“Building Seagram”

Phyllis Lambert, artist, architect and Montreal’s presiding deity over heritage preservation, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture and a force to be reckoned with on many other levels as well, is now also the author of Building Seagram, a one-of-a-kind, highly stratified yet beguilingly intimate look into the history of this icon of architecture in the 20th century.

When her father, Samuel Bronfman, founder of the Seagram distillery, asked her to head the search for an architect to design his company’s headquarters in New York, Lambert was still a young artist living in Paris. She wrote him back: “No, no, no, no.” She was woefully unimpressed with her father’s plans. “If you are going to make a decision to build a building, then you have to decide to do it in the best way you can.” When her father dismissed her views, she stated bluntly and categorically, with the furore of a scorned angel: “You no longer have a daughter.”

“You have a great responsibility,” she further wrote. She believed fervently that the building should serve not only the Seagram employees, but all the people, both in New York and abroad. If he did not share this view, it would be, she said, pointless to continue. A full facsimile of this remarkable, headstrong but repletely logical and entirely unafraid letter is a highlight of the book, Building Seagram. It speaks volumes about Lambert’s integrity, brilliance and singleminded devotion to the cause.

She decided to commission the pioneering modern master Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), in collaboration with Philip Johnson (1906– 2005). Lambert demonstrated another early benchmark in her career-long history of stubbornness, bravery and bloody-mindedness when, in May of 1955, she successfully fought off a pack of builders who questioned van der Rohe’s plans. “I only had one thing in mind, and that was making sure Mies built the building he wanted to,” she said. “When you’re young, you’re very clear about what’s right and what’s wrong.” Well, with hindsight, she was right. They were wrong.

The building was completed in 1958, a 38-story palatial/minimal and even visionary structure of tiered bronze and glass ensconced against the backdrop of Park Avenue. A true watershed, it represented a paradigm shift in 20th-century urban architecture. Also in that same year, Lambert commissioned Mark Rothko to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant, located on the ground floor of the building. Rothko didn’t carry on with the project as it was anticipated and refunded his fee soon after, apparently because of misgivings that his work would be reduced to décor for affluent diners. But Lambert deserves kudos for the art that was successfully acquired, including sculptures by Jean Dubuffet, Barnett Newman, Tony Smith and many others. Lambert visited Picasso in 1957 and he agreed to create four sculptures, which weren’t produced. She entreated Brancusi. He also failed her. Sadly.

Building Seagram is not only a paean to the built world but something of an anfractuous history of the creation of a remarkable building. It is also a mesmerizing binary biography of a remarkable young artist and her elderly father. And it is a wonderful account of the author’s relationships with van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. In straddling several genres with rare agility—architectural history and biography, for example—it yields not only interesting insights into the maverick visionary mind that is Phyllis Lambert’s but reveals many new facts about the construction of a building that has now definitively entered architectural history. Lambert includes a number of previously unpublished photographs, personal archives and company correspondence that enrich her account.

Phyllis Lambert may have been born into a monied family that lived far above the fray, but she had to work with feverish energy and otherwordly dedication to achieve all that she has in fact achieved, which is much. Reading this book convinces us that its author is an artist/architect of the first water. For anyone interested in art, creativity, architecture (practitioners, critics and devotees), personal avowal and tenacity and, not least, the riveting narrative of a gifted woman’s struggle to overcome reams of patriarchal repression against all odds, this book is, simply put, a must-read. ❚

Building Seagram_, by Phyllis Lambert, published by Yale University Press, 2013, 320 pages, $65.00._

James D Campbell is a writer and curator living in Montreal who contributes regularly to Border Crossings.