In 2017 with the oncoming addition to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, it is time for a look at who is arguably Buffalo’s most famous homegrown architect – Gordon Bunshaft. Now, Gordon Bunshaft is easily regarded as a key figure in American Mid-Century architecture. Designing from 1937 until 1979, he is noted for his work on the Lever House (1952), Manufacturer’s Trust Company Building (1954), Beinecke Rare Book Library (1963), Johnson Presidential Library (1971), and the Hishorn Museum (1974). He was born in Buffalo in 1909 and graduated from Lafayette High School and later from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1935. Out of college and a brief stint in Europe, he worked with another very famous architect who designed in Buffalo, Edward Durell Stone (Buffalo News Building), but ended up at the firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) by 1938. His largest work in Buffalo was the 1962 addition to the then Albright Gallery.
By 1952, Bunshaft rose through the ranks of SOM to become the lead architect on the Lever House. The Lever House, just like much of his career is characterized by its use of glass, steel, and concrete, particularly as the firm was most famous for skyscraper design. Gordon Bunshaft’s design was clearly influenced by the early internationalists, such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, LeCorbusier, and J. J. P. Oud. In the early 1960s, he began designing for public institutions, which he would devote much of his remaining work to.
In 1961, he designed the Knox gallery addition, probably influenced by his colleague Walter Netsch’s completion of Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology campus. Bunshaft employed the same black box idea that floated weightlessly over the marble expansion of the Albright Gallery’s podium. Bunshaft was noted by Ada Louise Huxtable as being the “rational” and “powerful” master in his field. So, unlike Mies van der Rohe, Bunshaft hid much of the structural elements inside the building, as to not flaunt the impressive structure of the building. His plan was for a glass entrance to seamlessly extend into a basement gallery surrounding a courtyard. His black box fits an auditorium above. His work on the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is often considered to be one of his finest works, even considered his opus in the International Style. The fact that he could create such a handsome building without detracting from the beauty of E.B. Green’s 1905 Albright Gallery is an achievement in its own.
Before Bunshaft died in 1990, he received many awards, particularly sharing the 1988 Pritzker Prize with Oscar Niemeyer. Ada Louise Huxtable’s essay “On Awarding the Prize” acknowledges Bunshaft’s direct impact on twentieth century architecture. She says that he was “committed to the vocabulary and the ideals of LeCorbusier and Mies van der Rohe and a movement that altered the nature of building, and of its response to the technological and other factors that have made this century unlike any other.” Although not directly discussed in this article, she later adds that “Gordon Bunshaft has defined the corporate headquarters building, a structure as important for our commercial culture as the palace and church were for an earlier royal or religious age, with consummate art and skill. If we demur at the symbolism we deny reality; it does not make these suave skin skyscrapers and stunning office palazzi less dazzling achievements.” When he left SOM in 1979, he was referred to as “a titan of industry, a decisive army general, an architectural John Wayne.” Gordon Bunshaft is easily the most important architect to come out of Buffalo yet.
Photos: buffaloah and Chuck LaChiusa
Lead image: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, January 1962. Image courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery Digital Assets Collection and Archives, Buffalo, New York.