Modernism, Inc.

Gordon Bunshaft
Nina Leen/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
Gordon Bunshaft, 1957; behind him is the Connecticut General Life Insurance building, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1953–1957


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…

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