May 09: concrete, steel & nicotine

2012/05/09 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1909 Gordon Bunshaft was born.

Mid-century maven of modernism and walking tobacco sack, Bunshaft (d. 1990) was not “born” so much as he emerged beneath the star of that year’s great game changer, the Allgemeine Elektricitäts Gesellschaft Turbinenfabrik (or, “AEG Factory,” for those of you who have sweated over it on a slide quiz).  Surely the spirit of the Das Maschinenzeitalter is infused throughout Bunshaft’s hefty smörgasbord as a dominant force after mid-century.

We have a theory that architects might be divided into two camps: those who descend from le mode de l’académie française–the Chatty McTalksters, and those through the line of the Silent Germans.  Bunshaft was more of the latter, so let’s review the high points of his career in a just fashion:

He built Lever House (New York, 1951), setting new standards for crisp cool slickness; the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Branch Bank (New York, 1953) is a glowing box of almost-nothingness; his addition to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, 1962) says “look: Modernism is Classical;” the Beinecke Library (Yale, 1963) is an alabaster crypt where books, not the pharaoh, repose in the Holy of Holies; the Marine Midland Building (New York, 1967) may out-Mies Mies; he discovered curves during the design of the Solow Building (New York, 1974), goes too far with curves at the concrete donut Hirshhorn Museum (Washington, 1974), where we have witnessed children frightened to tears by architecture; his whole big career came together at the National Commercial Bank (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 1983).

Bunshaft basically smoked his way through the twentieth century.  We mean that literally: dude was always smoking a pipe: look at him above, and herehereherehere and here.  We suspect the chronic nicotine fit had something to do with his terseness, not only in architecture but in spoken language, too.  This comes out really clearly in the way he accepted the Pritzker Prize.  (Worth noting: he nominated himself for the prestigious honor.  Some people have got them made of brass.)  Every Pritzker laureate has to give a speech before collecting their bag of gold.  They rarely say much (15 minutes tops), although you can see who comes down through that French line we mentioned earlier: erstwhile author Robert Venturi (1991) spoke 2239 words; Prof. Rafael Moneo (1996) 1516 words; Foster (1999) and Nouvel (2008) up the ante with 2209 and 2638 words respectively.  Then there is the Less Is More crowd: Richard Meier (1984) with just 786 words, Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron (2001) speaking 1714 (but remember, there were two of them); Eduardo Souto de Moura (2011) 621, and a real economy of words from I. M. Pei (1983): just 584.

But no one holds a candle (or whatever you use to light a pipe) to Bunshaft.  Here is the entire text of his acceptance speech (1988), all 58 words of it, which would leave even the producer of the Oscars scrambling to fill time:

In 1928, I entered the MIT School of Architecture and started my architectural trip. Today, 60 years later, I’ve been given the Pritzker Architecture Prize for which I thank the Pritzker family and the distinguished members of the selection committee for honoring me with this prestigious award. It is the capstone of my life in architecture. That’s it.

Well that and the nicotine.  That’s it.

Image: Bushaft at the Beineke, as portrayed in Holiday Magazine, which we’ve never heard of, but it’s fabulous (from this source)


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§ 2 Responses to May 09: concrete, steel & nicotine

  • stephenwhoward says:

    Another humorous and knowledgable article. I never made the connection Bunshaft and a couple personally favored pieces of Modern architecture (Beinecke Library, Solow Building and, although he didn’t design it, its fraternal twin in Chicago). And as for your pictorial references to his nicotine habit, the Tolkien-ist in me, though chuckling, shudders at the implications of Gandalf somehow being associated with Modernism.

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