Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Real Slim Shady

So there I was, in New York, searching for the Seagram Building. As I wandered around mid town - a little aimlessly and without a map - I started to notice versions of Mies' enigmatic black tower everywhere.

They kept looming out at me around every block. Is that it? No, too stubby. What about that one? No, too flat. It was like one of those children's books: That's not my Mies, its tower is too stumpy.

They followed me around like a growing army of imposters. Mies must be the most ripped off architect ever. Philip Johnson, after all, made an entire career out of blatant Mies plagiarism. Johnson designed the interior of the Four Seasons restaurant at the top of the Seagram and commissioned Mark Rothko to paint a set of murals which Rothko secretly hoped would "ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch that eats in that room". Rothko eventually withdrew them and donated some to the Tate Gallery in London, signifying perhaps the decisive moment of the split between the the architectural and artistic avant gardes. At one time, back in the 1920's, Mies had been highly instrumental in pushing the two together.

Why was Mies so heavily copied? Was it because his distillation of architecture into such super-refined blankness was easy to do, even if no one who tried ever got near to his exquisite refinement? Or was it because it aspired to universality, making its dissemination into a thousand proliferating versions somehow inevitable? Because his work lacked signature, in the expressive sense, and because it embodied the efficiency and endlessness of Fordism, it became the perfect template for corporate architecture. But it also became the language for other building types: libraries, schools, hundreds of architect's own houses.

It is also luxurious, blank, ruthlessly ambitious and beautiful, if you were as apolitical as he was. No wonder Patrick Bateman had his office in the Seagram Building in the film version of American Psycho. Actually, he didn't. Mies' buildings sometimes stand in for themselves. The version of the Seagram used in American Psycho was really Mies' Toronto Dominion Centre.

In the end, of course, I found it and I was momentarily blinded by the dazzle of the sun on the Travertine plaza. Briefly the black tower dissolved.


Matt Tempest said...

I think it's simpler than that - black is *always* in fashion.

Markasaurus said...

The detailing on Seagram House sets it apart from most of the imposters, though I concede it is easy to confuse them from a distance. I hope you didn't miss Lever House on the other side of the intersection, I think it's a lot more rewarding.

Kosmograd said...

Good stuff. Muschamp say's it's pink Vermont granite, not travertine: "It faces Park Avenue across a broad plaza of pink Vermont granite, bordered on either side by reflecting pools and ledges of verd antique marble."

He chose the Seagram Building "as the millennium's most important building"

Charles Holland said...

Well, I was exaggerating my confusion for effect but, still, I was struck by how "many" there were. And yes, I saw Lever House. Prefer Mies.

Charles Holland said...

and yes you're right K, travertine in the lobby, pinky granite on the plaza.....

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