Tuesday of this week, architect Gunnar Birkerts passed away at the age of 92. The Latvian-born, Detroit-transplant was a post-modernist visionary. So compelling about Birkerts was his steadfast commitment to originality in each of his designs: “Every structure that I have built has been a ‘first’ for me—I have refused to emulate any existing form or idea” (1). He demanded that site, along with cultural and historical context guide each design rather than a particular movement or trend. Birkerts’ refusal to repurpose past designs, even his own, resulted in a vastly diverse and ever-evolving portfolio.
Here in Kansas City, we are fortunate to have access to one of his iconic projects, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. The Museum is as fine an example as any of Birkerts’ commitment to organic design representing an authentic relationship to the community and culture of which it is part. About the building, he said, “It is not compartmented, but allows flexible transitions from one space to the next…a continuous ribbon of daylight provides continuity and direction within the museum and a connection to the outside. The weaving of nature into the building form further establishes a visual dialogue within the context and a space for outdoor exhibitions…The dynamic building is expressive of the constant progression of modern art” (2).
Birkerts’ lifelong pursuit of meaningful, creative expression imbued with personal significance is beautiful and noble. Although he has passed, the lessons he imparted are still relevant and powerful: “The biggest message I have for you is to stay yourself. Stay away from all the minds who are inventing architecture for you to do. You are the only inventor of your solutions – you are the overall synthesizer” (3).
Last year, we published a blog about Birkerts’ Kemper Museum design, and how IAA renovated a portion of the building to enhance functionality while maintaining the original spirit and vision. You can access that post here.
- Schwartz, Martin. “Gunnar Birkerts–Metaphoric Modernist.” Edition Axel Menges. (16 Sept. 2009)
- Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. “Architectural Statement.” History and Architecture. Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 2014. Web. < https://www.kemperart.org/history-architecture>
- Birkerts, Gunnar. “Process and Expression in Architectural Form.” (5) University of Oklahoma Press. 1994.
- (Cover photo quote) Birkerts, Gunnar. “Process and Expression in Architectural Form.” (5) University of Oklahoma Press. 1994.
Cover image: Gunnar Birkerts circa 1970. (Balthazar Korab courtesy Bentley Historical Library)