During the Great Depression, among the few opportunities for nongovernmental architectural work in America were temporary exhibition buildings for the world’s fairs and regional expositions that proliferated even while the country’s economic recovery languished. Ready to seize upon this niche market were two enterprising young Indiana-born architects, Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings. Owings vaulted to prominence at age thirty when he was named head of design for Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition after the fair’s celebrated master planner, Raymond Hood, under whom he worked, became fatally ill. Three years later the pair established a Chicago office with a branch in New York City, where their firm—renamed Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) with the arrival of a third partner, the engineer John Merrill—scored no fewer than thirteen commissions for pavilions at the forthcoming 1939 New York World’s Fair.
A year after SOM’s founding, a relatively inexperienced but formidably ambitious twenty-eight-year-old named Gordon Bunshaft joined the fledgling operation and would remain there (save for a four-year hiatus during World War II) until he retired in 1979. Although Bunshaft’s name never appeared on the firm’s front door, his shrewd instinct for self-promotion and press relations ensured his recognition despite SOM’s egalitarian practice of not according design credit to individuals.
The return to large-scale civilian construction after the war saw a new acknowledgment of architectural teamwork that reflected the ethos of the all-out military effort, during which the personal was subordinate to the greater good of victory. This attitude inspired the nonhierarchical organization of Walter Gropius’s Cambridge consortium, the Architects Collaborative (TAC), which was founded in 1945 and specialized in buildings for educational, cultural, and governmental institutions until it disbanded almost sixty years later.* But the biggest midcentury American architectural operation was SOM, which developed a special rapport with large commercial clients and still thrives as an international behemoth with ten offices in five countries and 650 employees.
Yet despite the far-from-reticent personalities of SOM’s principals (especially Owings, an ebullient, go-getting rainmaker who brought in the clients), they all were dependent on Bunshaft. He was their ever-reliable Mr. Fixit, who, even with his truculence and lack of social finesse, reigned supreme as the firm’s principal design partner and dominant—not to say domineering—force. The architectural historian Nicholas Adams’s exhaustively researched and psychologically probing new monograph on Bunshaft seeks to reposition him as a central creative figure after decades of critical neglect and will likely improve his much-diminished posthumous standing.
Gordon Bunshaft was born in Buffalo in 1909, a year after his parents—Ukrainian Jews and first cousins—immigrated to the United States. His father started a wholesale egg business (“Fresh, Broken and Frozen eggs”) that prospered, and Gordon later described himself as having been “a spoiled, self-indulgent boy…. I was not the sort of fellow that mingled. I was sort of a loner.” He did poorly in school because of difficulty reading and writing—Adams suspects he was dyslexic—and even when he attained prominence refused to write or lecture about his designs (unlike the many other modernists who felt it essential to explicate their unfamiliar ideas). Bunshaft did develop early proficiency in mechanical drawing, however, thanks to a middle school draftsmanship course, and around then he resolved to become an architect and attend MIT, a wise choice at a time when Ivy League architecture schools had quotas limiting Jewish enrollment.
When he entered MIT in 1928, its curriculum had already begun to shift away from historical revivalism and toward modernism. One professor in particular—Jacques Carlu, a product of the École des Beaux-Arts—still pursued a simplified version of Classicism that one of his students later described as “very clean and abstract” with “no historical details at all.” Those qualities would be evident in Bunshaft’s mature work, which often possessed a classical regularity and equipoise without any direct reference to the past. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1933, Bunshaft continued in MIT’s master’s program, at the end of which he won the coveted Rotch Traveling Scholarship. This stipend paid for a yearlong European sojourn, during which he visited many early landmarks of modern architecture, as well as the obligatory monuments of past ages.
