Reflection of Racquet and Tennis Club in lobby enclosure, April 2000.  Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. © Richard Pare.

NEW YORK - It’s not very often that a 27-year-old is given a chance to commission a building, much less a building that goes on to become a Modernist landmark. But that’s the story told in Phyllis Lambert's Building Seagram (Yale, $65) by Phyllis Lambert, just published this week. Even if your coffee table isn’t as clean-lined and elegant as the Seagram Building, you’re going to want this book on there.


Lambert’s father was Samuel Bronfman, the founder of Seagram’s, so that explains how she, as a young artist living in Paris, was given the momentous task of finding someone to design the HQ for the family company—but not all young women would have been up to the task.

Lambert, now an architect and the founding director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, took on the job with gusto, writing to her father in 1954 a memorable “Dearest Daddy” letter, visible in the book’s appendix, that swept away any of his architectural notions with a firm and daughterly “NO NO NO NO NO.” Basically she got her way—though dad’s preference for building not on “stilts,” á la Lever House, was observed.

Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert in front of an image of the model for the Seagram building, New York, 1955. PHOTO: PHYLLIS LAMBERT, CANADIAN CENTRE FOR ARCHITECTURE, MONTREAL. © UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL.

The young architectural buff quickly narrowed down the choice to Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe—not a bad either/ or - though Frank Lloyd Wright was also discussed. Anyone who walks on Park Avenue today past the supremely elegant Seagram Building, completed in 1958, knows that the story ended happily, with the selection of van der Rohe. But that only heightens the pleasure of delving into the details provided by this excellent book.