Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building Architecture

Subject: Design
Pages: 9
Words: 2297
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: College


This report is aimed at discussing the architectural aspects of the Seagram Building which was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in collaboration with Phillip Johnson. This project represents such a movement as the International Style that was developed in the middle of the twentieth century. It was completed at a time when modern architecture enjoyed popularity among many people. While working on this project Mies and Johnson had to pay attention to such aspects as efficient land use, utility, and safety. One can distinguish several traits of this building, in particular, the use of glass-and-steel, the absence of decorative elements, and geometric forms such as rectangles. Additionally, one should mention that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe attempted to create a design that could appeal to people living in different countries, regions, and cultures.

The Seagram Building does not have any regional peculiarities. Furthermore, one should note that the decisions of Mies van der Rohe could be partly affected by architectural movements and styles. In particular, one can mention such movements as the constructivist movement and New Objectivity architecture that also emphasized minimalism and functionality. Nevertheless, the principles of the International style can be rejected by other architects. For instance, those people, who support the post-modernist movement, may criticize the Seagram Building for its austerity, simplicity, and absence of creative decisions. Furthermore, the International Style developed by Mies is completely opposed to previous architectural movements such as Neo-Classicism, Gothic, or Baroque. Nevertheless, the Seagram Building remains a prominent example of the urban landscape, especially if one is speaking about the buildings designed by public or private organizations. Moreover, the techniques adopted by Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson are still of great relevance to modern architects and designers. This is why this building is still worth attention.


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is a representative and advocate of modern architecture, especially the International Style that emphasizes such aspects as functionality, minimalism, and absence of regional differences (Noobanjong 2003, p. 372). The ideas of Mies have shaped the creative decisions of many architects who worked in the twentieth century. This paper is aimed at discussing the Seagram Building which is one of the most prominent projects designed by Mies together with Phillip Johnson.

This building is located in Midtown Manhattan, and it is a prominent example of a contemporary urban landscape.

This report has to examine how this project reflects the principles of modern architecture and international styles. Furthermore, it is important to show how this work is related to other movements and styles such as constructivism, the New Objectivity movement, or post-modernism. Moreover, this essay will examine this work from the perspective of architectural styles that existed before modernism. These are the main question that should be examined in more detail. Overall, it is possible to argue that this architectural project shows how utility and aestheticism can be successfully reconciled with one another and this is one of the major achievements made by Mies and Johnson.

The Seagram Building as an example of modern architecture and the International Style

At first, it is necessary to explain how external circumstances could have affected the work of Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson. It should be noted that the Seagram Building was constructed in 1958 at the time when urban planners began to pay more attention to efficient use of land (Moffett, Fazio, & Wodehouse 2003, p. 475). At that time, the construction of corporate buildings involved the use of such materials as glass and steel. Moreover, architects had to make sure that the construction process was not time-consuming or very expensive. This building was designed for the corporation Seagram Company Ltd. It had to underline the efficiency and power of this organization (Moffett, Fazio, & Wodehouse 2003, p. 475). Yet, at the same time, it had to fit the urban landscape of New York. To some extent, they were limited by safety codes and regulations in New York. These factors could affect the creative decisions of Mies and Phillip Johnson. The designers had to take into account where their construction would be located and how it would be used by people. Thus, one can say that such issues as utility, functionality, and safety were of great importance to them.

On the whole, the Seagram Building reflects several principles of modernist architecture and especially the International Style. First of all, the representatives of this approach advocated the idea that the exterior design of the building should not include many decorative elements that often did not play any functional role (Noobanjong 2003, p. 372). One should take into account that Mies van der Rohe and other modernist architects attempted to create a new style or movement that could be different from Classicism, Baroque, or Gothic styles. One of the things that they stressed was the minimalism of the exterior design. By looking at the façade of the Seagram Building, one can see that Mies van der Rohe adhered to this principle. The exterior of the Seagram Building does not include moldings, sculptures, arches, carvings, or mosaics that often do not serve any practical purposes. The presence of such elements was not acceptable for Mies van der Rohe. This approach to exterior design was very popular at the time Mies and Johnson worked on their project. This is one of the main qualities of this building. Moreover, modernist architecture advocates the use of straight lines and pure geometrical forms such as polygons, triangles, or circles (Colquhoun 2002, p. 10). In its turn, Seagram Building is dominated by rectangular forms. So, the use of geometric forms is a distinctive trait of this architectural project. To a great extent, the presence of these elements is a direct influence of the constructivism approach to design.

There is another aspect of the International style that also manifests itself in this work of van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson. In particular, the supporters of this movement attempted to make sure that structural elements of the building served an aesthetic purpose (Blaser 1997, p. 245). To a great extent, this principle is reflected in the motto, “Less is more” promoted by Mies (Mies as cited in Blaser 1997, p. 245). This is the principle that this architect always advocated. One should take into consideration that at the very beginning Mies wanted the steel frame of the building to be visible (Moffett, Fazio, & Wodehouse 2003, p. 475). In other words, he wanted the viewers to see every beam within the structure. However, he could not do it due to fire safety restrictions (Moffett, Fazio, & Wodehouse 2003, p. 475). This is why he used I-beams that were bronze-toned to underline the structure of the Seagram Building (Watkin 2010, p. 649). At that time, such a decision was very innovative. Yet, in this way, he departed from the principles of the International Style according to which various elements of the building should serve both functional and aesthetic functions. Thus, one should not assume the Seagram Building can be viewed as a pure example of the International Style. This is one of the main issues that should be taken into consideration by people who study the works of this architect. Overall, the façade of the building produces a very strong impression on the viewer.

