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Mies Van der Rohe Expatriates from Nazi Fascism and their Influence on Modern Art and Architecture in the US

Ludwig Miës van der Rohe
and the Seagram Building 

Architecture: Seagram Building (1958),
375 Park Avenue
, New York, NY

Architects: Ludwig Miës van der Rohe (1896-1969)
Philip Johnson (1906- )

 

            If you have ever traveled through or lived in a medium- to large-sized American city, chances are you have noticed or visited one of those “glass boxes” that are so much a part of the skylines now – a steel-framed glass office or apartment tower complex.  The buildings of this type are representative of an architectural movement known as the “International Style,” which flourished not only here in this country, but practically world-wide in the decades following World War II until the late-seventies. [1]   The recognized master of this style and certainly one of its founders was the German expatriate, Ludwig Miës van der Rohe. [2]

            Miës van der Rohe was born Maria Ludwig Miës, the son of a stone mason in 1896 at Aachen [3] , a town with a long medieval history on the border of the German Rhineland and the Low Countries.  Upon reaching adulthood he added his mother’s maiden name to his surname of Miës.  His death in 1969 at the age of 73 closed a long career as one of the most renowned and influential architects of the twentieth century.  

Despite the lack of a strictly formal education in architecture, Miës helped to establish the principles of the International Style’s architectural vocabulary in a canon that can best be summed up with his famous dictum, “less is more.” [4]   Those principles, reductionism and functionalism, reduce a building’s architecture to a stark simplicity and base its design strictly on its function. [5]   

            The Seagram Building in New York (1958) which he designed in collaboration with architect Philip Johnson, constitutes a paradigm of this style [6] and the epitome of his achievements in corporate architecture (Chicago’s Farnsworth House (1945-50) being the parallel achievement in residential architecture.)  In this style, the grid system of the underlying structural components predominates, revealed in the terse, sparse vertical thrust of rectangular planes whose forms follow the underlying functionality of the building.  Glass and metal infill panels span the spaces between the structural steel grid supports creating non-load-bearing “curtain walls” [7] – an integrated pattern that is both dynamic and rhythmic while supporting the weight of the building, flooding the interior with light, and reflecting light to the exterior from the glass. 

The need of the corporate world for an architecture that had a universal appeal and adaptability along with an expression of modernity reflecting the new postwar world order, was satisfied in skyscrapers and towers like the Seagram Building.  As a result, during the three decades after the war, “Miesian” boxes proliferated across our cities’ skylines.   Although the International Style is more associated with its postwar corporate building boom, actually its roots are found in the modern stylizations prior to World War II and in Miës’ own architectural development as an apprentice, architect, and finally director of the Bauhaus in the 1930’s.

The Bauhaus, an institution founded in Germany after the end of World War I to “help rebuild the country and form a new social order,” [8] emphasized “principles of Classical architecture in their most pure form: without ornamentation of any kind.” [9]  In the 1920’s Miës had done a series of drawings “that depicted steel and glass skyscrapers (Friedrichstrasse, Berlin),” [10] and in 1929 designed Germany’s pavilion at the International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain as a modernist masterpiece that garnered him considerable acclaim.

As director of the Bauhaus he continued in this philosophical and stylistic direction until the institution was disbanded by the Nazis. Along with other Bauhaus teachers and leaders Miës emigrated to the United States where he accepted a post at the fledgling Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago to develop its architectural program.   Concurrently, the 1932 volume “The International Style” by Philip Johnson and historian and critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock, thusly termed this Bauhaus style of architecture in America as disseminated by these leaders. [11]

Miës’ commission for the 39-story Seagram Building as administrative headquarters for the corporation bearing the Seagram name was the most prestigious awarded to him up to that time. [12]  By the mid-fifties he was already internationally recognized from his association with IIT and a considerable oeuvre of International Style projects, but was without a “signature” building in New York. [13]   Subsequently, his selection as architect for the project gave him an opportunity to display his vision on America’s foremost architectural stage.

Situated on one of New York’s most prime sites on Park Avenue, the slim rectangular box of the Seagram Building straddles the block between 52nd and 53rd Streets with its front elevation facing west, the first skyscraper of glass walls from floor to ceiling. [14]   Set back 90 feet from Park Avenue on an elevated granite piazza with reflecting pools on each side, the building’s first floor is raised 24 feet above the piazza on “legs” – the steel columns that support the structure.  In a continuous sweep from the first floor to the roof, an array of vertical hand-rubbed bronze window mullions spans the width of each elevation.  Projecting outwards from the bronze-tinted glass panels, they cast a light and shadow that has been compared to the Ionic columns of Classical architecture.

Considered the crown jewel of the International Style, the Seagram Building embodies an enduring regal elegance.  The building’s pleasing proportions, the richness of its materials, and the soaring verticality of its structural grid encapsulates it (in the words of architectural critic Paul Goldberger) as a “masterpiece (that) appear(s) to rise alone into the sky, as its architect intended it to do.” [15]

 

 

Note: New construction of nearby buildings and additions to the Seagram tower itself have changed the unique siting of the tower in its integration with the New York cityscape as envisioned by Miës van der Rohe: He “designed the Seagram Building to be a freestanding monument, best to be viewed in pristine isolation.” [16]      

Daniel J. Bornt, Champaign, IL, November, 2003
Text body word count: 949

References:



[1] Website: Dr. Tom Paradis, Northern Arizona Univ., http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~twp/architecture/international

[2] Martin Pawley, Introd. and Notes, Miës van der Rohe, Library of Contemporary Architects (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970)

[3] Ibid., p. 9

[4] Ibid., p. 19

[5] Website: Arapahoe Acres Historic District, http://www.arapahoeacres.org/international_style.htm

[6] “A Personal Testament” by Philip Johnson, p. 111, The Verbatim Record of a Symposium Held at the School of Architecture, Columbia University, March-May 1961, Four Great Makers of Modern Architecture, Gropius, Le Corbusier, Miës van der Rohe, Wright (New York: De Capo Press, 1970)

[7] Jürgen Tietz, The Story of Architecture of the 20th Century (Cologne: Könemann, 1999), p. 60

[8] Website: What You Need to Know About,  http://architecture.about.com/library/blgloss-bauhaus.htm

[9] Ibid.

[10] Website: Personal webpage of Andreas Angelidakis, (CV: Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design, Columbia University, New York), http://www.angelidakis.com/theory/intl.htm

[11] Website: What You Need to Know About, http://architecture.about.com/library/blgloss-bauhaus.htm

[12] Martin Pawley, Introd. and Notes, Miës van der Rohe, Library of Contemporary Architects (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970), p. 127

[13] Website: The Midtown Book, The Seagram Building, http://www.thecityreview.com/park375.html

[14] Sidney LeBlanc, Whitney Guide 20th Century American Architecture, A Traveler’s Guide to 220 Key Buildings, Revised and Expanded 2nd Ed., (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1996), p. 105

[15] Paul Goldberger, On the Rise, Architecture and Design in a Postmodern Age, (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 51

[16] Sidney LeBlanc, Whitney Guide 20th Century American Architecture, A Traveler’s Guide to 220 Key Buildings, Revised and Expanded 2nd Ed., (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1996), p. 105

Note: All websites accessed 16 Nov. 2003

 


"Expatriates from Nazi Fascism and their Influence on Modern Art and Architecture in the US"
website project for Parkland College HIstory 102 course ©2004 by Daniel John Bornt
History 102-940 fall semester 2004 - Dr. Marsh Jones, Instructor

 

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