People A-Z  /  Gordon Bunshaft

Architect

1909-1990

Overview

Gordon Bunshaft was born in 1909 in Buffalo, to parents David and Yetta, who were first cousins, from a small village in what is now Ukraine. The couple emigrated to the United States in 1908, first to Boston then to Buffalo to work for a commercial egg supplier to the bakery and restaurant businesses. They lived at 337 William Street initially, and then moved to Mortimer Street in 1909, where Gordon was born. Often sick as a child, he was treated a number of times by Dr. Kavinoky, who suggested he become an architect based on his drawings skills. He attended Public School 45, and in 1920 and the birth of his sister Pauline when he was almost 11, the family moved to 55 Manchester Place on the west side of the city. The family joined Temple Beth El when Gordon was 12, but he does seem to have had a bar mitzvah. Having missed school frequently due to illness, he finished elementary school at fifteen, and high school, at nineteen. While at Lafayette High School he played for the school tennis team.

After graduation he studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1933 and a master’s degree in 1935. He was awarded the Rotch Traveling Fellowship to travel in Europe for eighteen months to study architecture. Inspired by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, Bunshaft embraced modernism and on his return to the United States he briefly worked with Edward Durell Stone. Moving to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), he worked at the firm until he began his military service in 1942 in the Army Corps of Engineers. On discharge in 1946, he rejoined SOM until his retirement in 1979.

As a partner in SOM, he has been credited with a beginning a new era of skyscraper design that defined the built aesthetic of corporate America at mid century. His first major design project in 1952, the 24-story Lever House in New York reshaped the Manhattan skyline and his design for the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Branch Bank in 1953, was the first post-war ‘transparent’ bank. His shimmering cube addition to the Albright Knox Art Gallery on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, in 1962 was another example of transparent design, and a bold but cohesive break with the existing classical building design.

After designing in glass and steel in the 1950s and early 1960s, he shifted to radical designs in concrete, including the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1958, he also served as a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. He was appointed to the President’s Commission of Fine Arts from 1963 to 1972. His design for the new North Campus, University at Buffalo was rejected as too radical, but some elements were included in later designs. In 1969, he received the Chancellor’s Medal from the University at Buffalo on display in the Cofeld Judaic Museum in Temple Beth Zion. Among other honors, he received the Brunner Memorial Prize, the Gold Medal from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1984, and the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1988. He died in 1990 and was buried next to his parents in the family plot at Temple Beth El cemetery on Pine Ridge Road in Buffalo, New York.

 

Genealogy

Obituary

  • Paul Goldberger, Gordon Bunshaft: A Man Who Died Before His Time? Architecture View, August 19, 1990, Section 2, p. 32.

  • Paul Goldberger, Gordon Bunshaft, 81; Recognized as Landmark Modernist Architect, New York Times News Service, Chicago Tribune, Aug 8, 1990.

  • Gordon Bunshaft, Architect, Dies at 81, New York Times, Aug 8, 1990.

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Grave marker for Gordon Bunshaft

Grave marker for Gordon Bunshaft

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Archival Collections

  • Temple Beth El Records, 1847-2006 (Ms 222) 60.2 OVR Muriel Selling, Cemetery Records, Compiled 1992-1995, Series II, Subseries B: Cemetery Records, 1925-1995. David and Yetta Bunshaft are listed as members from 1935 to 1953.

  • Gordon Bunshaft architectural drawings and papers, 1909-1990 bulk 1950-1979. Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library

  • Cofeld Judaic Museum. Gordon Bunshaft Display includes a photograph of Gordon Bunshaft on the Lafayette High School Tennis Team, 1928, an image of his addition to the Albright Art Gallery, 1962, a photograph of the Lever House NYC, 1952 and the Chancellor Medal awarded by University at Buffalo in 1969 donated by his widow, Nina Bunshaft. It also includes a biography by Carol Herselle Krinsky, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, MIT Press, 1988.

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