As April comes to a close, and with it our “Frank” themed articles, I wanted to end with something a bit playful by filtering the theme through a few different lenses, including the lens of “frank” as a term meaning sincerity and openness. So, bear with me, I promise this pairing of poet-architect-skyline-building is not as forced and tenuous as it may at first seem. On the contrary, actually. The more I mull over Frank O’Hara’s work and the architectural landscape of New York City that supplied him with inspiration, the more I realize just how well Frank captured the essence of the Seagram Building’s underlying philosophy in this 1964 poem.
Not that this should come as a surprise. As an integral member of the “New York School” and an assistant curator at MoMA, O’Hara often examined the intersection of written word and physical artistic expression. His poetry reads as observational collections of his experiences, a diary of sorts, with little moments of inspiration captured from interaction with the city. He wrote frequently about the architecture of New York, often imbuing buildings with a voice of their own and viewing the city from the eyes of a structure, but the openness and sincerity in his poetry is particularly suited to correlation with Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building.
A sheer glass and steel towering rectangle seems typical and mundane (even boring?) to us today, but Mies’s masterpiece Seagram Building was a completely radical approach to the realm of skyscraper architecture and corporate culture in 1958.
Consider a world of stately and gleaming high rise structures: expansive towers shoved as close to the street as possible, a Midtown presided over by looming Machine Age behemoths, their steel frames gussied up with purely gratuitous imitation limestone and terra cotta foliage. Think Chrysler, Empire State, Rockefeller. Also consider a post-war American cultural landscape, still reeling from the repercussions of loss, sacrifice, the atomic bomb, nationalist rhetoric. The search for fulfillment through the recognition of a universal human experience. Demands for transparency, openness, a culture of frankness, if you will. From that world came the Seagram Building. Corporate and massive, yes. But a completely different statement on the symbolic role of the skyscraper.
Look at it…it’s a levitating monolith of uninterrupted lines shooting up from the ground and ending in an abrupt, horizontal bar. There’s no pomp and circumstance, no tiers that make it disappear into the infinite, no façade even. Instead, the structure and materials are evident in what Mies called an “unambiguous constructive appearance of genuine building elements from which a new, richer building art can arise.” By day the glass framed within the bronze-toned i-beam exterior reflects the city around it, but by night it becomes transparent with the light issuing from within, “like an X-ray or film negative, showing us the bones, revealing the structure of the building.”
This interaction with the city and the viewer is the ethos of the Seagram Building. Unlike its to-the-lot-line-skyscraper predecessors, Seagram is set back 100 feet from the street and elevated above the ground on podia to include an expansive open space plaza. With its fountains and places to sit, the plaza functions as an invitation and gesture of welcome to the people of the city by “optimizing the space for life to unfold and spirit to play,” as Mies put it. The open plaza visually creates a reprieve from the landscape of dense towers, but also creates an experiential space of refuge “in the chaos of the nervous metropolis.”
Which brings us back to Walking with Frank. We can now more fully appreciate that his lunch hour sojourn began with a place created for “New Yorkers hungry for a bit of open space in which to sun themselves.” The poem explores how much of a struggle this beast of a city can be sometimes, and I go back and forth every time I read the final line between interpreting O’Hara’s tone as sincere awe or sarcastic condemnation. Most often I land on somewhere in between. Life in the city can be alienating and uncomfortable, but that serves to highlight the exhilarating power of the cityscape. The philosophy and design of the Seagram Building plays into this perception of duality as well. A structure that at first may be perceived as an impersonal corporate skyscraper can also function as an attempt to recognize and remind us of the humanity in ourselves and each other.
So the next time you’re in Midtown scurrying along the street, trying to polish off that street vendor hot dog (ehem…frank) as quickly as you can between point A and point B, don’t forget to stop for a moment, remember that architecture is about so much more than the building itself, and…look up.
Poem Source: Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=31122
Seagram Building, images and history http://www.375parkavenue.com/Building
Hays, Michael. “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form.” Perspecta, Vol. 21. 1984
Lambert, Phyllis. “Seagram: Union of Building and Landscape.” Places Journal. April 2013
Otero-Pailos, Jorge. “Corporate Modernism.” Lecture, Columbia University. 2016.
Perez, Adelyn. “AD Classics: Seagrams Building/Mies van der Rohe.” ArchDaily. May 2010
Puente, Moisés. Conversations with Mies Van Der Rohe. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. 2008
Spaeth, David. Mies Van Der Rohe. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. 1985