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Gunnar Birkerts

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Gunnar Birkerts
Born(1925-01-17)January 17, 1925
DiedAugust 15, 2017(2017-08-15) (aged 92)
Needham, Massachusetts, United States
Alma materTechnische Hochschule, Stuttgart
ChildrenSven and Andra Birkerts
AwardsFellow of the AIA
PracticeBirkerts and Straub, Birkerts and Associates
BuildingsCorning Fire Station, Corning Museum of Glass, Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, National Library of Latvia
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, designed by Gunnar Birkerts, 1992–1994.
Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 1973, (now: Marquette Plaza), in its original configuration.

Gunnar Birkerts (Latvian: Gunārs Birkerts, January 17, 1925 – August 15, 2017) was a Latvian American architect who, for the most of his career, was based in the metropolitan area of Detroit, Michigan.

Some of his notable designs include the Corning Museum of Glass and the Corning Fire Station in Corning, New York; Marquette Plaza in Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri; and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.

In 2014, the National Library of Latvia in Riga was completed to his design.[1]

The Corning Fire Station facade and floor plan. The building has a strict form where small vehicles are placed in the narrow portion at the tip. All function spaces have been baked into the base of the triangle, such as changing rooms, storage room, dining room, dormitory and office, where all rooms are accessed via a wide corridor.[2]


Birkerts was born and raised in Latvia, but escaped ahead of the advancing Soviet army toward the end of the Second World War. He graduated from the Technische Hochschule, Stuttgart, Germany, in 1949. He acknowledged being influenced by Scandinavian tradition and the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.[3]

Birkerts immigrated to the United States that year and initially worked for Perkins and Will, a global design practice based in Chicago. He moved to the Detroit area in the early 1950s, where he worked for Eero Saarinen, and was a chief designer for Minoru Yamasaki before opening his own office in the city's suburbs.[3] Birkerts also maintained an architectural office in Wellesley, Massachusetts

He initially practiced in the partnership Birkerts and Straub. In 1963, he set up Gunnar Birkerts and Associates in Birmingham, Michigan.[3]

The firm received Honor Awards for its projects from the (national) American Institute of Architects in 1962, 1970, 1973, as well as numerous awards from the Michigan Society of Architects and the local chapter.

Birkerts joined the faculty at the University of Michigan in 1959 and taught until 1990. The ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture) honored Birkerts with the ACSA Distinguished Professor Award in 1989–90.

Birkerts designed a number of notable buildings in the United States, including the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, Corning Glass Museum, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the University of Iowa College of Law, the Duluth Public Library in Duluth, Minnesota,[4] and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.

In 1989, Birkerts was commissioned to design the new building for the National Library of Latvia in Riga, Latvia, which had great personal meaning for him.[3] Also known as the Castle of Light, he drew from Latvian folklore about the Glass Mountain for its architectural form.[3] The building was constructed over the period 2008 to 2014.[1]

Legacy and honors[edit]

In 1970, Gunnar Birkerts was selected as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and a Fellow of the Latvian Architect Association in 1971. He received numerous individual awards, including a 1971 fellowship from the Graham Foundation, the Gold Medal of the Michigan Society of Architects in 1980, the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in Architecture of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981, and the 1993 Michigan Artist of the Year award. He received an honorary doctorate from Riga Technical University in 1990, the Order of the Three Stars from the Republic of Latvia in 1995 and the Great Medal of the Latvian Academy of Sciences in 2000.

Birkerts was an honorary professor at The University of Illinois and was the Architect-In-Residence at the American Academy in Rome. He also was a member of the Latvian Union of Architects, honorary member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of the Riga Technical University.

Personal life[edit]

Birkerts married Sylvia, who survived him. They have three grown children, Sven Birkerts, a literary critic and professor; Andra Birkerts, an interior designer specializing in residential work; and Erik Birkerts.[3]

Birkerts died at the age of 92 on August 15, 2017, in Needham, Massachusetts, of congestive heart failure.[3][5]

Architectural work[edit]


Eero Saarinen

Minoru Yamasaki

Personal Work

  • Cultural Center, Leopoldville, Belgian Congo, 1958
  • Technical University, Ankara, Turkey 1959

Work Done while Faculty at The University of Michigan (Birkerts & Straub, Birkerts & Associates)

Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan


  • Birkerts, Gunnar, Gunnar Birkerts – Metaphoric Modernist, Axel Menges, Stuttgart, Germany 2009; ISBN 978-3-936681-26-0
  • Birkerts, Gunnar, Process and Expression in Architectural Form, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK 1994; ISBN 0-8061-2642-6
  • Birkerts, Gunnar, Subterranean Urban Systems, Industrial Development Division-Institute of Science and Technology, University of Michigan 1974
  • Kaiser, Kay, The Architecture of Gunnar Birkerts, American Institute of Architects Press, Washington DC 1989; ISBN 1-55835-051-9
  • Martin, William, Gunnar Birkerts and Associates (Yukio Futagawa, editor and photographer), A.D.A. Edita (GA Architect), Tokyo 1982
  • Gunnar Birkerts & Associates, IBM Information Systems Center, Sterling Forest, N.Y., 1972; Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1973 (Yukio Futagawa, editor and photographer), A.D.A. EDITA (GA Architecture), Tokyo 1974


  1. ^ a b "Thousands attend National Library's open house celebrations". Public Broadcasting of Latvia. 16 June 2014. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  2. ^ "CHALMERS BIBLIOTEK /All Locations". chans.lib.chalmers.se. Archived from the original on 2019-04-12. Retrieved 2014-01-24.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Kamin, Blair (15 August 2017). "Gunnar Birkerts, acclaimed Midwestern architect, dies at 92". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 7 May 2018.
  4. ^ Fallows, Deborah (19 November 2014). "A Field Trip to America's Public Libraries". The Atlantic. Retrieved 15 August 2017.
  5. ^ "National Library architect Gunārs Birkerts dies at 92". Public Broadcasting of Latvia. 15 August 2017. Retrieved 15 August 2017.
  6. ^ "History". 1300 Lafayette East Cooperative. 2016-10-05. Retrieved 2023-07-10.

External links[edit]