Gordon Bunshaft, Lever House


(piano music) – [Voiceover] 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. Lever House is really
one of the great iconic post-war international style buildings. It’s gorgeous and it’s so perfect. – [Voiceover] It was
restored several years ago by the architects who designed it, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. – [Voiceover] So they
brought back the original, well not the original
team, but they brought back the original firm. – [Voiceover] 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. – [Voiceover] It is so pristine, and it’s so much about reflectivity
and about light. What makes this building significant? – [Voiceover] Well it’s
the first glass curtain wall office building in Manhattan. – [Voiceover] 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? – [Voiceover] Can you
imagine when it was finished all of the buildings that surrounded it were faced in brick and stone. – [Voiceover] This really
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, and Merrill? – [Voiceover] 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. – [Voiceover] So that’s
really interesting. He saw firsthand the value
that really innovative architecture might have
on a company and the way that could produce a
really sort of important public face for the firm. – [Voiceover] Yeah, it
definitely about publicity. – [Voiceover] And of
course Lever, interestingly enough, made soap, didn’t they? And this building, it really just speaks of a kind of cleanliness,
and a kind of sharpness, and a kind of clarity. – [Voiceover] And 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. – [Voiceover] And so this building is this gorgeous reflective
green glass, clear glass, this steel trim.
– [Voiceover] Aluminum. – [Voiceover] Aluminum, and then there’s this beautiful marble. This is white marble that
it just amplifies the sense of modernity and of a
kind of industrial nature. It’s really 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? – [Voiceover] It’s two
forms, one horizontal and the other vertical. – [Voiceover] Right, of course
it’s actually integrated physically, but visually it really does look like two objects,
one stacked on the other, almost one floating over the other. – [Voiceover] I found them balanced against each other. – [Voiceover] So was
Gordon Bunshaft really developing these ideas
himself or were these ideas that he was borrowing,
where does this come from? – [Voiceover] 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, and that would be the ideas of the French architect, Le Corbusier, and the architect Mies van der Rohe. – [Voiceover] And both of
them were really interested in taking an industrial
culture and introducing that to what had up to that point been a fairly, you know
architecture had been fairly old-fashioned and really
historical in its view. So it’s really interesting
that we have an American then putting into practice
these European ideas. How did that work? – [Voiceover] 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. – [Voiceover] But now here in a corporate environment, right? – [Voiceover] 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,
kind of set the trend. – [Voiceover] So one
of the things that I’m really interested in about this building is this interior but still exterior space, because you know when
you look at the building from across the street
it’s the horizontal slab, it’s the vertical slab,
but you come underneath– – [Voiceover] Into the courtyard. – [Voiceover] Into the courtyard, and the whole space opens up– – [Voiceover] Yeah, but
where else in New York can you sit in the center of the space and look out in three directions into the next block? – [Voiceover] And 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. – [Voiceover] Right through. – [Voiceover] It’s fabulous. It’s almost as if the exterior is almost permeable membrane and it’s just 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. – [Voiceover] Yeah, it doesn’t feel solid, and it probably took a
little getting used to. (piano music)

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