May 1, 2013, ARTnews

She Gave Mies a Chance

Phyllis Lambert recounts her role in making the Seagram Building a Modernist masterpiece

Sixty years after persuading her father to hire Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design the Seagram building in Manhattan, Phyllis Lambert can’t help casting a critical eye around the Four Seasons Restaurant on the landmark structure’s ground floor. She spots rungs out of alignment on the entry staircase and lights that need adjusting so as not to cast unwelcome reflections on the walnut paneling of the storied Grill Room.

It was this acute sensitivity to esthetic missteps that drove the now-86-year-old Lambert to get her father, Canadian distillery mogul Samuel Bronfman, to fire the commercial architect he originally selected to design a new Park Avenue headquarters. Instead, Mies was engaged to create one of 20th-century architecture”s crowning achievements. “It seemed simply crazy not to work with the very best people around,” said Lambert, whose Building Seagram was just published by Yale University Press.

The book includes the full text of the furious, eight-page letter Lambert sent to her father in 1954, repeating “NO NO NO NO NO” after seeing the earlier design, which she said was ugly, vulgar and gave her nightmares. She concluded, “It is quiet elegance, harmony, sobriety”humility that makes beauty not flashiness.”

Lambert addressed her missive “Dearest Daddy,” but from page one of the new book she attempts to throw a veil over her relationship to Bronfman, “whom I shall refer to as SB,” she writes. In one photo, Bronfman grips Lambert tightly by the arm at a champagne reception marking the building”s completion in 1957, hinting at paternal efforts to rein in a newly divorced daughter who kept her ex-husband”s last name and dropped Bronfman. In truth, it was Lambert who had the upper hand.

At first, Bronfman thought he could placate his willful daughter by merely letting her pick out marble for the main floor. However, after having gotten her choice of architect, she ended up serving as director of planning for the entire costly job, ensuring that it would be built to the highest standards. “There were always people trying to undercut the project,” she said in an interview at the Four Seasons, though her involvement made certain that Mies and his team knew “there was a real connection to the company. It wasn”t just the architects working on their own.”

In the words of Philip Johnson, Mies”s collaborator on Seagram, having Lambert around meant “nobody cut corners” since “it was like having the crown prince present.” As design watchdog, she dissuaded her father from a plan to erect a bank pavilion that would have blighted the open plaza fronting the 38-story tower distinguished by its noble proportions and finely detailed fa”ade of amber glass and bronze.

Lambert was also intimately involved in selecting artworks for the building, including murals by Mark Rothko, which she”d hoped would adorn the restaurant but ended up at Tate Modern in London. She personally met with Rothko, Picasso, Mir”, and Brancusi to discuss commissions that all fell through. But Lambert acquired the Picasso tapestry La Tricorne (created as a stage curtain for a 1919 Diaghilev ballet) that still hangs in the passageway joining the Four Seasons” Grill and Pool Rooms. She helped make the plaza its own stage for a rotating series of sculptures by artists including Tony Smith, Barnett Newman, Jean Dubuffet, Michael Heizer, and Joel Shapiro.

After the building was finished, Lambert, dubbed “Joan of Architecture” in a 2007 documentary about her, went on to formally study architecture, design a building in Montreal, and found and direct the Canadian Center for Architecture there. To her dismay, the Seagram Company collapsed around 2000.

The building has twice been sold, most recently in 2000 to Aby Rosen and Michael Fuchs of RFR Holding LLC, who also own the Lever House diagonally across the street. Although her nephew J. Edgar Bronfman, Jr. owns part of the Four Seasons, Lambert and her family no longer control the building”s maintenance or future. Its designation as a New York City landmark in 1989 gave it a certain amount of protection of the design, but, she added, “I am concerned in the long run.”

Concern for the sublime architecture she helped bring about comes naturally for Lambert, who took sculpture lessons from age nine. “I dreamed of being an artist,” she said. “I wanted to be my own person. I didn”t want to be my father”s child. So I was deeply imbued in how architecture can change the lives of people in the city and make a huge difference.” Achieving that has required a sometimes inflexible attitude. Lambert admits having been told, “”You haven”t learned the ways of compromise,” and she concludes, with a seeming degree of pride: “I’mm still that way.”