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Latvian National Library, completed in 2014

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Gunnar Birkerts, postwar modernist, dies at 92

The Latvian-American architect’s legacy is more relevant than ever

“The School That Will Vanish,” reads the headline on Architectural Forum’s November 1967 story on Gunnar Birkerts’ Lincoln Elementary School in Columbus, Indiana. Birkerts had first worked in Columbus, that hotbed of postwar modernism, in the early 1950s, as project architect on Eero Saarinen & Associates’ Irwin Union Trust building.

Harry Weese, John Carl Warnecke, The Architects Collaborative and Edward Larrabee Barnes had all designed schools in the intervening decade but, unlike its six predecessors, Lincoln was set on an urban site, just down the street from Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church and the under-construction main library by I.M. Pei.

“They thought they didn’t need another star architect to build another one of those things,” Birkerts told me in an interview last year. “They thought they were losing part of the community. I had a good solution to that problem: first of all, the school occupies the smallest area that you could have, a square, and the rest returns to the town as a park.”

Gunnar Birkerts
Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

Birkerts died this week, at 92, but his work has never seemed more relevant. I cited his underground addition to William Pereira’s Geisel Library in San Diego as a possible precedent for an Albright-Knox extension; when I defined Late Modernism as “beefy bold shapes, wrapped in singular materials, sticking their sharp corners in our faces,” (and as worth preserving) I was thinking of him. Birkerts’s best work combines Louis Kahn’s new monumentality with a judicious amount of flash, an ease with metaphor, and an embrace of engineering.

Birkerts loved geometry, the simpler the better, so around the square brick school, he created a sunken circular garden. Around the circular garden, he planted a ring of linden trees. The top of the two-story school would reach no higher than the trees, and the trees were no higher than the roofs of the neighborhood’s houses. For a modernist trained Bauhaus-style at the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart, Germany, and who then worked in the offices of both Saarinen and Minoru Yamasaki, context was scale, context was material, and context was form. From above, Lincoln could be a Bauhaus brooch.

From the sidewalk, the broad steps leading to the school’s second-floor entrance can look a bit forbidding, but inside, all is light. Daylit classrooms are arranged around the building’s perimeter, on two levels, and circulation is handled by a rectangular hallway which gives access to the classrooms as well as the central, double-height multipurpose space, topped with a peaked roof and faced in golden birch panels. To bring light to the center of the square, the upper hallway doesn’t touch the walls of the multipurpose room: a rectangular rooftop skylight sends shafts of light through the school, illuminating the wooden ark.

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It’s a grand, poetic gesture, hidden inside a seemingly prosaic wrapper. Birkerts would come to be known for bigger things: the giant catenary bridge of Minneapolis’s former Federal Reserve Bank (1973), the mountain peak of his Latvian National Library, finally completed in 2014, but this modest project, early in his independent architectural career, demonstrates the surprise that makes his work special: massive form, manipulated light, Nordic (or rather, Baltic) warmth. The children who went to Lincoln knew its secret and they, after all, were his clients.

Birkerts’s Calvary Baptist Church in Detroit, where he practiced for 50 years, offers a different version of surprise. On a site next to Frederick Law Olmsted’s historic Elmwood Cemetery, the church rises like a great orange sail, faced in ribbed metal, with a zig-zag window cut from peak to base. The light from this narrow window illuminates the whole sanctuary, thanks to the three-part mirrored ceiling within. The congregation is multiplied, seeing itself, and seeing the whole of the church interior, including the linear, turquoise baptismal font that runs behind the pulpit. Birkerts said that the mirror was “reflecting the congregation so that they felt they were sitting on both sides of the Jordan River.” From the outside the church might be an oddly-shaped barn; on the inside it’s a celebration of people.

The outsides don’t seem to matter much. Birkerts’s 2009 monograph includes a section titled “the underground and overground buildings.” Lincoln and Calvary could, in a sense, be underground, since their most powerful lighting comes from above.

In other cases, as at his curvaceous Corning Museum of Glass (1980), or even the suspended rectangle of the Federal Reserve Bank, the outside is mirrored. For Corning, Birkerts became a link in a chain of architects using the museum’s material in metaphorical ways. His museum plan looks molten, but is hardly deconstructivist: it’s a grid, divided into bays by quarter-circles, half-rounds, and a few straight lines. The modernist never abandoned the system, even as he willed himself toward more expressive structure and more liberal use of shiny things.

In Minneapolis, the bridge structure allowed him to lift the bank above what was for decades an open plaza—an early example of designing for security and enhancing the public realm. “On the one hand it wanted to be opaque and protected and on the other it wanted to be transparent and communicative,” he said at the time. “As a result, the plaza was born.” The public can see the curve that holds up the building, the bankers can see out, secure spaces are husbanded below ground and up top, but the result is as simple as a slab.

Birkerts always credited his understanding of light to his Baltic upbringing, where daylight can’t be taken for granted, but must be gathered, directed, and intensified. Birkerts was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1925, but fled to Germany during the second World War, and immigrated to the United States in 1949. He visited his mother in Riga regularly, and worked on the commission for the National Library from 1988 on. The design, as any article about it will tell you, is inspired by the native folktale of the Castle of Light, which sinks when people are oppressed, but then rises up to free them through knowledge.

Corning Museum of Glass
Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress

The arcing plan of the Corning Museum bounces indirect light inside, illuminating the collection’s translucent objects; the mirrored canyons he cut into a new earthen base for the library in San Diego offer students views of subterranean gardens. Faceted light monitors at the surface look like chips off some very unusual glacier. It would be impossible to upstage Pereira’s preening Brutalist building, but one could argue that Birkerts undermines it—literally.

“When you are underground you have real architecture,” he told the AIA Journal. “There’s no fooling around… [It] doesn’t have the doo-dads that make it good for publication.”

The Riga library—the world’s largest—became Birkerts’s legacy project, but his Columbus connections led him to another commission that might have been a capstone had it come to fruition. In 1965, the Cummins Engine Foundation, which paid the architects’ fees for public buildings in Columbus, offered historically black Tougaloo College, near Jackson, Mississippi, $75,000 to create a new master plan.

Federal Reserve Bank, Minneapolis
G.E. Kidder Smith/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images

The money came with Birkerts attached, and he proposed a “layered city,” built on a rural site, combining vertical concrete elements with hovering, modular bars containing academic, recreational and living facilities for students and staff. A utopian megastructure, like those proposed for Tokyo Bay, and Manhattan, but in Mississippi, intended as “a way station from a simple rural life to the urban environment into which their careers will take them … these way stations are becoming models of city life as it should be,” wrote Mildred F. Schmertz in Architectural Record.

Scholars James D. Graham and Michael Abrahamson have pointed out the paternalism in this plan, as well as the self-interest of northern industrialists in the migration of southern workers. Had it been built in full, it might have led to a revolution—either by students, or in campus planning. The library and dormitories by Birkerts that were built remind me of Paul Rudolph’s UMass Dartmouth: beasts stalking across uneven ground on concrete legs, beloved by only a few.

At 91, Birkerts claimed, “I am the last architect of the twentieth century.” (Thankfully, a few colleagues of his at Saarinen’s office including Cesar Pelli, Kevin Roche, and Robert Venturi are still with us.) He also offered me a cogent critique of his own reputation: “I did three or four underground buildings, that’s why you don’t know much about me. No form on the ground, everything is flat.”

Inside, where it counts, a Birkerts building sings.

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