Bunshaft’s ferociously competitive side emerges in his early remarks about the century’s greatest architect, Le Corbusier, whom he spotted one day at the Parisian café Les Deux Magots and thought resembled “an American beer hound.” Even more obtusely, Bunshaft’s lifelong lack of social awareness or empathetic insight blinded him to the superabundance of inventive ideas in Le Corbusier’s revolutionary Cité de Refuge of 1929–1933 in Paris, a Salvation Army homeless shelter that the pampered American denigrated as a “flop house…[with] a great many silly details in it.” The breathtaking experimentation Le Corbusier risked there and throughout his oeuvre was alien to this architectural synthesizer, whose work never approached that level of conceptual daring.
The first building Bunshaft took personal credit for on his highly redacted SOM résumé was the Venezuela Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair—a striking International Style glass box surmounted by an upswept roof element, the underside of which was vividly painted in the manner of the Mexican muralistas. He omitted an even better design for that exposition: the ABC Continental Baking Company Pavilion. Its biomorphic white façade was dotted with the trademark red, yellow, and blue balloons that appeared on the wrapper of ABC’s Wonder Bread. Bunshaft, who had little sense of humor, disowned this delightful caprice even when it was cited decades later as an example of Pop Art avant la lettre. It doubtless embarrassed him by being too playful, not a quality this tough-guy character wished to project.
During World War II he served in the US Army Corps of Engineers in London, Paris, and Germany, where he was involved with hospital construction. That experience likely won SOM the commission for the Fort Hamilton Veterans Hospital of 1946–1950 in Brooklyn, a gleaming, crisply detailed International Style slab dramatically positioned on the heights above the Narrows of New York Harbor. (SOM reiterated that siting and general format, with several notably Corbusian variations, for its Hilton Hotel of 1953–1955 in Istanbul, which serenely overlooks the Bosphorus and punctuates a skyline spiked by domes and minarets.)
Upon Bunshaft’s return from the war, Owings wanted him to work in SOM’s Chicago office, but he insisted on joining the Manhattan contingent instead. “Nat of course was very, very angry to put it mildly,” Bunshaft recalled. “There was some discussion whether I ought to be kicked out of the firm. They finally said I could start as an ordinary designer in the New York office without any rank or any authority.” This battle of wills set the tone for the contentious can’t-live-with-him, can’t-live-without-him nature of Bunshaft’s relations with his colleagues, who nonetheless deemed him so valuable to SOM’s fortunes that he wielded outsized control that even his nominal superiors dared not challenge. This primacy was ratified by their most renowned project, Lever House of 1950–1952 in Midtown Manhattan, a sensation that made Bunshaft’s career and established SOM in the top tier of American architectural practice.
Ever since Ludwig Mies van der Rohe devised his visionary plans for Minimalist steel-framed, glass-walled skyscrapers he designed as hypothetical projects in 1921–1922, other architects dreamed of executing similar structures, the very incarnation of idealized modern form and advanced technology made manifest on an urban scale. In the expansive years after World War II, the household-cleaning products manufacturer Lever Brothers wanted new office headquarters that would embody its self-image of progressive consumerism, and it hired SOM precisely because the firm had not yet done such a building and would therefore approach the task without formulaic preconceptions.
Lever Brothers got the headline-making corporate showplace it wanted. In startling contrast to the gray-masonry palisades of hotels and apartment houses that lined both sides of Park Avenue, SOM inserted a twenty-four-story glass-skinned slab that was rotated perpendicularly to the avenue and hoisted atop a two-story podium structure that seems to float on piloti columns. This audacious gesture worked brilliantly when Lever House first opened, but as other modernist structures multiplied along the thoroughfare, the shock value of this first heretical interloper steadily diminished.
Although some enthusiasts saw Lever House as the fulfillment of Mies’s vision, the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock correctly insisted that “Lever House is not the building Mies would have done at all,” a judgment based on his understanding of the German architect’s primary focus on structural expression and the American firm’s emphasis on surface—in this case a blue-green glass skin that owed much to the recently completed curtain wall of the United Nations Secretariat Building of 1947–1951 by Wallace K. Harrison and others, several blocks to the southeast. Hitchcock’s assessment was soon borne out when Mies’s infinitely superior bronze-framed Seagram Building of 1954–1958 was erected diagonally across Park Avenue from Lever House. Although the latter holds up as an arresting, entertaining design, it was never profound architecture.
