The Seagram: Mies van der Rohe

Architect: Mies van der Rohe | Date completed: 1958 | Location: New York City, USA | Travel year: 2015

* This article was written by Maria Flores, The Archiologist Founder; All pictures belong and are taken by Maria Flores.


I had never been in New York prior to this experience, and there was so much traffic –like every day apparently — that we began to walk by foot. Having lived in Miami for over 8 years, my parents and I are not really accustomed to walking. Perhaps, that might be one of the reasons we believed taking a cab would be a great idea, again, like most of my stories go, we were wrong. But you gotta learn some day right? Transportation in New York City is perhaps the most expensive out of the whole U.S. states. Going from 5th avenue to 8th will probably cost you around $20 dollars. And after a while we were definitely not willing to spend that much money. Anyway… As my day progresses, we visited the Guggenheim Museum and MoMa that same day, but as we were walking by foot through a street with very tall skyscrapers (Yes I know I was in New York, but these skyscrapers seemed taller, I swear), my dad saw it: The Seagram Building.

My father standing in front of the Seagram

My father standing in front of the Seagram

I had probably heard about it in class about 3 or 4 times and definitely had learned something about it on History class, but what was it? Anyway, from just down the road you could tell this building was like no other. It had a receiving space/plaza in the front of it with a fountain and a sculpture. Almost as if it was welcoming people to go inside. Keep in mind, this building was quite different from the rest. You could tell it was very simple, in fact it was just like a regular office structure. Buildings around it though, had all types of curves and shapes, mirrored windows, blue and white colors; but the Seagram did not have any of those qualities, but it still looked modern in its characteristics without even trying to stand out.

The plaza in front of the building with a fountain and sculpture

The plaza in front of the building with a fountain and sculpture

We walked around the whole perimeter of the building, exploring its materiality: steel, travertine and marble and sadly as we were going in, they did not let us into the main space. Apparently we needed to be business people to appreciate good architecture I suppose. We only reached the doors on either side of the building where an outside terrace seemed to be.


At some point in time, the Seagram Building was the most expensive skyscraper in the world, due to its expensive high-quality materials and interior decoration by Philip Johnson. It was also the first tall building in the world, to use the structural system that Mies developed. There are 38 stories which are all connected by a steel frame and steel reinforced concrete core for lateral stiffness with diagonal bracing.

In fact, the design of the columns are similar to that of ancient columns, with bases, shafts and capitals. The module chosen by Mies is rectangles of 5×3.

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The most interesting precedent analysis for the Seagram is its use of the plaza. Mies intended to create an urban space in front of the building by pushing the entrance of the building back to about 100 feet. This became a very popular idea for gathering areas. This started to become a model for many buildings erected around its surroundings, such as the one in front, which does the same thing.

The plaza then connects directly to the lobby, where you can see a free space from the building. The lobby is all surrounded by glass, and the level above supported on piles.

The circulation happens mostly on the outside of the building, as seen on the right sketch, where he create a beautiful public space surrounding the building. With the materiality used: glass and metal, Mies van der Rohe leaves the heavy stone and brick ancestors that were so deeply used by architects during his time. His “less is more” mentality put this building to the test: he started an era of simple and straightforward skyscrapers that celebrated their structures and minimalist geometries rather than putting forth the idea of ornamentation and extreme detail to facades.

Modularity in height

Modularity in height

The whole idea of functionality was also an idea of Mies, the building itself is a symmetrical structure that neatly fitted its role for offices only and not used for leisure activities. Also the use of modularity, like how he uses in his windows, structure, blinds, and elevation of the building.

“God is in the details” is a very true statement said by Mies van der Rohe; his blinds system is an example of this. He thought about how the height of the building would be such a problem for blinds, users would tend to have the blinds at all levels and the facade would then look all messy. To avoid disorganization, Mies designed them so that individuals only have three possibilities of positioning them: all up, intermediate in the middle or closed. This aimed to maintain the visual uniformity of the building.

All in all, it cannot be negated that Mies van der Rohe was one of the best architect of his time because he was thinking about all the necessary components that make up a skyscraper. The public space, the circulation from the street and nearby buildings, the materials that were to be used, and exactly how it was going to be looked at over time. This building is still one of the most influential structures for tall buildings in the world and it was a precedent used by many to study the influence of the society in the architecture. The Seagram Building completely changed the skyscrapers around it in New York City, an you can definitely see this when you walk around it and see that many structures have set up plazas and fountains in front of their buildings for public gathering spaces.

This goes to show that us as architects should always think about the society of the city. New York City and others states around the United States and cities around the world are big cities for public transportation where people walk/skate/bike around most of the time. People need to feel one with the architecture and have times to sit, wander, and talk among friends in front of the building and feel welcomed. It would be wrong for any architect today to put a building straight into the street without leaving at least a space for communication. Precedents like these are what makes students and professionals be better architects each day. To think also about how can we make a building beautiful? Do we need to have crazy and out-of-this-world forms with expensive materials? Or do we need simple, yet beautiful buildings that hold more of a societal aspect rather than an aesthetic one? Only the people in the cities will know what they want to see… Maybe we should ask them.

Maria Flores