Latvian-American modernist architect Gunnar Birkerts died at the age of 92 on August 15, just as his legacy is beginning to be reevaluated by contemporary architects and historians alike. Based in the Detroit area for over 40 years, Birkerts designed distinctive buildings in the central United States and taught studios and seminars as a professor at the University of Michigan. His work was characterized by an experimental attitude toward materials, an intuitive approach to space planning, and an uncommon keenness for innovation in the use of daylight. Riga, Latvia’s National Library of Latvia (NLL), Birkerts’s last and greatest building, was completed in 2014 after about 25 years of work on the project. The NLL is a marvelous culmination of his career. Its completion was doubly special because Birkerts—born in Riga and the son of Latvian folklorists Peteris and Merija Shop Birkerts—had long been committed to the maintenance of his nation’s cultural heritage. Birkerts’s renown peaked between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, when he completed a group of buildings that broke open the increasingly stale forms and material palette of modern architecture. These buildings diffused light on matte surfaces or refracted it from polished materials to reduce the glare that too often plagues sheer glass buildings. Birkerts was one of many “displaced persons” who arrived in the U.S. after World War II. He emigrated here after an architectural education at the Technische Hochschule Stuttgart, in Germany, and eventually settled in the Detroit area. Birkerts worked for Eero Saarinen in the early 1950s, as his firm was developing a laboratory-like working method driven by model building and materials testing. He later left the Saarinen office for Minoru Yamasaki’s—also in the Detroit area—where he contributed to that firm’s decorative embellishment of modernism. He often cited Eero and “Yama” as the two most profound influences on his approach to architecture. He left Yamasaki and formed a partnership with Frank Straub in 1962, then founded his independent firm Gunnar Birkerts & Associates in 1964. Even after most of his former colleagues at the Saarinen office—Kevin Roche, César Pelli, and Robert Venturi, among others—had departed for more cosmopolitan locales on the East and West coasts, Birkerts stayed in Detroit because he wanted to remain independent of any particular cadre or school. This individualist spirit was Birkerts’s key bequest to the generation of architecture students and office associates he guided. Because of his individualism, Birkerts was perfectly suited to the Detroit area, with its history of tinkerers, innovators, and entrepreneurs. “We may have been building Ferraris,” Birkerts said in a 2015 interview, “but we were doing it in a garage,” suggesting that the polished, industrial design–like aesthetic of his buildings was not mirrored in his office environment or working method. Indeed, in his later years, Birkerts expressed skepticism about the rising importance of digital design in architecture, believing that it distanced architects from the intuitive, the experimental, and the handmade. Loose sketching and conceptual metaphors occupied an increasingly central position in his creative process during his later years. These attitudes caused him to lose favor in the style- and technology-obsessed culture of the late 20th and early 21st century. Rebuffing the flamboyance of postmodernism and the structural exaggerations of High Tech, Birkerts spent those years laboring on several unrealized megaprojects in Italy, and on unjustly overlooked U.S. work including the Frank Lloyd Wright–infused Domino’s Farms development in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Later designs show Birkerts’s ability to deftly integrate motifs from the national romanticist and art nouveau buildings of his home city without descending into pastiche. Despite these unusual ingredients, he remained staunchly committed to modernism. But his was not the dogmatic International Style of earlier architects. Instead of codifying rules, Birkerts continued modernism’s intuitive tradition of individual expression. We can still learn much from his example.
Posts tagged with "Late Modernism":
Latvian architect Gunnar Birkerts has passed away at age 92. The Detroit-based architect was best known for his formally exuberant interiors that carried on the legacy of Eero Saarinen; in 1951 Birkerts came to the U.S. to work with Saarinen in Birmingham, Michigan. He also worked in the offices of Perkins + Will before starting his own practice where he developed a unique style around unexpected angular forms and layered, folding planes that defined spectacular spaces. Columbus, Indiana; and The Latvian National Library, also known as the Castle of Light. https://www.instagram.com/p/BX0JGrRlQuj/
Kevin Roche's late modern interiors at the United Nations Plaza Ambassador Grill & Lounge, and Hotel Lobby are in jeopardy. Millennium Hotels and Resorts, the owners 0f ONE UN New York Hotel (the space's current name) have closed both spaces for possible demolition. Docomomo US, the leading modern architecture preservation group, has filed a Request for Evaluation (RFE) with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to grant the UN Plaza Ambassador Grill and Lounge and Hotel Lobby New York City Interior Landmark status. The interiors, states Docomomo, are strong examples of New York City late modernism. Roche designed the space with his partner John Dinkeloo (as Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates) for the United Nation Development Corporation. The UN Plaza Hotel and Office Building was completed in 1975 and Two UN Plaza was completed in 1983. Sherman McCoy would feel at home beneath the octagonal glass atriums, walls of mirrors, inset light fixtures, sharp geometric motifs, a sumptuous color palette, and a trompe l’oeil faux-skylight contribute to the luxe design. Millennium Hotels and Resorts has begun exploratory work—without permits—on the project, removing sections of the metal paneled drop ceiling that reveal the sprinkler system. Haphazard work, Docomomo claims, could irreparably damage the interior. Docomomo is asking its network of preservationists and others concerned about Roche's interior to write to the LPC to request an emergency hearing.
