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Modern world loses Gunnar Birkerts (1925-2017)

September 16, 2017

Architects and devotees of Modern design worldwide are saddened at the death on August 15 of Gunnar Birkerts. He was not only an outstanding, highly innovative architect, but a person of exceptional intellectual depth and human understanding.

While many of his most prominent works are located beyond the New York/Tri-State region (Minneapolis and Duluth, MN; Houston, TX; Ann Arbor, MI; Columbus, IN; Kansas City, MO; Riga, Latvia), Birkerts designed five notable buildings in our area:

• IBM Corporate Computer Center in Sterling Forest, NY (1970-1972), a glass-and-metal-clad cubic structure in a bucolic setting, still serving IBM’s needs;
• Dance Instruction Building at the SUNY College at Purchase, NY (1971-1976), one of a few buildings on that campus to deal creatively with the constraints imposed by Edward Larrabee Barnes’s campus plan;
• Municipal Fire Station in Corning, NY (1973-1974), a purely triangular volume entirely clad in bright red metal panels;
• Addition to the Museum of Glass, Corning, NY (1976-1980), a virtuoso display of glazing, wrapped around curves that marry the geometric with the biomorphic; and
• Uris Library Addition, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY (1980-1983), one of four underground-but-daylit university library expansions he completed across the U.S.

Born in Riga, Latvia, Birkerts escaped ahead of the advancing Soviet army toward the end of World War II and studied architecture in Stuttgart. A great admirer of the Finnish-American architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen, he emigrated to the U.S. and was soon able to find a position in the Saarinen office in Bloomfield Hills, MI, where he worked with such notables as Kevin Roche, Cesar Pelli, and Robert Venturi. In many respects, Birkerts’s work faithfully embodies the Saarinen DNA: formally and technically adventurous and varying widely with circumstances. And unlike many of his Saarinen office colleagues, he practiced for most of his life in suburban Detroit.

The work that occupied many of Birkerts’s later years is the Latvian National Library in his native Riga, a commission he received in the late 1980s that was finally completed in 2014. Rising on a waterfront site as a kind of manmade mountain with a lighted peak, the structure is a vivid expression of the Latvian identity so dear to Birkerts and his family.

–John Morris Dixon

Gunnar Birkerts, Architect, Dies at 92; Gave Shape to the Unexpected,” New York Times, August 17, 2017. 

Dance Instruction Building at the SUNY College at Purchase, NY, Gunnar Birkets, 1971-76. Photos: John Morris Dixon