her father at the head of Seagram and, since the 1980s, without even the building ownership to give her leverage. She has seen many public spaces, given to the city in the wake of the Seagram Building, disappear as real estate professionals seek to maximise revenues. In the end the optimism at the heart of the book gives way to pessimism and defeat. Perhaps the only remedy is another young Lambert, working with these developers, telling them ‘no, no, no’. 


Building Seagram
Phyllis Lambert
Yale University Press, £19.95