Skip to main content

Phyllis Lambert.The New York Times

In the winter of 1954, three people set up shop in a small loft on Manhattan's East 44th Street to plan a skyscraper. One was arguably the greatest architect of the 20th century; one a fixture of New York's cultural elite; and one a 27-year-old Canadian heiress.

It took all three of them – Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson and Phyllis Lambert – to build a masterpiece.

The Seagram Building, a shimmering bronze-clad slab with a grand plaza on Park Avenue, became arguably the most important tall building in history. (And its restaurant, the Four Seasons – with its Picasso tapestry and grand modernist space – became the place where the power lunch was born.)

Now, 60 years later, Lambert – who will be the subject of a tribute Sunday at Montreal's Blue Metropolis Festival – is telling her part of the story in a new book, Building Seagram, which blends a first-person account of the design and construction with historical context.

"I believe my life began then," she says in a telephone interview from Montreal. "It gave me a view on life; it gave me a purpose." Today, at 86, she is herself a grand cultural figure: Most famous as the founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, she's had a remarkable career as an architect, scholar, preservationist and patron.

It all began in 1954, she writes, when she was living in Paris, "trying to be an artist," and got wind of the Seagram Company's plans – her dad's plans – to build a New York headquarters. It would have been a generic behemoth wrapped in Moderne drag and heavy marble. She wrote to her father, Seagram founder Samuel Bronfman, an eight-page rant filled with learning, idealism and chutzpah. "Dearest Daddy," she wrote, "this letter begins with one word repeated very emphatically NO NO NO NO NO." She suggested to him, "You must put up a building that expresses the best of the society in which you live."

In response, he invited her back to choose the marble.

But Lambert had other ideas. Already the family's least conventional child – "being a sculptor wasn't something one did, in those days, in my family," she recalls – she insisted on a larger role, and soon talked her way into selecting a new architect and, eventually, the job of "planning director" for the project. "I had no experience whatsoever," she says now, with a bit of wonderment. "I had never worked."

She made a whirlwind tour of architects' studios, guided in part by Johnson, the former curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. She met all the greats of midcentury modernism, and "everyone described what they wanted to do in terms of Mies," she says.

That is: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Trained as a neoclassical architect, he became a poet of contemporary technology and fantastic tall towers in the 1920s – later becoming head of the legendary Bauhaus school, the birthplace of modernism. Exiled to Chicago, Mies taught at the the new Illinois Institute for Technology, whose campus of black steel, glass, brick and oak he designed from the ground up.

Seagram was a showcase of contemporary technology and generous public space, an example that would transform North American cities. Two concepts for the skyscraper, developed in Mies's youth, played out here: one, a glossy column of glass, "the quintessential material of the future," shimmering and immaterial; the other "skin and bone construction," revealing the thin structure that modern steel building made possible.

The building's 37-storey tower had a skin of grey glass and flat bronze panels, punctuated by I-beams that traced the bones of the building beneath. Those beams are shaped like standard industrial steel, but were made of a more precious metal. When asked for his input, Sam Bronfman made one point: "I like bronze," he said, and so he got a building whose entire skin was bronze. "Nobody could have imagined that," Lambert says.

The building was wildly expensive – prompting the city to lobby a special "luxury tax" – and, as everyone soon agreed, beautiful. As you walk past, the three-dimensional facade shimmers, and different reflections of the city play across its glassed-in lobby.

Lambert furnished it with great modern art, including a commission for a series of Mark Rothko paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant – although Rothko eventually backed out, uncomfortable with his art functioning as backdrop for corporate schmoozing.

But the tower is also remarkable for what it leaves empty: its 90-foot-deep plaza, made from granite and luscious marble, was a surprising break in the avenue's wall of buildings. It was a rhetorical step back from the corporate conventions of the time. "All of Mies's buildings create an oasis in the city," Lambert explains. "He said, you can't continue to build the old city; it goes on like a forest. What you can do is build an oasis in the forest." This oasis came as a shock to New Yorkers: it influenced a new zoning bylaw that let all new buildings trade a bit of public plaza space for greater bulk in the sky.

Lambert kept a hand in protecting the building for decades, as she moved on to found Heritage Montreal and spearhead the redevelopment of the Vieux-Port, as well as building the CCA. Sometimes these roles have overlapped: The CCA published the first definitive books on Mies's architecture in 2001, co-edited by Lambert. In the new book, she places Seagram and its plaza in a long historical line, going back to 19th-century neoclassicism that Mies practised as a young man, and, ultimately, back to classical Greece.

Mies went on to build other skyscrapers, including the TD Centre in Toronto. Unfortunately, these ideas – the plaza, the tall glass building – would be widely imitated, to varying success. "When you look at the other buildings, you ask, why can't they do better?" Lambert asks. "They don't have those proportions, that magnificent form, that Mies gave." With some help, that is, from a young visionary.

A Tribute to Phyllis Lambert will take place on Sunday, April 28 at Montreal's Blue Metropolis Festival (