In 1958, the same year that the architecture and urban planning firm of Voorhees Walker Smith & Smith submitted its new zoning proposal to the New York City Planning Commission, the Seagram Building on Park Avenue was completed to the designs of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Voorhees proposal, which was the basis for the 1961 Zoning Resolution, cited the Seagram Building as a model for its radical new approach to massing and site planning. Instead of maximizing the building footprint by extending it to the edges of the lot, Mies had opted for a slender tower set back from the street on a landscaped plaza. By preserving this open space at ground level, the Seagram Building broke with the dominant typology of the bulky step-back buildings that line Park Avenue in an unbroken street wall. Its site plan addressed the perception that the streets and sidewalks of the 1811 grid had not provided the city with sufficient open space.
Although the reduced footprint of the Seagram Building meant a loss of floor area—some of which was compensated by the lower buildings to the east of the tower—the overall effect was immediately appreciated as a masterpiece of urban design. It was partly in response to this project that the 1961 Zoning Resolution offered height bonuses to buildings that incorporated open spaces at the ground level. The set-back plazas that were built as a result reduced the city’s density and changed a fundamental characteristic of the grid’s three-dimensional realization. CY