Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Lever House

Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Lever House, 1951-52, 390 Park Avenue, New York City

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] This is Steven Zucker. I’m with Matthew Postal, who’s an architectural historian, and we’re looking at Lever House. We’re on Park Avenue and 53rd Street in New York City.

[0:15] Lever House is really one of the great iconic, postwar International Style buildings. It’s gorgeous. It’s so perfect.

Dr. Matthew A. Postal: [0:22] It was restored several years ago by the architects who designed it, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Dr. Zucker: [0:27] They brought back the original — well, not the original team — but they brought back the original firm.

Dr. Postal: [0:30] Yeah. The chief designer, Gordon Bunshaft, had passed away, but they had the original blueprints and they could get it back to where it was.

Dr. Zucker: [0:39] It’s so pristine. It’s so much about reflectivity and about light. What makes this building significant?

Dr. Postal: [0:45] Well, it’s the first glass curtain wall office building in Manhattan.

Dr. Zucker: [0:49] This building is now completely inundated by much larger buildings that are also glass and steel, but what did this look like originally in 1952 when it was finished?

Dr. Postal: [0:58] Can you imagine, when it was finished, all of the buildings that surrounded it were faced in brick and stone.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] This must have stood out. It must have been incredibly radical. How is it that a corporation could have been that brave to do something so extraordinary, not to mention Skidmore, Owings & Merrill?

Dr. Postal: [1:13] I think a lot of it has to do with the patron. One of the chief officers at Lever was a man named Charles Luckman. Not only had Luckman trained as an architect but he had been at Johnson Wax when they worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on their signature headquarters.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] That’s really interesting. He saw firsthand the value that innovative architecture might have on a company and the way that could produce a really important public face for the firm.

Dr. Postal: [1:37] Yeah, definitely about publicity.

Dr. Zucker: [1:38] Of course, Lever, interestingly enough, made soap, didn’t they, in this building? It just speaks of a kind of cleanliness, and a kind of sharpness, and a kind of clarity.

Dr. Postal: [1:47] That feeling would have been even stronger when it was completed because the limestone and brick buildings that surrounded it would have been 30 or 40 years old at that time and they probably would have needed a good cleaning.

Dr. Zucker: [1:58] This building is this gorgeous reflective green glass, clear glass, this steel trim…

Dr. Postal: [2:04] Aluminum.

Dr. Zucker: [2:04] …aluminum, and then there’s this beautiful marble, this white marble, that it just amplifies the sense of modernity and of industrial nature. It’s very strict in its geometry, in the way in which it’s balanced. The building’s really made up of two buildings, isn’t it?

Dr. Postal: [2:23] It’s two forms. One horizontal and the other vertical.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] Right, of course, it’s actually integrated physically, but visually, it does look like two objects, one stacked on the other. Almost one floating over the other.

Dr. Postal: [2:34] I found them balanced against each other.

Dr. Zucker: [2:37] Was Gordon Bunshaft really developing these ideas himself or were these ideas that he was borrowing? Where does this come from?

Dr. Postal: [2:43] It’s in the air. When I look at this building, rather than pointing at one source, I’d rather point to two different sources. That would be the ideas of the French architect Le Corbusier and the architect Mies van der Rohe.

Dr. Zucker: [2:57] Both of them were really interested in taking an industrial culture and introducing that to what had up to that point been a fairly…architecture had been fairly old-fashioned and really historical in its view. It’s really interesting that we have an American putting into practice these European ideas. How did that work?

Dr. Postal: [3:14] The Great Depression of the ’30s, the Second World War. We were one of the few places where one could attempt to put those ideas into place.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] But now here in a corporate environment, right?

Dr. Postal: [3:25] They had used these ideas at the United Nations a year or two earlier, but this is the first time that [an] American corporation embraces these ideas, set the trend.

Dr. Zucker: [3:35] One of the things that I’m really interested in about this building is this interior but still exterior space. When you look at the building from across the street, it’s the horizontal slab, it’s the vertical slab, but you come underneath…

Dr. Postal: [3:48] Into the courtyard.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] …into the courtyard, and the whole space opens up.

Dr. Postal: [3:51] Where else in New York can you sit in the center of the space and look out in three directions into the next block?

Dr. Zucker: [3:58] The whole building feels open in that way. When you look through the vertical slab, for instance, especially the corners, you can see in one pane of glass and then out the other.

Dr. Postal: [4:08] Right through.

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] It’s fabulous. It’s almost as if the exterior is almost permeable membrane and it’s simply holding in the heat. It’s just holding out the rain. It’s so different from the way that architecture traditionally had been constructed and the way that a building usually felt.

Dr. Postal: [4:24] It doesn’t feel solid and it probably took a little getting used to.

[4:28] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Matthew A. Postal and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Lever House," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/gordon-bunshaft-for-skidmore-owings-and-merrill-lever-house/.