The Essential Seagram

July 2013

What is it about the Seagram Building? How has a building so mute, reduced, and presumably self-effacing become the object of so much disciplinary fantasy? Perhaps provoked by its reticence, architects, historians, and theorists alike have repeatedly divined through the Seagram evidence for teleological realignments of our discipline’s history from which to project future trajectories. Changing with the ideological disposition of interlocutor and epoch, the insights the Seagram has granted have varied richly. Through Manfredo Tafuri, for example, the buildingforetolda resigned tragedy. It evinced the negation of the surrounding capitalist metropolis. With K. Michael Hays as augur, the building forecast an iterative and complex dialectic of representation and resistance, absence and presence, popular culture and counter culture. More recently, Reinhold Martin has divined guilty affiliations with mass media through the Seagram’s silence and seriality; its abstraction was revealed to be a vehicle for the privileging of medium over message in a society of control. There are more examples; these are just a few. Each has described the Seagram’s place in architecture, and culture at large, in ways that are timely, elucidating, and relevant. Each has revealed and recast aspects and valences of the Seagram that were latent within Mies’s work. But perhaps more interesting than any single re-reading of the Seagram is the way the recursion of interpretations of the building illuminates an activity that has long been formative to our discipline. We crave stories about our past that validate contemporary preoccupations. The Seagram’s silence makes space for the projection of contemporary architectural zeitgeists. Its often-theorized reflective facade repeatedly holds a mirror to the present, screening visions of our disciplinary subconscious. Time and again, we return to the Seagram and discern a different prophetic tale through its abstraction. Accordingly, we might learn much about our present by again revisiting the Seagram, gazing into the lites of its curtainwall like so many crystal balls, and coaxing more visions out of the venerable old oracle.

Read more in 306090 (Non-)Essential Knowledge for (New) Architecture. Edited by David L. Hays.