Gordon Bunshaft in front of Beinecke Library at Yale, 1963
Yale Events and Activities Photographs [RU 690]. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library Gordon Bunshaft in front of Beinecke Library at Yale, 1963

What is it that architects do when they architect? That is the question raised by Nicholas Adams’ new biography, Gordon Bunshaft and SOM: Building Corporate Modernism, published by Yale Books. The answer Adams gives is both as complex and as simple as the buildings whose design Bunshaft oversaw: Architects provide the image for their buildings, as figureheads and as creative instigators, and know how to get the best out of the complexities of both the buildings they help shape and the organizations that do that work. Bunshaft, by all accounts an intensely private and cantankerous man, was the salesman, in-house critic, guiding light, and corporate executive who, more than anybody else, made Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) into the very epitome of the modern corporate architecture firm. Along the way, he put his stamp, one way or the other, on some of the best exemplars of the style of modernity, which is to say, corporate Modernism, with such buildings as Lever House, Connecticut General Life, and Chase Manhattan Bank, as well as on structures, most notably Beinecke Library at Yale, that marked the transition into the more uncertain era of sculptural and expressive forms.

Yale University Press

Bunshaft, who rarely drew (although, from the student work and the travel sketches Adams reproduces, he was perfectly able to) was, in other words, a (if not the) perfect corporate architect. He had recourse to one of of the largest and most skilled teams of designers, detailers, project managers, and other specialists—I would especially note his collaborations with Florence Knoll and Nathalie DuBois—in the business, who helped him turn out buildings that were exemplars of architecture that relied on rationalization, represented by grids, to house the varieties of types and functions proper to American corporate life. He was best, in other words, at overseeing the design of office buildings. That few of them lived up to the delicacy, transparency, and poise of the structures that made his name, Lever House and the PepsiCo Building, both in New York, is something that critics noticed, Adams points out, almost immediately. That he was still able to help turn out countless buildings that rose above mediocracy in their mastery of site, their proportions, and their restraint in the definition of space, is a tribute as much to the sophistication of SOM as a design machine as it is to his acumen.

Chase Manhattan Bank, 1961
©The Ezra Stoller Archive/Esto Chase Manhattan Bank, 1961

Then again, from roughly 1955 on, Bunshaft was SOM and vice versa. The title of Adams book suggests as much. Born as the only child in a Jewish immigrant family that had worked itself up into the middle class in Buffalo, N.Y., Bunshaft went to work for the then-young firm almost immediately after graduating and taking the prerequisite tour of Europe. He stayed there for the rest of his career and, although the company counted other lead designers among its partners, he had a hand in almost every significant building SOM produced throughout the 1950s and 1960s. During that period, the firm was corporate modernism. Bunshaft helped the organization transition into a more muscular and structurally expressive mode towards the end of his career there, but he did not leave to see its often less than successful attempts to turn out Postmodernist versions of their gridded blocks.

Manufacturers Trust Company Bank, 1954
©The Ezra Stoller Archive/Esto Manufacturers Trust Company Bank, 1954
Beinecke Library, 1962
©The Ezra Stoller Archive/Esto Beinecke Library, 1962

So, what exactly did Bunshaft do? That question runs throughout the book. You can page through its handsome pages, filled with Ezra Stoller photographs, and sense that there is a unity to the work. But was that due to Gordon Bunshaft or to SOM? Can you even separate the two? The question answers itself if you consider his situation at the moment when corporate America and architecture merged. The former developed a mode of organization that was able to harness both human and physical resources at a vast scale and of an immense complexity in such a way that it could both make millions of cars and send men to the moon. In that structure, the CEO was the figurehead, spokesperson, and chief organizer—no more and no less. Only during Postmodernism did that figure become an overpaid hero in the Ayn Rand mode. Architecture, meanwhile, has always been, despite Rand’s image of Howard Roark, more than a solitary pursuit by one creative individual. If designers once counted on armies of skilled workers and craftspeople to be able to translate their sketches into reality, they later depended on in-house staff or consultants who could convert their scribbles into reality with the help of a workforce that had been denuded of much skill and creative latitude.

Bunshaft's Travertine House on Georgica Pond

Bunshaft, in other words, was not a creative genius. He was not even an artist. He was more of a collector, in both his private life (he built up a significant bounty of contemporary art, most of which is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York) and in the office. At SOM, he collected commissions and the people with which to fulfill those jobs. He was discerning and decisive, and, from the looks of it, not much more than that. When he tried to stretch himself towards the end of his life, the results, most of which stand in the Middle East, where pompous and overblown. If anything typifies Gordon Bunshaft, it is the small house he designed for his wife and himself on Georgica Pond in East Hampton. A rectangle whose roof is held up with concrete beams, and whose front wall is a windowless expanse of travertine (the rear opens to the view with an almost continuous pane of glass), the house is an emblem of the perfection of a particular kind of, albeit barely human or humane, Modernism.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.