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Gordon Bunshaft

By I.M. Pei

Gordon Bunshaft’s architecture has made the American urban landscape what it is today. One can even say that Bunshaft, more than any other architect, made Gropius’ prediction of 50 years ago come true, that “the International Style will sweep the world.” Bunshaft’s structures created a model emulated everywhere. He refined the design of curtain wall buildings into a twentieth-century art form. Lewis Mumford, writing in The New Yorker,  called one of his best buildings “an impeccable achievement that says all that can be said, delicately, accurately, elegantly, with surfaces of glass.” It is due to this accomplishment that the Academy and Institute awarded him The Gold Medal for Architecture in 1984.

Gordon was a man of conviction and integrity. He had no patience with the “chase of the New.” To him, anyone or any architect who preferred style over substance was a fool, and he did not suffer fools gladly. This alienated him from some of his younger contemporaries. On the other hand, he could be extremely helpful to young architects in his own way. I once asked him for advice, decades ago, about doing an FHA Project. His advice was typical: “That’s not for architects, it’s for lawyers!”

Gordon had a passion for the arts of painting and sculpture. He probably had more friends among artists than architects. In 1961, he was elected to membership in the Academy and Institute along Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning and Marcel Duchamp. How proud he must have been to be among such distinguished and congenial peers. Years later, I noticed an Academy and Institute Membership Certificate hanging alone on a large white wall in his office. He said, simply: “I’m not a joiner but this Institution is an exception!”

Gordon and Nina Bunshaft had one of the finest small art collections. Interestingly, unlike most collectors, they personally knew the creator of each piece. In fact, they were their friends.

In 1972, my wife and I met Gordon and Nina on top of the Forte Di Belvedere in Florence where Henry Moore was having an outdoor exhibition of his monumental works. Moore was there, of course, making last minute arrangements. I had never seen Gordon happier. I still have a picture of him peering through the hole of a large reclining figure with a look of admiration and contentment. This piece is now in their home in East Hampton.

This evident passion for art undoubtedly sharpened Bunshaft’s discernment of architecture. I have heard him give genuine praise to others and criticism of himself. It is a true measure of the man, who, in spite of such landmarks as Lever House, 140 Broadway, and the Pepsi Cola Building, admitted to thinking that the Seagram is the best.

Read by Hugo Weisgall at the Institute Dinner Meeting on November 5, 1991.

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