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On the Four Seasons Restaurant

The Four Seasons Restaurant, New York, NY
September 24th, 1997

It is hard to remember, given all that has happened in the world of restaurants in the last 30-some years, that there was once a time when design hardly mattered – when the idea of a well-designed restaurant meant the presence of white tablecloths, when a few fancy sconces on the wall and chandeliers and maybe a picture or two, and red velvet banquettes, let’s not forget the red velvet banquettes – meant that something serious was going on.

There were no themes, there were no ethnic cuisines, there was no Design with a Capital D. And then came Joe Baum. And he made a whole new world out of restaurants, setting in motion a series of events that still, more than 40 years later, define what the nature of restaurants is. It was Joe Baum’s contention that there could be a point of intersection between serious food and serious design, that people were willing not only to pay for good food, but that they wanted to pay for creative food, for food that was not like anything they had tasted before – and that they wanted the experience of having that food in a different sort of environment from any they had been to before. The 1950’s were a period of awakening in American culture – they were certainly a period of sleep in some ways, granted, but they marked the beginnings of a waking up – and in design this is particularly so. We began to understand modernism and watch its migration from the elite culture toward the mass culture, becoming something more broadly accepted, more completely present. The 1950’s may have been the decade of Eisenhower and I Love Lucy, but this was also the decade of Lever House and the Guggenheim Museum and, of course, the Seagram Building. A new world was in the making, a world full of postwar energy and ambition and belief that the future would be bigger and better and would belong entirely to American innovation.

It’s important here to digress for a moment and say something about the Seagram Building itself, for without it there would be no Four Seasons. This building remains one of the great monuments of New York, one of the great moments of 20th century architecture even – Mies van der Rohe’s extraordinary skyscraper, misunderstood always as a model for other buildings, but in fact a perfect and unique work of art in itself. It happened almost by accident – Sam Bronfman, head of Seagrams, told his daughter, the architect Phyllis Lambert, of his plans to build a new building on Park Avenue, and that he had hired Charles Luckman to design it. Charles Luckman was an architect who had achieved great fame as a business executive, running Lever Brothers for a while and commissioning that important and distinguished building, Lever House, across the street. His own architecture career, however, is best summed up by a project he did in the late 1960’s; surely you know it – Madison Square Garden and 2 Penn Plaza. Almost everything Charles Luckman did has had to be redone a few years later to correct the mistakes. He was better at selling soap, believe me.

Anyway, Phyllis Lambert was horrified, and cabled her father from Paris, where she was then living, and insisted that he reconsider his choice. Fathers like to indulge daughters, and so he gave Luckman the ax, and put his daughter in charge of an architect selection committee. She looked at everyone – Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others – and concluded that the architect on everyone’s mind then, the one who all other architects seemed to be thinking about and responding to, was Mies van der Rohe. So she and Seagram gave him his chance to build his first important commercial skyscraper.

This building is a glass box, but it is like few other glass boxes. Everything about it is more refined, more skillfully executed, more skillfully proportioned – the materials are rich and handsome, the organization of the lobbies elegant, and so forth and so on. The exterior is bronze, and of course the plaza was New York City’s first significant public plaza connected to an office building, and it unleashed a generation of plazas in imitation, almost none of which are remotely as appealling as this incredibly elegant, spare space out front here. Now at one point the plan was to have an automobile showroom in the lobby, at another point a bank, but no one felt that this would be the right thing for a building of this magnitude. And so the thought was – a really serious restaurant, a restaurant that would say as much for its time as the building itself did. Joe Baum and Restaurant Associates, the company that in those days owned roughly 150% of the creative energy in American restaurants, were brought in to conceptualize it, and Philip Johnson, who was Mies van der Rohe’s associate on the overall building, was given the commission to design it, along with Ada Louise and Garth Huxtable, who designed some distinguished tableware, and of course Richard Lippold, whose extraordinary sculpture is as much a part of the architecture as anything Philip Johnson did himself. It is also Richard Lippold who suggested the wonderful window coverings of metal beads, I am told – an accomplishment that runs a close second to his contribution as an artist, since these are an essential part of the architecture of this room.

