Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Gunnar Birkerts, postwar modernist, dies at 92

Gunnar Birkerts, Federal Reserve Bank (Minneapolis), 1976. Photo by Balthazar Korab.

“The School That Will Vanish,” reads the headline on Architectural Forum’s November 1967 story on Gunnar Birkerts’ Lincoln Elementary School in Columbus, Indiana. Birkerts had first worked in Columbus, that hotbed of postwar modernism, in the early 1950s, as project architect on Eero Saarinen & Associates’ Irwin Union Trust building.

Harry Weese, John Carl Warnecke, The Architects Collaborative and Edward Larrabee Barnes had all designed schools in the in the intervening decade but, unlike its six predecessors, Lincoln was set on an urban site, just down the street from Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church and the under-construction main library by I.M. Pei.

“They thought they didn’t need another star architect to build another one of those things,” Birkerts told me in an interview last year. “They thought they were losing part of the community. I had a good solution to that problem: first of all, the school occupies the smallest area that you could have, a square, and the rest returns to the town as a park.”

Birkerts died this week, at 92, but his work has never seemed more relevant.