Analysis of privately owned public space in

‘the Seagram building through the lens of Lewis Mumford


Sustainable Design Paper (Individual)

Spring 2017, Course: Society, Nature, and Technology

Professor Dr. Steven Moore, The University of Texas at Austin



Lewis Mumford's view of the ‘good life’ assumes that we need to seek values toward an organic rather than mechanical view of things in technology and in the sciences and humanities as well. Where organic functions, relationships and development are expressed in artifacts and ways of life, conditions are right for healthy, meaningful societies and individual lives. He argued that an ascendancy of mechanistic values shows life-denying tendencies. Lewis Mumford did not criticize technology with negative way, but he remained confident that if properly controlled and directed, technology could support rather than erode human values.

We are currently familiar with public spaces near buildings and the built environment is needed to make more greenery spaces in compact cities. Today, when many architects design a building in downtown which is built for private or public usage, they should consider not only predicted occupants but also the public who are passerby. An architect has to meet numerous required building codes for getting a permission or sustainability, because just one building influence not merely a built environment but nature.

I recognize that these alterations are related to Lewis Mumford’s notion; all aspects that can be observed, abstracted, measured are part of even organisms.[1] Furthermore, the trend that people focus on well-being and ecological design is specifically linked to Mumford’s idea; machines are just counterfeits of living organisms and the architect and community planner need to return from artificial and mechanical thinking to organic ideology for human.[2] Because we (like architects and planners) have started to consider just one building as an organism that could affect to surroundings and the built environment.


[1] Lewis Mumford, The myth of the machine: the pentagon of power (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970), 352.
[2] Lewis Mumford, “Technical Syncretism and Toward an Organic Ideology.” In, Rethinking Technology. (London: Routledge, 2007 [1934]), 59.


The Seagram building’s Plaza in New York and Nature

The Seagram Building is representative modernism style skyscraper in New York, which was designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1958. The Seagram Building, an international style architecture, is renowned for its structure and façade system, however, I have focused on its Plaza which is located in front of the tower. Mies van de Rohe’s response to the city with the Seagram Building was the grand gesture of setting back the building 100 feet from the street edge, which created a highly active open plaza. The plaza attracts users with its two large fountains surrounded by outdoor seating. By making this change, Mies’ idea was different from New York urban morphology, lot line development, and the conventional economics of skyscraper construction at that time.

The Seagram Building ground level plan drawing, Mies van der Rohe, 1958.

The Seagram Building ground level plan drawing, Mies van der Rohe, 1958.

The Seagram building plaza panorama, looking south from the first setback of 399 Park Avenue, 2010. [Photo © Richard Pare, courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal]

The Seagram building plaza panorama, looking south from the first setback of 399 Park Avenue, 2010. [Photo © Richard Pare, courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal]


The created urban open space in front of the building became a very popular gathering place. After the Seagram Building was built, in 1961, New York City revised Zoning Resolution, which offered incentives for developers to install ‘privately owned public spaces’ for the public.[3] The plaza space which is setback from the city grid, became a prototype and a model for many buildings erected in its surroundings and in globe.

Through the lens of Lewis Mumford, the plaza is able to receive a favorable evaluation for being more ecologically friendly in society and nature. New Yorkers use the plaza as a public space highly praising its qualities. In a New Yorker review of September 1958 entitled “Lesson of the Master,” Lewis Mumford illustrated that the plaza set back from Park Avenue helps visibility and approachability and also gives a satisfaction and quality of the space.[4] The Seagram Building has been a role of an architectural ornament in the city and also provided the city with a small pleasant square of open space which every lunch hour in good weather is crowded with New Yorkers.

Before the Seagram Building completion, most buildings, especially towers were used to being met with actual site compactly. Rather than making an open space in front, many developers and owners tended to prefer making more space privately and economically. However, with Mumford’s view, I think this gesture focusing on void space is important for us to live in urban area, because it enables to provide accessible, open space and make a place to breathe and rest. Especially, downtown in megacities such as New York, Tokyo, and Seoul needs to have more void, green, and public spaces rather than just rapid developing with compact buildings. I have figured out the Plaza has relationships between people and social, cultural, natural environments, through Mumford’s argument about emphasis on inter-relationship and integration.


[3] “Privately owned public space,” last modified September 6, 2016, accessed March 27, 2017,

[4] Lewis Mumford, “The Lesson of the Master,” New Yorker, September 13, 1958, 147


Architectural method for sustainability

I think the Seagram Building plan idea has been influencing to life-enhancing concept to numerous people and society. The action of designing one building has been considered as one organism which is related to urban design and life style. This strategy and pattern can be also found in Teheran-ro street (developed from 1972) in Seoul. Because Building Law and Planning Law appeared, which recommends the privately owned public space in design process, all of the buildings facing to the street should produce an open space. It is an effective way to provide pedestrian activity diversely and also convert the city into walkable and ecological place. Furthermore, the public space can be used as an urban art exhibition, performing space, and also community area.

I start to think that U.S. cities can be changed into a walkable city through Mumford’s idea. A masterplan for human rather than vehicles, it makes a city to breathe and also contributes to life-enhancing strategies for human and nature.




Lambert, Phyllis. “Seagram: Union of Building and Landscape.” Places Journal. April 2013. Accessed 29 Mar 2017.

Molella, Arthur P. 1988. Inventing the history of invention: Three big thinkers who placed technology at the heart of history. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 8 (3): 279-86.

Mumford, Lewis. 1970. The myth of the machine: The pentagon of power. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Mumford, Lewis. 1958. “The Lesson of the Master.” New Yorker. September 13.

Mumford, Lewis. 2007. “Technical Syncretism and Toward an Organic Ideology.” In, Rethinking Technology. London: Routledge [1934].

Perez, Adelyn. "AD Classics: Seagram Building / Mies van der Rohe" May 10, 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed Mar 29, 2017.

Stunkel, Kenneth. 1999. Lewis Mumford's idea of community in an urban world. Urban History 26 (2): 249-56.

Wikipedia. “Privately owned public space,” last modified September 6, 2016, accessed March 27, 2017,

Wikipedia. “Seagram Building,” last modified March 22, 2017, accessed March 29, 2017,



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