Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Happy Birthday Gordon Bunshaft!

New York, NY Lever House (1952). Photo: David Shankbone (Wikipedia)
New York, NY. Manufacturers Hanover Trust Branch Bank (1953). Photo: Ezra Stoller.
New York, NY. Pepsi-Cola Building (1960). Photo: Ezra Stoller.
New York, NY. Chase Manhattan Bank (1961). Photo: Ezra Stoller. 
Happy Birthday Gordon Bunshaft!
by Samuel D. Gruber
Today is the birthday of famed American-Jewish architect Gordon Bunshaft (May 9, 1909 – August 6, 1990), one of the leading lights of American modern architecture in the decades after World War II. Bunshaft, who worked as a designer at the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for forty-two years helped shape two pivotal periods of American modernism.

First, his work of the early 1950s at Lever House, Manufacturer's Hanover Trust Bank, and Chase Manhattan Bank (1961) set the tone for the precise rational grid of the corporate style. Influence by Mies, Bunshaft’s design were immaculate in their precision – something few other imitative architects ever achieved. In the 60’ he changed his style and his material to meet the times, and re-invented his work, demonstrating amazing design facility in concrete. In addition to corporate work, his projects were architectural monuments – the Beinicke Library at Yale (1963), the LBJ Library in Austin (1971), and the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. (1974).

Best read is this essay by architectural historian Nicolas Adam:
"Few architects have had a more fortuitous entrance into the profession than Gordon Bunshaft (1909–1990): education, travel, employment before World War II. He returned from the war to a job with a firm that had thrived in his absence, proving itself in large construction projects for the government. He designed for a society keen for his vision and with a pair of bosses willing to allow him the freedom to design to his own exacting standards. Is the rest just history, or was the career of Gordon Bunshaft a model for how a person can adapt over time, demonstrating different modes of leadership in new situations?" Read more here:
New Haven, CT. Beinecke Library, Yale University (1963). Photo: Ezra Stoller
Bunshaft was also fortunate to have his buildings photographed by the ace architectural photographer Ezra Stoller (also Jewish, from Brooklyn). These images are now iconic - even when the actual look of the buildings and their environments was never so neat and clean, and now certainly is not. Stoller loved Bunshaft's geometries, and his perfect details.

Bunshaft was one of a large cohort of young Jewish architects and designers who came of age before World War II and helped shape the course of American design in the years immediately afterward. He was born in Buffalo, New York, to Russian-Jewish immigrants Yetta and David Bunshaft. where from an early age he determined to study architecture at MIT, which he did from 1928-1935. More than Harvard, MIT was more accepting of Jews. Arnold Brunner had attended there in one of the very first classes (1877--79), as did New York architect Alfred S. Gottleib (1870-1942). A little later Boston architect Isador Richmond (1893 - 19??) studied there as, in the 1920s, did his younger colleague Carney Goldberg (1907-1981). Both Richmond and Goldberg earned the prestigious Roche Traveling Scholarship, as did Bunshaft. Other Jews who studied architecture there were a prominent Jewish Buffalo architect, Louis Greenstein (1886-1972); and Leon Hyzen who received in M.Arch from MIT in 1936, and who would befriend Bunshaft. 

Bunshaft was not a practicing Jew, and except for a project for a new Jewish Theological Seminary in New York of the late 1960s, he is not known to have engaged in any project for a Jewish religious community or secular institution. In this he was very different from many of his Jewish contemporary modernists such as Erich Mendelsohn, Fritz Nathan, Marcel Breuer, Louis Kahn, Percival Goodman, Sigmund Braverman, and many others. Even many of his gentile mentors and rivals - Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Max Abramowitz, Minoru Yamasaki, and Pietro Belluschi designed synagogues - but not Bunshaft!  in his early years at SOM he was the consummate corporate designer. But in his later years a synagogue would not have been outside his extraordinary skill set.

Austin, TX. Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (1971). Photo: Wikipedia.
New York, NY Manhattan House Apartments(1952). This was designed by Bunshaft, and it is where he and his wife lived. Photo: Ezra Stoller
Dusseldorf, Gemrany. U.S. Consulate (1954). Photo: Wikipedia.
Bunshaft was a worker - not a talker. He was notoriously abrupt and gruff, and he was hard to know as a person.  The most thorough account of his life is Carol Herselle Krinsky's Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (Architectural History Foundation & MIT Press, 1988). But even though Krinsky worked with Bunshaft to compile this book, it is almost entirely about the work, not the man. Architectural historian Adams is preparing a monograph on Bunshaft, too. But in the end, it is the work that speaks.

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