Gordon Bunshaft

The American architect Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990) as chief designer for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York designed major buildings from skyscrapers to museums. Bunshaft shared the esteemed Pritzker Architecture Prize with fellow architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1988.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Gordon Bunshaft was born May 9, 1909, and raised in Buffalo, New York. He was determined to become an architect from childhood and eventually earned a B.Arch. (1933) and M.Arch. (1935) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This education was followed by a study tour of Europe on a Rotch Traveling Fellowship (1935-1937). In 1937, after working briefly for the architect Edward Durell Stone and the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, Bunshaft entered the New York City office of Louis Skidmore. Skidmore had formed an architectural firm with Nathaniel Owings in 1936, which John O. Merrill joined in 1939 to form Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Other than serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1942 and 1946, Bunshaft remained with SOM until his retirement in 1979. By the late 1940s he was a partner and chief designer in the New York office.

As a member of the large architectural firm of SOM, Bunshaft's designs benefited from SOM's extensive staff of experts in all areas of the art and business of architecture. Because of SOM's emphasis on teamwork, and the fact that his name was not a part of the firm's name, Bunshaft was perhaps not as well known as many of the other major architects of the post-1945 period. Nonetheless, several of his designs have become landmarks in the history of architecture. He preferred to express his ideas primarily through building, rather than writing or speaking.

Bunshaft's most significant early design was Lever House (1951-1952) on Park Avenue in New York. Breaking from the ziggurat-like masses of the previous generation of New York skyscrapers, Bunshaft's tower was a seemingly weightless glass box. Bunshaft juxtaposed a low, horizontal block, raised on pilotis (stilt-like supports), with a slablike, vertical tower, which covered only 25 percent of the site. The pilotis, roof garden on the lower block, and dramatic sculptural quality of these pristine geometric forms were reminiscent of the architecture of Le Corbusier, whom Bunshaft had met in Paris during World War II. However, the use of large areas of glass, metal frames, and a meticulous concern for precise details were closer to another master of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose masterpiece—the Seagram Building—would rise across the intersection from Lever House later in the 1950s. In its emphasis of volume over mass, regularity over symmetry, and the elimination of ornament, Lever House was one of the central links in transforming the radical International Style of the 1920s and 1930s into the dominant architectural expression for American corporations during the 1950s and 1960s. For the soap company of Lever Brothers, this perpetually shining tower of blue/green glass with stainless steel frames seemed an appropriate symbol for the cleaning properties of their products.

The era of the "glass box" skyscraper, which Lever House helped to foster, was often criticized for its redundancy and lack of originality. However, in the hands of Bunshaft this minimal approach to skyscraper design often became a high art form, such as his simple and elegant composition for the Pepsi-Cola Company (1958-1959) in New York. In the design for the Chase Manhattan Bank and Plaza (1957-1961) in New York, Bunshaft showed finesse in housing diverse functions within the clarity and order of a single rectangular block of steel and glass rising up 60 stories. On the much smaller scale of a branch bank for the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company (1953-1954), New York, Bunshaft reversed traditional notions of a bank's appearance by enclosing it with glass curtain walls. Rather than stressing impregnable solidity, this bank suggested accessibility to the public, and security was provided for the vault by having it on view for all to see, behind plate glass at the sidewalk level.

Along with defining the architectural character of corporate America in cities, Bunshaft built several significant designs for corporate headquarters in suburban and rural areas. Rather than rising vertically, these modern buildings spread out horizontally across arcadian settings in a palace-like manner, such as the two examples in Bloomfield, Connecticut: the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters (1954-1957) and the Emhard Manufacturing Company Administration and Research Building (1963).

Bunshaft was an avid collector of modern art and often worked with artists to bring sculptures into a correspondence with buildings. An excellent example of such a collaboration was the placement of Isamu Noguchi's red Cube on one of its corners in front of SOM's somberly rational Marine Midland Bank (1967) in New York.

Bunshaft's interest in sculpture was further suggested in the monumental character of many of his designs for institutions. The exhibition hall for his Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (1960-1963) at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, was a large, elevated block whose one and one-fourth inch thick, translucent marble walls (held in place by granite encased Vierendeel steel trusses) allowed a mysteriously soft light to penetrate the majestically scaled room within. Bunshaft further explored the bold and dramatic use of singular monumental forms in his formalist temple, with Egyptian-like sloping walls, for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library (1968-1971) at the University of Texas, Austin, and the cylindrical, bunker-like Hirshhorn Museum (1974) in Washington, D.C.

Before his retirement in 1979, Bunshaft helped other SOM partners design the Haj Terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport (1975-1982) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The most striking feature of this design was an extensive open area covered by conical fiberglass tents supported by cables from steel pylons to provide temporary shelter for Moslem pilgrims. Bunshaft also designed for Jeddah a National Commercial Bank in 1977. In response to the strong desert heat and sunshine, this skyscraper, triangular in plan, turned inward to large courts, which were expressed on the exterior with monumental openings, a creative reinterpretation of the skyscraper for a foreign climate.

Along with Bunshaft's activities as an architect, he was a visiting critic at MIT, Harvard, and Yale, a member of the President's Commission on the Fine Arts, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, and a trustee of Carnegie-Mellon University. He also received numerous awards, including the 1984 Gold Medal of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1988 he and fellow architect Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil shared the highly prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. Bunshaft died in the summer of 1990 at the age of 81.

Further Reading on Gordon Bunshaft

The best single source on Bunshaft is David Jacobs, "The Establishment's Architect-Plus," New York Times Magazine (July 23, 1972). His buildings are illustrated and discussed in Henry Russell Hitchcock (introduction to) and Ernst Danz (author), Architecture of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1950-1962 (1962); Christopher Woodward, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (1970); Arthur Drexler (introduction to) and Axel Menges (commentaries by), in Architecture of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1963-1973 (1974); and Albert Bush-Brown, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: Architecture and Urbanism, 1973-1983 (1983). Two books with limited but interesting discussions of Bunshaft are Cranston Jones, Architecture Today and Tomorrow (1961) and Nathaniel Alexander Owings, The Spaces In Between: An Architect's Journey (1973). Also see Time, May 30, 1988; August 20, 1990.