Matter, Light, and Form: Architectural Photographs of Wayne Thom, 1968-2003 WUHO Gallery 6518 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles Through December 20, 2015 Best known for his keen documentation of Late Modernism, Wayne Thom’s architectural photography brings drama and beauty to a period marked by corporate and developer-driven design. Now, the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury University presents an exhibition of Thom’s work at the WUHO Gallery in Hollywood. Curated by Nicholas Olsberg and Andrea Dietz, the show spans the photographer’s five-decade career and is organized into three sections based on typologies: towers, pavilions, and plazas. The exhibition title Matter, Light, and Form speaks to the photographer’s belief in architecture as sculpture. According to the curators, Thom has never “lit” a piece of architecture, instead he would wait for days for the right light to hit a building. “[T]o paraphrase Louis Kahn, sometimes buildings don’t know how beautiful they are until the camera’s eye falls upon them,” noted Olsberg. In July, when AN profiled Thom’s work, writer Daniel Paul made a plea for an institution to acquire Thom’s archive. Later that month, the University of Southern California Libraries, Special Collections announced that it would purchase and manage the archive, thus securing Thom’s legacy and singular architectural eye.
Photographer Wayne Thom captured Late Modernism like no one else, and now his archive is looking for a home
As 1970s and 1980s architecture returns to vogue, a new recognition of those associated with its making and documentation also arises. So it is with Wayne Thom, long the preeminent architectural photographer of the large, Late Modern building by the large firm. Thom began photographing in the late 1960s and his work in Los Angeles, the Western U.S. and beyond to the Pacific Rim documented changing tastes and approaches toward the architectural subject. Hundreds of images are on view on his website. It’s a distinctive and significant body of work, but one without a home. Presently Thom is looking for an organization or institution to take on his sizeable and meticulously organized archive. As time goes on, Thom’s remarkable work seems increasingly ill-suited for sequestration within any one house, including his own. Born in Shanghai in 1933, Thom was raised in Hong Kong, and emigrated to Vancouver in 1949 with his family that includes brother Bing Thom who went on to become a highly noted Canadian architect. Arriving in the States in 1964, Wayne graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography in 1968. By the following year he was working with A. Quincy Jones (“A.Q.”) who gave him his big Los Angeles break. Jones, and others whom Jones later introduced on Thom’s behalf, were impressed with approaches that would over time become Wayne Thom hallmarks. These include the use of natural light only, no props whatsoever, and big buildings—particularly the high rise, as his subject. A breakthrough assignment, Wayne’s prominence further rose with his image of the 1971 CNA Park Place Tower in the Westlake section of Los Angeles. Completed by Langdon & Wilson, CNA Park Place was the first all-over smooth-grid mirror glass skin building—a soon to be corporate vernacular—completed in the Western United States, and likely the Country. Thom’s image of the building overlooking Lafayette Park and the people within it won the First Award of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG) Architectural Photographers Invitational in 1973. Among his clients through the 1970s, Thom frequently worked with the A.C. Martin office where he photographed a variety of projects including their various Downtown LA projects, the underrated (and unfortunately renovated) Sears West Coast headquarters, and even an A.C. Martin–designed jet interior. In that decade he also began steady, multi-year work as the primary photographer for William Pereira (“Bill”); San Francisco’s Transamerica Building was among his many Pereira assignments. Among other publications, Thom’s images were featured in Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record, Architectural Forum, and Domus—where he photographed for Gio Ponti, the magazine’s founder. His award-winning Bonaventure Hotel image is the February 1978 Progressive Architecture cover. Architect Arthur Erickson, whom Thom knew since his much earlier Vancouver years, tapped him to assist in assembling the team of associate architects, landscape architects and designers that ultimately won the 1980 competition to redevelop Bunker Hill sponsored by the City of Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. In a highly publicized coup, they battled against the “All Stars” team, which included Barton Myers, Frank Gehry, Ricardo Legorreta, Charles Moore, Cesar Pelli and others under Maguire Partners Development. Yet says Thom, “We won the battle but lost the war;” aside from a single Erickson building and the hardscape (Two California Plaza was completed by A.C. Martin) the rest of Erickson’s winning scheme was never realized. Thom continued in full-time practice until 2013, when he curtailed his workload. Living in Rowland Heights, he maintains meticulous records for his thousands of negatives and slides plus hundreds and hundreds of proof books and presentation prints. Now, he’s interested in releasing all of it. In addition to his artifacts, the photographer’s memory is institutional and he seems to have known every single Los Angeles Late Modernist, with insightful if not funny tidbits on most of them. If it all possible, his basic hopes are that archive stay intact and be made available to the public.
A big “Happy 40th Birthday” goes out to the Sydney Opera House this year, which is still looking good in its middle age. Completed by Danish architect and Pritzker Prize–winner, Jørn Utzon, in 1973, the iconic performing arts center is now an internationally renowned late modernist architectural marvel. Originally, when Utzon entered the 1956 New South Wales Government sponsored competition to envision two performance halls on the Sydney Harbor, his design was discarded. However, his “entry created great community interest” and the jury was persuaded to choose him as the sole architect in the ambitious project. Utzon received the Pritzker Prize in 2003 and the building made the World Heritage List in 2007. The architect died one year later in Copenhagen but his vision lives on. Against a Sydney Harbor backdrop, the Sydney Opera House has become a graceful, yet dynamic symbol of Australia.