Lever House, the Not for Nothing Trendsetter

By | June 19, 2014

With all due respect to the other 14 specimens of modernist architecture on Ada Louise Huxtable’s Park Avenue tour, none of them outshines Lever House, designed in 1952 by architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). In “Park Avenue School of Architecture,” Huxtable praises Lever House as a pacesetter of the new curtain wall construction, a post-World War II technique that involves applying a thin skin, such as glass, to a steel frame. She concludes that SOM met its responsibilities by realizing the promise of the new construction. Bunshaft addresses the subject that same year in Architectural Review, “To a much greater degree than any other country, the United States is a steel and production-line economy. It follows logically that its architecture has become industrialized; the basic materials in which it works—steel, aluminum, glass, plastics—all come from the production line.… It is to SOM’s credit that we have taken prefabrication and made a design asset of it.”

Andres Lepik in Skyscrapers attributes additional trendsetting to Lever House. It was the first skyscraper to be fully air-conditioned and a special window-washing cabin, now standard in the industry, was invented to clean the sealed glass façade. The device was designed to be lowered from the roof and glide on tracks behind the parapet. In addition, Lever House was the first New York building to take advantage of a zoning provision that allowed a building to rise with no setbacks. Bunshaft explains in a 1989 interview, “The first thing you do on a site is find out the zoning limitations, the air space you can’t intrude on, and how big a building you could build on that site. The tower allowance in those days meant that you could go up only 85 feet on the side streets. On an avenue, you could go up to the equivalent of about ten or twelve floors, and then set back. If you wanted a tower above that, it could only be 25 percent of the site. Lever was the first really contemporary building,” adds Bunshaft, “the first major one.”

Huxtable credits a building as being only as good as its designer, or artist-architect, and acknowledges that a building’s success is also dependent upon an enlightened or open-minded client. “Hiring an architect,” says Bunshaft, “is like getting married for four years without sex.… It’s a close relationship. When the chemistry works between people, it’s a marvelous experience.” Charles Luckman, head of the Lever Company at the time, hired SOM to design what he referred to as a “distinguished office building for a thousand people.” Bunshaft says, “They were not interested in making bucks out of stores or renting extra space.… Luckman wanted a building to identify Lever.” A building, Lepik adds, that would “project an innovative and ‘clean’ image” for the detergent company.

“We wanted to build a glass building,” explains Bunshaft. “We wanted to be as avant-garde as possible.…we wanted something new, so we put it on stilts. Now, the location of the tower from left to right, as you face it from Park Avenue, is set by the zoning. We couldn’t have moved it farther north aesthetically because of the envelope. We could have moved it maybe to the middle, but we wanted to have asymmetry.”

“We showed Luckman the model and he liked it,” said Bunshaft.

Prior to the next meeting, Louis Skidmore told Bunshaft, “You’ll never get away without stores. It’s crazy.”

Bunshaft said, “Well, it’s the whole goddamn design.”

“You’ve got to put in stores,” said Skidmore. So Bunshaft put them in.

When Luckman came back a few days later, he said, “What happened to it? What’s that stuff in the bottom, Skidmore?”

“Stores,” replied Skidmore, “You’ve got to have them.”

Luckman said, “You’ve ruined the whole design.”

If Luckman had gone along with the stores, Bunschaft said, “the building would have been nothing.”

But it is something, something special. After 61 years the building is still youthful, and still unique. Instead of ubiquitous stores on the ground level, open space invites pedestrians to linger on geometric marble benches designed by Isamu Noguchi, wander in the rock garden, view public art, or cut a corner in the rush to be somewhere. Its transparent green and opaque blue glassy facade is elegant and refreshing in stark contrast to the dense brick and stone cladding of some of its more mature neighbors or less-than-stunning contemporaries. The spatial illusion created by the asymmetrical balance and the bold shift in scale between the 18-story vertical office tower and the horizontal second floor, which spans the entire lot and floats on stainless-steel-wrapped pilotis, is spectacular and unlike anything else in the area. Lever House is not nothing.


Blum, Betty J. “Interview with Gordon Bunshaft,” edited by Detlef Mertins. https://www.som.com/publication/gordon-bunshaft-interview

Dupre, Judith. Skyscrapers, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 1956. pp 44–45.

Hitchcock, Henry Russell. Introduction, Architecture of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: A Five-Volume Monograph, 1950–1962, Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., Publisher, 1962.

Huxtable, Ada Louise. “Park Avenue School of Architecture,” The New York Times, December 15, 1957.

Huxtable, Ada Louise. The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style, Pantheon Books, New York, 1984.

Huxtable, Ada Louise. Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City, Municipal Art Society and Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961.

Lepik, Andres. Skyscrapers, Prestel, 2008, pp 4–16, 65.

Mertins, Detlef. “Interview with Natalie de Blois,” originally published in SOM Journal 4, Hatje Cantz, Publisher. https://www.som.com/publication/natalie-de-blois-interviewed-detlef-mertins

Nordenson, Guy and Riley, Terence. Tall Buildings, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2003. Pp 11–31.

Overy, Paul. De Stijl, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1991.








http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Stijl – cite_note-4


Photos by Susan Merritt

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