1971 Gunnar Birkerts
Gunnar Birkerts is an internationally acclaimed architect of the last half of the 20th century who has been recognized for his expressive forms, his simplification of detail, his innovative work with surface materials and his effective use of indirect daylight. With his design flexibility and commitment to “finding poetry in building technology,” he has pushed beyond the boundaries of the Modern Movement.
Born in 1925 in Riga, Latvia, Gunnar Birkerts’ childhood was steeped in the mythology of his country. Later in his career, Birkerts expressed his gratitude for the rich, architectural and literary images of his homeland which he believed continued to stimulate his creative process.
While attending the first gymnasium in Riga, Birkerts decided to pursue a career in this field. He completed degrees in engineering and architecture in 1949 at the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart, where his training exposed him to both Bauhaus and vernacular design. His education in the craft and technology program gave him an understanding of architectural materials and design construction methodology, which would become enduring interests throughout his career.
However, it was at the U.S. Information Agency Library that he discovered and became attracted to the modern architecture of Eliel and Eero Saarinen with whom he shared northern European roots. Thus, he came to Birmingham, MI in December 1949 to seek work with Eero Saarinen, but no job was available for him. Carrying a letter of recommendation from Saarinen, Birkerts went to Chicago to join the firm of Perkins and Will, which specialized in school architecture.
In 1951, Eero Saarinen invited Birkerts to join his firm where he worked with such young architects as Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi and John Dinkeloo. During his 4 years with Saarinen, he contributed to the General Motors Technical Center, Concordia Senior College and the Milwaukee County War Memorial. Birkerts was highly impressed by Saarinen’s inventiveness and perseverance, qualities which he carried into his own work.
Shortly after leaving Saarinen’s office, Birkerts and he was invited to work with Yamasaki, Leinweber and Associates. There he was chief designer for the Reynolds Metals Building, the Educational Building at Wayne State University and the Daharan Air Terminal. He received a number of design awards, including two citations from Progressive Architecture for houses in Wisconsin and first prize in the Cantu, Italy First International Furniture Competition. He was especially proud because Alvar Aalto was one of the jurists.
Birkerts began his 29-year teaching career at the University of Michigan. In 1961, he was appointed Assistant Professor of Architecture, then Associate Professor and Professor in 1969. He became Professor Emeritus in 1990.
Gunnar Birkerts and Associates was established in 1963 in Birmingham. The 1960s were prolific years for the practice, as Birkerts designed buildings which contained the “bold forms, space before structure, minimal detailing, stratified walls and daylight in interior spaces” which were the hallmarks of his work during this decade.
Birkerts continued his exploration of glass and metal as surface technologies. He was also an early advocate for the containment of urban sprawl with his Subterranean Urban Systems Study of 1974, for which he received a Fellowship Grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. In 1970, he was elected a Fellow of the AIA, and he received a Gold Medal from the AIA Detroit, in 1975. He was also honored by an appointment as Architect in Residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1976.
A few of his many notable buildings of this decade are the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, the Dance Instructional Facility at SUNY Purchase, the University of Michigan Law School, the US Embassy Office Building in Helsinki, the Duluth Public Library, the Museum of Glass in Corning, NY, and the University of Iowa College of Law Building.