Far better, in my opinion, is SOM’s Manufacturers Trust Company Bank of 1953–1954, several blocks southwest on Fifth Avenue. Part bare-bones Florentine palazzo and part superscale Japanese lantern, it is a much less gimmicky and more proportionally satisfying composition than Lever House. Furthermore, it is truly transparent, day and night, in a way that few glass-walled buildings are, thanks to the carefully considered dimensions of its interior volumes and attentively modulated lighting levels. The uncommon amount of forethought its designers gave to how the building might be ultimately repurposed for functions other than banking has enabled its architectural integrity to survive intact despite its current use as a clothing store.
Perhaps the most determinative skill Bunshaft developed at MIT was an uncanny ability to scrutinize the designs of his fellow students, analyze them quickly, and then synthesize the best aspects of their ideas into a better solution of his own. Adams cites an early SOM colleague of Bunshaft’s who remembered years later talking to one of his classmates at MIT:
He said, “Gordon was the kind of guy that would walk around”—and I can just see him—“and look at everybody else’s scheme. He didn’t necessarily steal your scheme, but he stole the best of every scheme.” When I say “stole,” I use his words. “He stole the best of every scheme, and then he’d put it together and win the prize.” Gordon had this wonderful knack for sifting out.
In fact, this is common practice in large architecture offices, where assistants have often complained that they are the actual authors of a scheme ascribed to the firm’s principal. Yet there has never been a more concise description of Bunshaft’s creative modus operandi than this, or of the way his colleagues would acquiesce to his appropriations because of his repeated ability to improve upon their work, as was further explained by that same collaborator:
Gordon used us as hands really. It was wonderful. It was just like he was an octopus. He could do all the thinking, and he had all of us young guys do these beautiful drawings for him or whatever he needed done.
Yet there was also bitterness among some of Bunshaft’s colleagues about his tendency to assume all the credit for their joint work, which another partner called “morally reprehensible.”
A more specific SOM personnel issue that has been raised recently concerns Natalie de Blois (1921–2013), the highest-ranking woman in the firm during the Bunshaft years and its first female partner. That the immensely talented de Blois was the victim of sexual discrimination is beyond question: she was omitted from pitch meetings with potential patrons because of her gender; Bunshaft told her not to attend the opening of a building she’d worked on because she was heavily pregnant, and he once sent her home to change because he did not like her green dress. Those might not have been the worst of the indignities she suffered.
As Adams explains, every SOM job involved the direct participation of four senior employees, designated, in descending order of authority, as administrative partner (the main decision-maker), project manager, senior designer, and job captain. On a list Bunshaft drew up, he named himself as administrative partner on sixteen of the thirty-eight commissions for which he claimed principal credit and identifies de Blois as senior designer for seven buildings (three of them under him).
Adams also quotes SOM employees who recall Bunshaft’s tendency to insert himself into many projects he was not officially involved with, as well as his active participation in others for which he declined credit. The firm kept detailed time sheets for billing purposes, and it awaits the patient forensics of future historians to determine who was responsible for what in each instance.
The pendulum has now swung to a point where de Blois has been widely claimed to be primarily responsible for two SOM projects on Park Avenue—the Union Carbide building and the Pepsi Cola Headquarters, both of 1957–1960—but Adams is careful to include de Blois’s remarks about working with Bunshaft:
When I worked for Gordon he would either say “This is what I want.” Or he would say “This is what the project is.” And I would go to work…. He’d sketch out what he wanted. That was our guide and then as the design developed, you would show him drawings…so he could see that they were developing the way he wanted them to or not.
Adams makes no revisionist claims for de Blois’s authorship despite others’ well-intentioned attempts to reassign certain SOM schemes to her. “As a corporate entity, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill is not easy to understand,” he has observed with much understatement, and we must accept this diligent expert’s word.
