Gordon Bunshaft was a partner in the New York office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and was an adherent of European modernism as well as one of the leaders of a generation of architects who made buildings of glass, metal, reinforced concrete, and travertine familiar in North America. At his best, he created works of highly refined proportion, efficient function, imaginative construction, and adaptation to sites that were often difficult. His later works were often bulkier and simplified in geometric form; nevertheless they include imaginative solutions to complicated problems, humane consideration for those who work in them, and dramatic boldness. His work encompassed institutional buildings such as the Beinecke Library (1963) for rare books and manuscripts at Yale University (a building he thought might potentially be his most enduring work), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974) on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and the presidential library for Lyndon Johnson in Austin, Texas (1971). Corporate headquarters built to his designs included Lever House (1952) in New York City, the Banque Lambert (1965) in Brussels, the American Can Company offices (1970) in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the National Commercial Bank (1983) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Buildings for business constituted most of the works for which he became well known, although he also designed other types of structures. These included the Venezuelan Pavilion at the World’s Fair of 1939 (held in New York City), the Istanbul Hilton Hotel (1955) in association with Sedad Eldem, a pristine cubic addition to the Albright-Knox Museum (1962) in Buffalo, New York, the Philip Morris Cigarette Manufacturing Plant (1974) in Richmond, Virginia (where garden courts alternate with work areas), the spectacular Haj Terminal at the Jeddah airport (in collaboration with the engineer, Fazlur Khan), and a one-story house for himself and his wife in Easthampton, New York.
Bunshaft was the son of immigrants from Russia and attended public schools in Buffalo, New York, before receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was there that several of the younger instructors showed him the new forms, generated in Europe by Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, among others. Bunshaft found their work inspiring, but did not execute mere copies of their works; instead, he adapted European ideas to the specific circumstances of American commissions that differed in type, materials, location, and legal constraints. With the help of a Rotch Traveling Fellowship from MIT, Bunshaft visited Europe for several months in 1935–36, and then sought work in New York City. After working briefly for Edward Durell Stone, Raymond Loewy, and other practitioners, he secured a position in 1937 with the young firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Louis Skidmore’s experience in exhibition design secured work for his firm at the World’s Fair of 1939, and the firm expanded rapidly thereafter. Bunshaft returned to the office in New York, after serving in several branches of the military (1942–46), and became a partner in the firm in 1946.
Bunshaft’s work on such varied projects as Manhattan House, a large apartment house in New York City, and the Fort Hamilton Veterans’ Administration Hospital in Brooklyn, is characterized by a taste for geometric form, siting to enhance both efficiency and amenity, refined proportion, and attention to landscaping and ground-level amenity. These characteristics reappeared at Lever House (New York), a modestly sized corporate headquarters that was the first glass box, commercial office building in the city. During the next decade, Bunshaft designed other buildings that often appeared delicate despite their substantial size, including the glass-walled branch bank for the Manufacturers’ Trust Company in Manhattan, the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (1957) in Bloomfield, Connecticut, and the Reynolds Metals Company headquarters (1958) in Richmond, Virginia, where the company’s aluminum formed a substantial part of the exterior surface.
During the 1960s, Bunshaft’s style included attention to dramatic structure, with large boxlike buildings supported on small pin joints; the Beinecke Library is one example of the style, and another is the American Republic Life Insurance Company headquarters (1965) in Des Moines, Iowa. At this time, he used concrete more often than glass and metal, but continued his intense interest in designing the thinnest possible metal and glass curtain walls, as he used at 140 Broadway (1967) in New York City.
The taste for dramatic buildings continued into the 1970s, with sometimes-clumsy results, as in the Hirshhorn Museum. The museum is a doughnut-shaped building that attempted to mediate between the disparate shapes of neighboring museums. By contrast, praise abounded for his National Commercial Bank (Jeddah) where he ingeniously placed multistory openings on a prismatic, largely blank building, allowing partly cooled air to help ventilate the office tower in a hot, dry climate. The Tefloncovered tents at the terminal in Jeddah for the pilgrims to the annual Haj, earned universal admiration, providing as they do, an elegant, airy solution to climatic and social problems.
and engineers. His architectural colleagues included William S.Brown, J.Walter Severinghaus, Natalie de Blois, and Sherwood A.Smith. A practical person who was interested in specific situations rather than in theory, Bunshaft was a man of great energy, a decisive decision-maker with a habit of blunt speech, and a man of fundamental honesty.
His interests in landscaping and in the placement of works of modern art inside and outside the firm’s buildings are lesserknown aspects of his work, but they were essential to his idea of good architecture. He favored the sculpture of Henry Moore, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, and Isamu Noguchi, whose works were in the private collection that he and his wife willed to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His collection included paintings by Miró and Jean Dubuffet and modest examples of African sculpture.
His building designs earned him 12 First Honor awards from the American Institute of Architects, the Gold Medal of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Pritzker Prize, which he shared with Oscar Niemeyer.
CAROL HERSELLE KRINSKY
9 May 1909 Born in Buffalo, New York, USA;
1933 Earned bachelor’s degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology;
1935 master’s degree in architecture, both at Massachusetts Institute of Technology;
1935–37 toured Europe and northern Africa on a Rotch Traveling Fellowship ;
1937–42 Chief designer, New York office Skidmore and Owings, later Skidmore, Owings and Merrill;
1940–42 Visiting critic, Massachusetts Institute of Technology ;
1942–46 served in United States Army Corps of Engineers ;
1943 Married Nina Elizabeth Wayler ;
1946–83 partner Skidmore, Owings and Merrill ;
1954–60 visiting critic, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts ;
1959– 62 visiting critic, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut ;
1962 Fellow, American Institute of Architects; fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; academician, National Academy of Design; honorary member, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, New York ;
1963–72 member, the President’s Commission on the Fine Arts ;
from 1975 trustee, Museum of Modern Art, New York ;
from 1977 trustee, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ;
1977 honorary professor, Universidad Nacional Federico Villareal, Lima, Peru ;
1988 awarded Pritzker Prize (shared with Oscar Niemeyer) ;
6 August 1990 Died in New York, USA.
Bush-Brown, Albert, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill: Architecture and Urbanism, 1973–1983, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983
Danz, Ernst, Architecture of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1950 –1962, translated by Ernst van Haagen, New York: Praeger, and London: Architectural Press, 1962
Krinsky, Carol Herselle, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, New York: Architectural History Foundation, and Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1988
Menges, Axel, Architecture of Skidmore, Owin gs and Merrill 1963 –1973, translated by E.Rockwell, New York: Architectural Book, and London: Architectural Press, 1974