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The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interviews by Robert A.M. Sternby Robert Am Stern
Chapter 7: Seagram
Robert A. M. Stern: What about Mies, Phyllis Lambert, and Seagram?
Philip Johnson: Yes, we'd better get it straight; that's a good idea. Phyllis's father was going to build a skyscraper and he had a very bad architect. Luckman. Good old Charlie.
Charlie did a quick scheme and Bronfman sent it to Phyllis because she was the one interested. But he had one passion in life and that was to get his daughter back—she lived in Paris. There had been the usual family arguments between generations. He said, “Well, if you're so smart, you come back and build the building.”
She did. A woman of enormous energy, of fantastic single-mindedness almost to the point of absurdity. She decided that the way her father was proceeding was no way to find an architect and certainly no way to build a building.
She didn't know why but she felt something was wrong. So she went around asking different people. I never knew really how many people she asked before she came to Alfred Barr.
Alfred Barr, quite wisely, said, “Well, we have a Department of Architecture. Why don't you go across the hall and talk to Philip Johnson?” So I said, “Well, here's a list of architects.” Then she asked me to go with her to interview these people, except for Mies, whom she wanted to see alone. That was fine with me because I knew Mies too well and didn't want to get involved. But we went to Saarinen; we went to Pei. We had Pei to lunch out at the house. He was young.
RS: Well, what were these interviews like?
PJ: They were funny—mostly about how she felt personally. She was very impressed with Saarinen, but Saarinen oversold. Pei undersold. Saarinen thought he had the job and he could be an extraordinarily pushy man. Well, that's why he got ahead! But he kept calling and that frightened her.
I forget what in particular set her off against Wright. I think it was some insistence on his part that she give him half a million up front as earnest to start right in. It was just the wrong approach to use when you're trying to impress somebody who has a mind of her own.
I, fortunately, kept completely still. Finally, she went to see Mies. And I remember riding the train. My God, there were no airplanes in those days. We were going from Detroit [where Saarinen's office was located] to Chicago [where Mies van der Rohe's office was located]. She said, “You know, I've made up my mind.” I said, “Well, what?”
I didn't have a clue. “I've picked Mies van der Rohe.” It was as simple as that.
RS: Did you go to see Wright?
PJ: I don't think so. I think we decided—or I decided—that he hadn't a track record or interest in business architecture. His work was ideal, not real—he hadn't done the Mile-High yet. Had it been a museum or a small enough building, one would have talked to him, but I didn't advise it under the circumstance. Did she go and see Breuer? Yes, that didn't last. Oh, she went and saw, of all people, Walker.
RS: Ralph Walker, really?
PJ: Ralph Walker was the A.I.A.'s “Architect of the Century.” Special medal , never granted to anybody else. He oversold. Took her out to, of all things, General Foods. Do you remember the old General Foods?
PJ: He showed her how he could handle a great big job. He could indeed, but she was so appalled by the looks of that building. I didn't go with her. So she did see the head of the profession.
The people who were most seriously considered were Saarinen and Mies. Of course, I didn't come into question because I had never built. So that was easy. Besides, I always had my other hat on. That's that ambivalence that you mentioned: I was between stools. I could be of help to her and I was, I think.
The Bronfmans were under the influence of the best builder in those days, Crandall, the president of the Fuller Company. An absolute genius and very sympathetic to architecture, and a leader. None of us had ever built a building, let's face it.
Mies never built a building. He was like me that way. We're not hands-on builders. Crandall was essentially an extraordinary courtly man who got the confidence of the old boy [Samuel Bronfman] and of Phyllis, of Mies, of me, and he handled us all the way one only wishes to be handled.
The money I didn't know about; he took care of that. He took care of the programming. He took care of the subcontractors. I wanted to use a two-inch granite because it was cheaper. He said, “We in this office use four-inch granite.” Well, now, that's a good builder. All right, it cost Mr. Seagram a little more, but he knew that wasn't the point. The point was to make a monument. He didn't mind when the old boy said, “Well, why don't you make it out of that material,” looking at the doors of the Daily News Building—bronze.
Mies said, “That's wonderful,” and I was left to deal with the bronze companies and they nearly died.
RS: They'd never built anything with that much bronze.
PJ: No! They said they couldn't. They couldn't extrude a thing that big. And I said, “Well, I bet you if you work hard enough and put enough engineers on it, you could.” And they could and they did.
You see, another reason we don't have craftsmanship in this country is that there's no mass demand.
RS: I've been saying that.
PJ: I know. Well, we both have.
We've preached this all our lives, haven't we?
RS: You only get what you ask for.
PJ: You only get what you ask for.
The same with the client. That's why you and I are so successful with Gerry [Hines]. We know what buttons to push. We know what he wants, really, is the fame and the reputation of being a fine builder.
So this man Crandall was a Hines, but as a builder, not a developer. He set the thing up and said, “Look, if you're going to have this mad genius, that's quite all right. But for heaven's sake a) tie him to another architect who knows how to design and has been through the factory, and b) get him to come and live here [in New York].”
Of course, that was unheard of. Mies balked. He said, “Look, I can design as well in my armchair,” where he always worked, “in Chicago as well as I can in New York.” Adamant! Crandall wouldn't hear of it. So we found a place in town for Mies to live.
RS: Did Mies actually spend chunks of time in New York?
PJ: He spent time here, sure. We got him a suite at the Barclay. He was happy as a clam and sat all by himself in a room about this size.
I said, “What do you do all the time?” He replied, “Ve think.” I see now what he was talking about because I cannot work with all these meetings and telephones.
I get my time Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I come back with a lot of yellow paper, but most is in my head.
But he was right. It's the thinking time that's the important time in architecture. You see, the reason I got into the Seagram project was that they thought he ought to have an interpreter who was on his side, but a person who was a little more able to talk English and had experience as an architect, at least slightly. I had built the Rockefeller house and enough little things so it was all right. So he said, “You can be co-architect,” which is a name I have never used. But I did do some of the work. The interiors of the dining room, of course. He and I didn't get along very well for obvious reasons. I wanted to be an architect and all he wanted to do was to have a draftsman or executor who would carry out things the way he wanted.
RS: Well, there was Kahn & Jacobs, also.
PJ: Kahn & Jacobs did the working drawings. They worked extremely well because they had a very good spec writer. In some offices the spec writer really calls the shots. This man had built piles and piles of buildings. We never had to see Jacobs or Kahn. I had a terrible fight with Kahn the very first meeting so he never came back.
RS: Oh, really?
PJ: It was marvelous, a glorious meeting in our offices. Kahn said, “I tell you how we do it, Mies. We start in with a ground plan and then we work the elevator core out. And in this building it would be about this many elevators to do the job quickly. And then we start decorating the door like this, you see.”
Mies was a very, very quiet man, but right in the middle of this long speech—he must have been talking for ten or fifteen minutes—Mies stood up and hit the table,
an enormous thing, with his hand and said one word, “No.”
It was the end of the meeting. We never saw Kahn again. Mies said it very loudly and very emphatically. He never—he was good that way. He would let things sort of flow until they ran into a stone wall.
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