In 1943 Bunshaft married Nina Wayler, a Connecticut-born dancer of Jewish descent who made her debut at age fourteen with the Los Angeles Opera. She appeared in Cole Porter’s 1939 Broadway musical DuBarry Was a Lady, but forsook the stage when she wed the up-and-coming architect, and by the time I first met the couple in 1976 she seemed sadly beaten down. Her chief creative activity had become painting smiley faces on flat stones she found at the beach near their weekend home in East Hampton. That travertine-veneered shoebox overlooking Georgica Pond owed an obvious debt to Philip Johnson’s Glass House of 1947–1949 in New Canaan, Connecticut. But although the Bunshaft house had a similarly idyllic wooded setting and elegant low-slung proportions, its hermetic quality, so telling of its inward-turning designer, was antithetical to Johnson’s gleeful flair for provocatively transparent exhibitionism.
I had been asked to write an article about the Bunshafts’ classic International Style apartment in SOM’s Manhattan House of 1947–1951, a white-brick-clad structure that occupies an entire block on the Upper East Side and is still ranked among the city’s best midcentury modern multiunit dwellings. Their stringently arranged décor—white walls, paired Barcelona chairs, and glass-topped coffee table set just so, with an eclectic array of artworks positioned as if this were a live-in gallery—seemed consistent with their uptight demeanor. The architect was sour and unforthcoming, while his wife sat virtually mute throughout our stilted and uncomfortable encounter.
Nina Bunshaft’s extreme reticence became understandable to me several years later during a dinner party at the art-filled Manhattan townhouse of a billionaire MoMA trustee. At one point the architect overheard something his wife said on the other side of the table and suddenly barked at her, “Shut up, Nina! You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” She smiled tensely but said nothing, and after a stunned silence among the rest of us, general conversation resumed. When I mentioned this ugly incident to the hostess as I said goodnight, she nonchalantly replied, “Oh, that happens with them all the time.” Adams goes out of his way to stress Bunshaft’s repeated avowals of love for Nina, but the architect had a strange way of showing it.
The most attractive aspect of Bunshaft’s personal life was his genuine passion for art, which gave this nonverbal, unintrospective, and intellectually incurious man the semblance of an inner life. He and his wife acquired almost 350 pieces of modern, African, and Asian art during their nearly five-decade marriage, and they bequeathed most of it to MoMA, on whose board of trustees Bunshaft sat from 1975 until his death in 1990. He also established cordial friendships with his two favorite living artists: Jean Dubuffet, eighteen of whose works the couple owned; and Henry Moore, with twenty-nine examples. Bunshaft in turn commissioned them to create sculptures for several SOM projects.
A perusal of MoMA’s permanent collection inventory suggests that a number of the Bunshafts’ gifts have since been deaccessioned and the proceeds applied to other purchases. In truth, although the couple owned some masterpieces—including Alberto Giacometti’s marvelous bronze Walking Quickly Under the Rain (1948), still at MoMA—most of their holdings were rather conventional. Another major exception was Joan Miró’s haunting six-foot-wide Surrealist nocturne Le paysage (1927), which they sold to the National Gallery of Australia in 1977 for the then considerable sum of $800,000.
In due course Bunshaft’s knowledgeable integration of art with architecture became a hallmark of his firm’s professional identity. Another favorite artistic collaborator was Isamu Noguchi, the Japanese-American sculptor who provided strong accents to several SOM designs. These included a twenty-eight-foot-high red metal cube thrillingly perched on one corner in front of the Minimalist black-walled 140 Broadway office tower of 1960–1968 in New York City, as well as a sunken Zen-style garden and fountain for the plaza adjacent to the Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters of 1956–1961 further downtown.
Chase Manhattan’s pioneering corporate art collection amounted to a veritable in-house lending museum, and top executives got to decorate their offices with original pieces ranging from American folk art to Abstract Expressionism assembled by an acquisitions committee that included Bunshaft. But even with the headquarters’ luxurious midcentury modern furnishings by the rising interior designer Ward Bennett, SOM’s routine upended shoebox was most noteworthy for being the first skyscraper erected in the Financial District since the Great Depression. It was felt to be a harbinger of the neighborhood’s renewal at a time when many large companies were relocating their operations to exurban campuses because of lower taxation rates and ease of commuting as middle-class families left cities for new subdivisions in ever-larger numbers.
