Avant-Garde Architecture: The Seagram Building

The lesson of modernism was that meaning comes not from content but from relationship. If – and God help our students if we were – ASH was teaching a class in architecture, our first lesson would be to ask our students to write an essay on the Seagram Building, for our money among the best buildings in Manhattan. Unlike all the muscular frat boys rubbing shoulders as they push through Midtown East, it sits back from both Park Avenue and 53rd Street in its own plaza, which, apart from a flagpole and (when we were there) some seasonal Christmas trees, is completely bare. This gives it all the room it needs, and like Lionel Messi on the edge of the opposition’s box, you can’t take your eyes of it. It sits there, wrapped in what looks like the blackest black you’ve ever seen, brooding. You’re not even sure whether it heard your stammered offer to buy it a drink, let alone whether it’ll accept one. It has a hundred thousand imitators, many of them standing within a few blocks, but no equal. That’s not surprising. Each art movement has its day, and later imitators can never equal the inventors: Picasso in Cubism, Holiday in Jazz singing, Parker in Bebop, Dylan in popular music. Mies van der Rohe was one of the handful of inventors of this architectural language, and this is his masterpiece.

The noisy idiots – and they are legion, particularly in this country, particularly in positions of power – who dismiss the modernist grid as repetitive and boring have gelded eyes, and should confine themselves to a-symbolic gasps at the latest clothes on the Emperor’s fashion parade. You might as meaningfully dismiss Mondrian’s Neo-plasticism, which for twenty years limited its palette to a black grid on a white ground with three primary colours. And Mies van der Rohe, if anything, has gone even further, to something like the black-on-black paintings of Rodchenko. Everything here is about proportions. The proportion of the building to the plaza, of height to width, front to side, footprint to mass, of ground and top floor to the floors between, of windows to crossbeams, frontage to reception, doorway to door, of each element of the grid to the totality – which is what this building is: a total work of art, combining every lesson on architecture from Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library to Le Corbussier’s Unité d’habitation, and containing within it a thousand more buildings – if only architects knew how to look as well as build.

Architecture is an experiential form, and if you can’t feel in your bones the rightness and harmony and tensions and dynamism and mass of these proportions as you walk around this building, you have no right putting yourself forward to become an architect. Nowadays (and perhaps it was ever thus) we are inundated with musicians with no ear, artists with no eye, actors with no voice, dancers who can’t move, singers who can’t sing, writers with no feeling for words. But above all, looking around London, we are suffering under a time in which the buildings being thrust upon us – from the anodyne homogeneity of the New London Vernacular to the back-of-a-napkin doodles of the towers lining the Thames – are quite clearly designed by architects who have no eye for formal relationships, no sense of composition, no awareness of proportion, no feeling for architectural form – by architects, in other words, who are not architects.

And above all, by architects with no interest in the social dimension of architecture. I said an appreciation of the formal relationships of the Seagram Building would be the first lesson, not the last. ASH is not a modernist architectural practice but an avant-garde collective. No doubt the designers of parametric blancmanges, high-tech emporia and amusingly nicknamed towers will think us arrogant if we say that ASH, to our knowledge, is the only avant-garde architectural collective in the U.K. But before its innovations in form were turned into the formalism of the post-war neo-avant-garde, whose proponents lived largely in the United States, the avant-garde was first and foremost a response to changing social circumstances. Dada, which rose in rebellion against the insanity of the Great War, was exemplary in this respect, and has much to tell us about our own epoch of violent absurdity. The Seagram Building, completed in 1958 and designed by a leading member of the European avant-garde who moved to the U.S., is a prime example of the decadence into which modernism fell. Perfect in its formal relationships, its formal purity is utterly corrupted by its social use – its International Style having become the perfect expression of the international capitalism of its tenants. Originally designed as the headquarters for the Canadian distillers Joseph E. Seagram’s & Sons, today the building is occupied by the following companies:

  • Quadrangle Group, a private investment firm that has raised $3 billion of equity capital;
  • Trilantic Capital Partners, a global private equity firm with aggregate capital commitments of approximately $6 billion;
  • Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, a private equity investment firm managing $17 billion of assets in 52 businesses with an aggregate transaction value in excess of $80 billion;
  • Centerbridge Partners, a multi-strategy private investment firm managing over $25 billion of assets;
  • Winton Capital Management, a British investment management firm managing $25 billion of assets;
  • Wells Fargo & Company, an American international banking and financial services holding company with $1.849 trillion of assets. In 2015 it became the world’s largest bank by market capitalisation before slipping behind JP Morgan Chase in September 2016 in the wake of a scandal involving the alleged creation of over 2 million fake bank accounts by thousands of Wells Fargo employees. Has since become the third-largest U.S. bank by assets, and the second largest by deposits, home mortgage servicing and debit cards, and was ranked 7th on the Forbes Magazine Global 2000 list of the largest public companies in the world.

Perhaps the U.S. flag that flutters in the plaza stands for all this horror. So even if you are one of those architects who can see and feel and appreciate the formal purity of the Seagram Building (to which these photographs only approximate), don’t start patting yourself on the back just yet, because if you can’t also see and feel and get angry about – and more importantly want to do something about – its social and political dimension, then you don’t belong with ASH.

And whatever you feel, before you presume to put yourself forward to be an architect, ask yourself first what the final and ultimately determining relationship of this building is – which is the social relationship between its perfection of form and corruption of content. Because only when you understand that the separation of form from content, of the appearance of a building from its social and economic use, is an abstract division that serves the ideology of the abstract markets of capitalism, where profit is divorced from the labour from which it is extracted, and the value of housing is measured by other criteria than its use as a home, will you be ready to become an architect for social housing.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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