Gordon Bunshaft and SOM

Gordon Bunshaft and SOM: Building Corporate Modernism
Nicholas Adams
Yale University Press, November 2019

Hardcover | 9 x 11-1/2 inches | 296 pages | 204 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-0300227475 | $65.00

Publisher's Description:
Gordon Bunshaft’s (1909–1990) landmark 1952 design for Lever House reshaped the Manhattan skyline and elevated the reputation of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the firm where he would spend more than 40 years as a partner. Although this enigmatic architect left behind few records, his legacy endures in the corporate headquarters, museums, and libraries that were built in his distinctive modernist style. Bunshaft’s career was marked by shifts in material. Glass and steel structures of the 1950s, such as New York’s Chase Manhattan Bank, gave way to revolutionary designs in concrete, such as the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and the doughnut-shaped Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Bunshaft’s collaborations with artists, including Isamu Noguchi, Jean Dubuffet, and Henry Moore, were of paramount importance throughout his career.

Nicholas Adams explores the contested line between Bunshaft’s ambition for acclaim as a singular artistic genius and the collaborative structure of SOM’s architectural partnership. Bunshaft received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1988 and remains the only SOM partner to have achieved this distinction. Adams counters Bunshaft’s maxim that “the building speaks for itself” with necessary critical context about this modernist moment at a time when the future of Bunshaft’s iconic works is very much in question.
dDAB Commentary:
On Monday I featured A. Eugene Kohn's autobiography, The World by Design, mentioning that his firm, KPF, is one of the two "most famous three-letter acronyms in the world of architecture." The other one? Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, or SOM, of course. It made sense then to dive into Nicholas Adams' new biography on one of SOM's most famous partners — and the only one to win a Pritzker Architecture Prize, in 1988 — Gordon Bunshaft. For me, someone who grew up in suburban Chicago and eventually moved into the city to work there as an architect, SOM was Bruce Graham, Fazlur Khan, and, to a lesser degree, Walter Netsch. Bruce Graham was NYC SOM, a different beast from Chicago SOM and therefore little known to me. But as even a cursory glance at Gordon Bunshaft and SOM attests, not knowing much about Bunshaft was largely by design. He said very little in interviews, left few written records, and seemed to say the most about his career when it was over, after he had retired and his memory wasn't as sharp. His lack of a thorough paper trail, combined with an thoroughly incomplete archive at SOM's New York office, meant Nicholas Adams, author of the excellent Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: SOM Since 1936, had an almost insurmountable task in crafting a thorough history of Bunshaft and his prominent role in SOM's mid-century corporate architecture.

Bunshaft is best known -- or first became known, at least -- as the architect of Lever House, the Park Avenue glass box from 1952 that sits cater-corner to Mies van der Rohe's iconic Seagram Building but predated it by six years. That building alone was enough to cement Bunshaft as one of the architects of corporate modernism, but he also designed a trio of other notable corporate headquarters: Chase Manhattan Bank and Manufacturers Trust Company Bank, both in Manhattan as well, and the Connecticut General Headquarters in Bloomfield, Connecticut. These four buildings are described in depth in the third chapter of Adams' book. They are four of 38 buildings attributed to Bunshaft, a number that arose from Carol Krinsky's Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the monograph that was published when he was alive and was therefore made with his input. Adams, as an architectural historian writing three decades after Bunshaft's death, had to unearth information rather than inquire directly about it. While his task was difficult, it enabled him to focus on a few contemporary concerns, such as authorship and credit, things that also makes sense in the context of SOM's corporate structure and in terms of Bunshaft's demeanor, which was difficult at best.

More than the corporate headquarters that Bunshaft designed in and near New York City in the 1950s and 60s, it's three buildings -- one from 1963 and two from the following two decades -- that for me define the range of his design sense. These are the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, and the Hajj Terminal in Saudi Arabia. Those impressive buildings, and others, are discussed in the chapters that follow the third chapter, but with Gordon Bunshaft and SOM being as much biography as architectural history, Adams also delves into Bunshaft the person -- as much as he can, that is. Still, plenty is revealed. Those interested in Bunshaft and his buildings will find a lot to learn and like, though for those not so inclined but still interested in SOM, Adams' earlier book on SOM is highly recommended. 

Author Bio:
Nicholas Adams is professor emeritus of architectural history at Vassar College.
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