The Useful Square: Seagram Building

The American Philip Johnson once noted wryly, ‘Architecture is the art of how to waste space.’ One could put it another way: the art of how to waste space is what makes architecture. However, if we think of architecture merely in this light, then what could be said about urban plazas — indeed so many useful buildings could be erected in their place. The plaza at the foot of the famous Seagram Building (1954–1958) on Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets in Manhattan proves otherwise.

The Useful Square: Seagram Building

The history of the building designed by Mies van der Rohe (1886-1968) is well known. Not only is the building of interest, but also the way in which the plaza created by Mies for his celebrated skyscraper influenced the planning of public spaces in New York.

This expansive plaza, running the breadth of an entire block along Park Avenue, is one of the key features of the Seagram skyscraper. It is known that Mies spent a long time making a thorough study of a model of the entire district around the building and frequently strolled down Park Avenue in order to find the perfect site for the future tower. Ignoring dry economics and the usual strategies for maximum utilisation of a lot, Mies set the tower back from the street by 30 metres. This generosity had one purpose: to place a spacious public plaza in front of the building. And this was in the heart of the world’s financial capital during a period of unrestrained economic growth!

Seagram Building, New YorkSeagram Building, New York Main Façade on Park Avenue © Richard Pare

Seagram Building, New YorkSeagram Building, New York © Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal

Main image: © Ezra Stoller/Esto