Apart from that, one should take into account that modern architecture is based on the use of the most innovative materials that can facilitate the process of construction. For example, one can mention glass-and-steel constructions that dominated the landscape of many cities (Francaviglia 1996, p. 50). This is one of its most distinctive traits. Similarly, the exterior of the Seagram Building is dominated by glass and metal frames. It should be noted that in the following years a great number of similar buildings were constructed in New York or other cities. So, the techniques of Mies van der Rohe were later adopted by other architects.

The Seagram Building represents another peculiarity of the international style. This movement emphasizes the idea that designers should try to create buildings that transcend regional and national borders (Noobanjong 2003, p. 372). This is why the word international is often used to describe this movement. Such architects as Jacobus Oud, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and many others attempted houses, pavilions, skyscrapers, or theaters that did not rely on a certain local culture or architectural tradition. In its turn, the Seagram Building is supposed to illustrate the power and efficiency of a corporation as an institution. However, a person, who looks at the photograph of this building, may not deduce in what country or city it is located. So, it can be rightly called an example of the International Style. While working on other projects, Mies van der Rohe also advocated the idea of international architecture.

Therefore, one can say that the Seagram Building adheres to the principles of architectural modernism. This construction can be regarded as a prominent example of International Style, even though Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson decided to include some non-structural elements such as bronze-toned I-beams. Its minimalism, the use of steel and glass, and the presence of rectangular forms reflect the principles of International Style. On the whole, this project has been emulated by many other architects who designed buildings for corporations or public organizations. Thus, this work was quite influential.

The Seagram Building and its relation to other architectural styles and movements

At this point, one should discuss the relations between Mies van der Rohe’s work and other architectural movements that emerged in the twentieth century. Furthermore, it is important to understand how this architectural project is related to the styles and movements that existed before the arrival of modernism and International Style. In this way, one can better understand the creative decision taken by the architect. For instance, one can speak about the connections between van der Rohe’s work and constructivist architecture that emerged in the early twentieth century (Colquhoun 2002, p. 10). It was also based on the use of pure geometric and minimalism of design (Colquhoun 2002, p. 10). To a great extent, Mies van der Rohe was affected by the principles of constructivism, especially if we consider the presence of rectangular forms in the Seagram Building. Furthermore, the techniques used by van der Rohe were in part influenced by the New Objectivity architecture (Colquhoun 2002, p. 10). The representatives of this school also emphasized the functionality of the building and the absence of superfluous decorative elements (Colquhoun 2002, p. 10).

Therefore, the Seagram Building is closely related to other movements of modern architecture. The techniques used by Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson were partly inspired by other movements of architectural modernism.

Nevertheless, the architectural work can be opposed to other contemporary movements and styles that co-existed with the International Style. First of all, one should focus on post-modernism that emerged as a response to the International Style and modern architecture (Blanning 2001, p. 270). As it has been noted before, Mies van der Rohe and other representatives of international style rejected the necessity for decorative elements (Noobanjong 2003, p. 372). These elements were deemed to be superfluous. Yet, many post-modern architects did not accept the key principles of functionalist architecture because in their opinion it was too simplistic and unsophisticated (Blanning 2001, p. 270). In their opinion, such an approach to architecture did not leave much room for creativity (Blanning 2001, p. 270). The Seagram Building may not appeal to post-modern architects, because they do not accept the purity of geometric forms and austerity of design (Blanning 2001, p. 270). Furthermore, they do not accept the idea that architects should be concerned only with the functionality or utility of the design. So, one should not suppose that modern architects always recognize the principles of the International Style and follow the techniques used by Mies van der Rohe. Some of them may not agree with the idea that urban landscapes should be dominated by glass-and-steel constructions.

Finally, it is important to discuss how modern architecture is related to previous movements such as Gothic architecture, Neo-Classicism, or Baroque. It is possible to say that the works of Mies van der Rohe are opposed to these architectural movements. The thing is that previous movements had regional or national distinctions; for instance, one can mention French Spanish or Italian Baroque. The same thing can be said about Gothic or Renaissance architectural styles that also have regional differences. In contrast, such divisions are not typical of modern architecture. Overall, Mies van der Rohe and other modern architects rejected the idea of regional, national or cultural distinctions (Noobanjong 2003, p. 372). Furthermore, previous architectural styles accepted non-structural elements that could be used only for aesthetic purposes. In contrast, the advocates of the International style believe that decorative elements can be included only if they are functional (Blaser 1997, p. 245). Therefore, one can argue that the Seagram Building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson is opposed to previous architectural movements. This project was aimed at offering an alternative to the previous movements and styles. To a great extent, this attempt was quite successful.


The works and creative decisions of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe have shaped the appearance of many modern cities. His minimalism and willingness to use structural for aesthetic purposes continue to appeal to many architects and designers. The Seagram Building is a prominent example of the International Style and modern architecture according to which functionality and austerity should be the top priorities. Overall, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson created a design that continues to inspire many other architects.


 The Façade of the Seagram Building.
Picture One. The Façade of the Seagram Building.
Bronze-toned I-beams of the Seagram Building.
Picture 2 Bronze-toned I-beams of the Seagram Building.


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