Framing the Future

Architect Gunnar Birkerts’ impact in the U.S. and abroad

By Nancy Bartlett

As a young immigrant from Latvia in 1949, architect Gunnar Birkerts boarded a Greyhound bus to travel from New York to Birmingham, Michigan. He hoped to secure employment in the office of the famous architect Eero Saarinen. While at first he was politely turned away, Birkerts ultimately did achieve his dream, working for Saarinen in the epicenter of modern architecture during the height of its popularity, and eventually starting his own company, Gunnar Birkerts and Associates.

Throughout his career, Birkerts designed award-winning buildings typifying modern architecture, including the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. And at 89 years old, Birkerts shows no signs of retiring.

On August 29, 2014, Birkerts celebrated the grand opening of his National Library of Latvia. The sweeping and inspiring new building will house Latvia’s collection of national literature, ensuring its safe storage and long-term access.

At the Bentley Historical Library, more than 12,000 of Birkerts’ original drawings illustrate his impressive productivity and leadership in innovative design. Sally Bund, who has worked as an archivist and volunteer for the past 20 years to meticulously describe Birkerts’ materials for the Bentley, has become a friend of Birkerts in the process. “This is an exceptional experience for an archivist,” she says, “to be able to know and work with a donor of such brilliance and generosity over this amount of time.” She calls the National Library of Latvia a “breathtaking capstone in a remarkable career.”

Birkerts taught at the University of Michigan for more than 30 years, imparting to his students what he practiced in all of his architectural design for buildings worldwide: that “design was thinking,” and then it was drawing.

Last spring, Birkerts established the Gunnar Birkerts Endowed Fund, which supports the Gunnar Birkerts Fellowship in Architectural History as well as the preservation and digitization of the Gunnar Birkerts Collection at the Bentley. The Fellowship will be awarded following an international competition for scholars working on studies of architectural history in the 20th century, anchored in the collections of the Bentley.

Gunnar Birkerts’ transformative gift is part of the Victors for Michigan fundraising campaign. The Bentley’s $10 million campaign goal will enrich the powerful historical experiences possible at the Library now, while supporting the next generation of historical researchers and patrons. View ways to support the Bentley today.

Ten Landmark Buildings by Gunnar Birkerts

University Reformed Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1964
Tougaloo College Library and Dormitories, Tougaloo, Mississippi, 1972
Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas, 1972
Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1973
IBM Corporation Office Building, Southfield, Michigan, 1979
Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York, 1980
University of Michigan Law Library Addition, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981
St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Columbus, Indiana, 1988
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, 1994
National Library of Latvia, Riga, Latvia, 2014