This room, and the Pool Room, and the Picasso tapestry, burst into the world in an extraordinary way – I think it is impossible to underestimate their impact in 1959, when the place opened. Modern design, a new world, but one that managed here not to connote austerity, but a cool, reserved, self-assured grandeur. Remember, when the Four Seasons opened, fancy restaurants were red velvet banquettes. Wood paneling meant something fake English, with lots of contrived moldings – or maybe it meant something even worse, the Formica fake wood of coffee shops. The notion of real wood of this quality, being shaped into a modernist space, was astonishing. After all, modern design in general meant stripped down, plain and cold, to most people. All that idiocy about form following function. The Four Seasons emerged out of an entirely opposite view of modernism, the notion that modernism could, in fact, deal in emotion: it could seek to impress, even to awe, and that there were ways to do that that were different from retreating into, say, fake French chateau. This restaurant, like the building, is lush, but it is not vulgar; there is a cool sensousness to everything.

And there is, of course, monumental space – a 20-foot ceiling here – an incredible sequence of spaces, from the downstairs entry and lobby up that Miesian staircase, into the Bar Room, then ahead, perhaps up to the balcony; or left and through the travertine corridor with the Picasso to the Pool Room. In each case a magnificent architectural processional, through monumental space – the whole thing a proof that our age had not given up entirely on monumentality.

There is a kind of awe to this space, at least for me; it has been there since I first had lunch in the Bar Room, umpteen million years ago, at the table that Philip Johnson had occupied since opening week in 1959 and which he, thankfully, at 91 was healthy enough to return to last week. His presence back at his old banquette in the corner was as vivid a reminder of The Four Seasons’ landmark status as any plaque – and every bit as welcome. And it was a reminder, too, of the long history of this restaurant itself – from its triumphant beginnings under Joe Baum, to its decline when Joe Baum left Restaurant Associates, to its long period of revival under Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi, who purchased it from RA and brought it back to its position of importance, to the present, as Alex von Bidder and Julian Niccolini continue to run it as the landmark that it is.

Let me say a word, finally, about landmarks in general, and what they mean. The landmarks commission came into being in 1965, in the rush of emotion after the catastrophic loss of Pennsylvania Station, when even the most hard-hearted New Yorkers conceded that if we continued to run this city as if every single piece of architecture were merely a piece on the chess board of real-estate, we would soon not have any city left, or at least not a city we wanted to be a part of. No one wants a city frozen in time, a Williamsburg on the Hudson, but neither do we want a city with no sense of time – it is essential to feel, as we walk through the streets, that some of what we see has been there before, and will be there for our children. Architecture becomes a vehicle of common experience, a way in which the generations talk to one another. It is a force of cultural continuity, a piece of our common ground as a culture.

We continually seek a balance between change and continuity – a place that does not change at all will die, but a place that changes too much will have an existence empty of meaning. That applies to cities, to cultures, to buildings, to ourselves as individuals, I suppose, too. Now that is a lot of weight for any place to bear, particularly a restaurant, but given that the goal of the landmarks process is to preserve the best – not to give us continuity by preserving at random, say every third or fourth block, but by carefully selecting buildings or interiors or districts of special quality, that will have particular meaning in the dialogue between the generations, this one, I think, is as natural a landmark as there is. And it’s especially important to have modern landmarks, since modernism now, of course, is itself history – the great monuments of modern design, of which this is one, are now 40, 50, 60, in some cases 70 years old. We are accustomed to thinking of the more recent ones as unimportant, largely, I think, because they were built in our lifetimes, and we have a strange way of not trusting what we saw go up. Well, often enough that’s right, but not here – this is a masterpiece, by any standard. Here, as I said, did modern design achieve a kind of brilliant monumental interior that in the 1950’s it had only barely begun to figure out how to do; here, also, did the art and business of making restaurants in this country change; here, of course, have more events of historic importance to New York taken place than there is room or time to list.

And here, of course, is New York. The sophistication of these rooms – in a weird way it is rather unsophisticated to refer to anything as sophisticated, so excuse me, but it just feels right – the aura of these rooms, the swagger, the grandeur and understatement so brilliantly mixed together, the sense of cool self-assurance, the willingness to glory in the sensuous delights of architecture and food together, the idea that all of this is right here in the middle of town just off the street in the base of one of the great works of architecture of the 20th century – well, these things define New York; they remind you that the Four Seasons could not have been created anywhere else in the world. And while it has influenced dozens of other restaurants, it has never been copied directly, and it has never, thank god, chosen to clone itself. Alex and Julian are not producing Four Seasons coffee bars on every corner, or Four Seasons branches in other cities. In an age of precious little authenticity, this restaurant is unique, a thing unto itself, a thing whose very existence seems to bespeak that rare commodity of authenticity, and whose identity is as closely tied to New York as the Brooklyn Bridge.

So please join me in raising a glass to the Four Seasons and all it stands for – for New York, for great restaurants, for landmarks, for continuity, and for authenticity.

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