SOM, never out of the game when it came to following the money, was responsible for several such new corporate headquarters, including the Connecticut General Insurance Company of 1953–1957 and Emhart Manufacturing Company of 1960–1962, both in Bloomfield, Connecticut; Reynolds Aluminum of 1955–1958 in Richmond, Virginia; IBM of 1960–1964 in Armonk, New York; and the American Can Company in Greenwich, Connecticut, of 1966–1970. All are basically, boringly alike: sprawling rectilinear compositions two-to-four stories high and set in splendid isolation on bucolic sites intended to reinforce the workplace as a self-contained universe apart from the larger community, a socially questionable model that Silicon Valley has lately resurrected.
While a steady stream of dependably high-quality (if repetitive) work poured forth from SOM, Bunshaft had the press eating out of his hand. Bathed in the artistic aura that emanated from MoMA’s monographic 1950 exhibition “Recent Buildings by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill” and the firm’s inclusion in the museum’s 1957 group show “Buildings for Business and Government,” Bunshaft was the darling of several influential journals. But when SOM moved away from its dated-looking International Style formula in favor of a bogus, genteel imitation of the fashionable New Brutalism, it stumbled badly, especially with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of 1966–1974 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The period’s preeminent American architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable of The New York Times, had long been a cheerleader for Bunshaft’s work, but her patience had begun to run thin by the early 1970s, when she wrote of the American Can Company headquarters that “it must be said here that SOM furnishings sink deeper and deeper into a familiar, formalistic rut.” Furthermore, she justifiably described the travertine-encased Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum of 1969–1971 in Austin, Texas, as “pharaonic” and like “entering an Egyptian tomb” because of its imperial monumentality and overbearing pompousness.
Yet none of this could have readied the irritable Bunshaft for Huxtable’s scathing review of the Hirshhorn in 1974. Her detailed evaluation of this crudely realized, defensive-looking, squat circular structure—which some dubbed the “concrete doughnut” and others likened to an artillery pillbox—represented a damaging withdrawal of establishment support. The Times critic unleashed a barrage of invective on Bunshaft’s most prestigious assignment with a rare vehemence: she denounced the Hirshhorn as nothing less than “a male chauvinist marriage of building and art…[a] maimed monument on a maimed Mall,” symptomatic of SOM’s “persistent, monumental…environmental abuse.”
Bunshaft’s final, lackluster decade at SOM saw his critical status decline even further because of Brutalist duds like his last work, the National Commercial Bank of 1977–1984 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a twenty-seven-story tower with a triangular ground plan and no exterior windows. Each of its three monolithic, travertine-clad façades is pierced by a gigantic gaping void, while inside lurk recessed triangular atriums between seven and nine stories high. Forget current notions of energy conservation and sustainability. The amount of air conditioning needed to make this monster operable in the Arabian climate defies imagination.
In 1988 there was widespread puzzlement in the design community when Bunshaft was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture along with the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer, his somewhat older contemporary. This surprising choice of two old-guard modernists well past their prime was interpreted as a rebuke to proponents of Postmodernism, which was then at its short-lived peak. It was also said that the Pritzker juror who championed these past masters was Ada Louise Huxtable.
Word then circulated that Bunshaft had nominated himself—recommendations are solicited each year from many in the profession, and no Pritzker regulation prevents an architect from advancing his or her own name. Even though Adams does not verify the rumor, it sounds typical of this incorrigible egotist. As a result, the architect could spend the last two years of his life delusively believing that history would number him among the foremost master builders of his time. Yet despite Nicholas Adams’s persuasive efforts, it seems as though Bunshaft will continue to rank not among the greats but merely among the goods.