Gunnar Birkerts, Latvian-born architect and educator, passed away on August 15, 2017, at the age of 92. A passionate advocate of a creative process he called "organic synthesis," he leaves behind dozens of built works over three continents and influenced hundreds of architectural students and colleagues through his inquiry-based process and dynamic interactions. Eric Hill and John Gallagher, in their AIA Guide to Detroit, said of Birkerts’ architecture:
Each of his works seems to be approached as an opportunity to explore the essence of an architectural problem, resulting in a statement that often exceeds the immediate project.
Born and raised in Latvia, Birkerts attended the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart before emigrating to the United States in 1949. His interest in the architecture of Eliel and Eero Saarinen, which he read about in journals at the U.S. Information Agency, led him to Detroit to seek work with Eero Saarinen. He worked in Saarinen’s office for several years and then with the office of Minoru Yamasaki, also based in Detroit, before co-founding the practice Birkerts and Straub in 1959. In 1963, he founded Birkerts and Associates, through which he designed more than forty buildings and major additions in the decades to follow.
“I use the process of organic synthesis,” Birkerts said in Process and Expression in Architectural Form—the book he authored in 1994—“to bring together all the factors to be considered in the conceptualization of an appropriate solution expressive of our times.” This synthetic design process gave rise to a variety of buildings over his career, from the sleek black box encasing a hammock-like curve for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis (1974) to the prismatic brilliance of the Corning Glass Museum (Corning, NY, 1980). He designed a bold orange wedge for Detroit’s Calvary Baptist Church (1977), an angular earth-colored structure emerging from the hillside for the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela (1996), and an underground well of light for the University of Michigan Law Library Addition (1981). No two are alike. As Birkerts explained to Martin Schwartz in a 2005 interview: “Buildings are different because every site is different, every city is different, every exposure is different. Everything’s different. There’s nothing that would create the same building.”
Parallel to his career as a professional architect, Birkerts pursued teaching architecture, primarily at the University of Michigan where he was a faculty member from 1961 to 1990. Birkerts was an educator at heart, drawing from the students’ enthusiasm and coming alongside them in their journey of discovery. Even his sketches, drawings, and buildings are approached from a pedagogical point of view. They didactically explain his process. “It’s a poster,” Birkerts said of an office building façade in a 1976 Progressive Architecture article, “a graphic expression of the building’s concern.” His built works express Birkerts’ synthesis of their constituent parts – functional requirements and structural systems stirred together with culture, place, and time.
One of the works that defined the latter part of his career was the Latvian National Library in Riga, which was commissioned in 1991 and opened in 2014. It was a swansong for his homeland, replete with metaphor and cultural symbols such as towering birch forests, raised wooden fortresses, and Latvian folkloric tale about a glass mountain. The building was recognized with the Library Building Award of the American Institute of Architects this year. “Allegiance to history and culture,” Birkerts said in Process and Expression in Architectural Form, “and not simply the mode of today, is essential to the lasting quality I aspire to in my architecture.” In this, he has been a shining example – and he brought us along his journey.
Further Reading and Cited Works
- Birkerts, G. (1994). Process and Expression in Architectural Form. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Cohn, D. (October 18, 2010). Latvian Library by Gunnar Birkerts Finally Gets Built. Architectural Record.
- Gallagher, J. (August 15, 2017). Detroit architect Gunnar Birkerts dies at 92, created Domino's Farms. Detroit Free Press.
- Grimes, W. (August 17, 2017). Gunnar Birkerts, Architect, Dies at 92; Gave Shape to the Unexpected. New York Times.
- Gunnar Birkerts Papers 1930-2017. (n.d.). Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.A.
- Hill, E. and Gallagher, J. (2003). The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
- Kamin, B. (August 15, 2017). Gunnar Birkerts, acclaimed Midwestern architect, dies at 92. Chicago Tribune.
- Minutillo, J. (August 16, 2017). Obituary: Gunnar Birkerts, 1925-2017. Architectural Record.
- Murphy, J. (September 1976). By Reflected Light. Progressive Architecture, 58-63.
- Schudel, M. (August 19, 2017). Gunnar Birkerts, who brought light and elegance to his architecture, dies at 92. The Washington Post.
- Schwartz, M. (July 2005). Gunnar Birkerts's Organic Lifestyle. Architecture, 20-24.