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Gordon Bunshaft: the Godfather of Corporate Modernism, in Greenwich Village

Architect Gordon Bunshaft (May 9, 1909 – August 6, 1990) is credited with creating the style of corporate modernism that defined office tower, bank, and even apartment building construction (at least in New York City) in the the second half of the 20th century. Described as someone who “behaved like a titan of industry, a decisive army general, an architectural John Wayne,” he made the “international style” of glass, steel, and concrete the lingua franca of architecture. Which may make it more than a little surprising to learn that he not only lived in Greenwich Village as he was steering architecture to this glass-and-steel aesthetic, but did so in the ground floor of a woodframe, federal style, Flemish-bond brick faced early 19th century house, designed and constructed by a carpenter. 

Gordon Bunshaft

Bunshaft was born and raised in Buffalo, New York to Jewish immigrant parents from the Ukraine. By the 1930s, he was earning degrees at MIT and studying in Europe on a traveling scholarship. By 1937, he was working for the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill — then a little-known shop located in Chicago, which in no small part due to Bunshaft’s success grew to be one of the largest architectural firms in the world, with commissions including the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the world’s tallest building), One World Trade Center, the Sears Tower in Chicago, and countless other projects. The brusque Bunshaft, who was made a partner in the firm (often simply known by its initials, “S.O.M.”), once said his name would have been added to the outfit’s title, except that they then would have been known as “S.O.B.”

Bunshaft’s joining the firm coincided with the opening of SOM’s New York office. His first major commission, which represented his embrace of the emerging modernist style of architecture which he would come to make synonymous with SOM, was the Venezuelan Pavilion at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows. Consistent with the fair’s theme of the “World of Tomorrow,” the pavilion was an airy glass and steel box cut through at the top by a slab canopy. Looking like a cross between a factory and an airline terminal, its elegance and modernity fulfilled the fair’s mission while making a name for himself and SOM as skilled progenitors of the emerging modernist style. 

Venezuelan Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair

But it was after the hiatus of World War II, during which there was almost no civilian construction in the United States and Bunshaft was away serving in the Army Corps of Engineers, that Bunshaft’s vision of applying the new modernist “international style” to corporate architecture truly began to crystallize. And it was during this time period that Bunshaft and his wife Nina lived in a first floor apartment at 36 Barrow Street, a wood frame brick-faced federal style house built in 1828.

Perhaps Bunshaft’s most most iconic and impactful design was the Lever House at 53rd Street and Park Avenue, begun in 1950 when Bunshaft was living at 36 Barrow Street.  Completed in 1952, it was designated a New York City landmark in 1982, just as it hit the required 30 years of age to be considered for landmark designation — the youngest building to ever be landmarked in New York, and the first in the modernist style. At Lever House, Bunshaft really invented and perfected the language of corporate modernism: simple gridded geometries, glass spandrels, and volumes that were boxes or slabs surrounded by open space, which would then be applied, often with much lesser degrees of success, to countless buildings across America, and the world. 

Lever House

Bunshaft’s next major commission was a rare residential one, but one which revolutionized the way apartment buildings were built in New York City every bit as much as Lever House changed how office buildings were designed.  Manhattan House was a full block apartment complex between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, 65th and 66th Streets on the Upper East Side, and is also now a New York City landmark. Also completed in 1952 and based upon the designs of Le Corbusier and the Bahaus’ Walter Gropius, Manhattan House made blocky, glazed white brick buildings surrounded by gardens de rigueur for new apartment house design in New York City. Here as well, the form was often imitated, but rarely with the same level of finesse or style that Bunshaft showed at Manhattan House.

Manhattan House

The following year Bunshaft designed the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company Building at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, now also a designated New York City landmark. Like Lever House and Manhattan House, the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company forever changed the way banks looked. Previously designed to seem sturdy and impregnable, Bunshaft’s bank building was almost evangelical in its transparency, with the bank vault actually facing the street, shielded by nothing but transparent glass — flaunting that thick walls and heavy materials were no longer needed to actually provide, or visually convey, a safe environment for storing money. Soon banks here and the world over would be defined by glass walls set within simple steel frames, with less-than-happy results in many cases, similar to the Lever House and Manhattan House knock-offs seen elsewhere. Nevertheless, few architects in any era could be credited with so utterly transforming the way in which multiple separate building types were designed for at least a generation, and all based upon models created in rapid succession within a little over a year. 

Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust Co. Bank and its glass-enclosed, street-facing vault

While these three early designs may have been unrivaled in their impact, Bunshaft continued to design structures that deeply influenced architects  and developers, drawing admirers and imitators. The Pepsi-Cola company headquarters of 1960 at 500 Park Avenue (landmarked in 1995) was “praised by critics for its gem-like, seemingly levitating exterior walls of gray-green glass and aluminum.” In many ways the Pepsi-Cola Headquarters contrasted with the ever-larger versions of his glass boxes Bunshaft and countless other architects were designing as the 1950s became the 1960s.

The 60-story, 813 ft. tall Chase Manhattan Bank Headquarters of 1957-64 (landmarked in 2009) at 28 Liberty Street was the sixth tallest building in the world at the time of completion, and with 1.8 million sq. ft. of space above ground and another 600,000 below, it was one of the largest buildings ever constructed at the time. It was one of those ever-larger glass boxes SOM and others were constructing, but one with a balance and harmony to its design that many of its imitators lacked. While rightfully criticized for introducing a huge boxy mass to what had previously been the jagged, pinnacled skyline of Lower Manhattan, and for its elevated plaza which presented a fortress-like wall to many of the streets that surrounded it, Chase Manhattan nevertheless gave back as well. The 1.8 acre plaza surrounding the building did offer a welcome oasis of open space in the rabbit warren of Financial District streets, which were, at the time, almost completely lacking in such relief. And the plaza was adorned by a sunken Japanese rock and sculpture garden designed by Bunshaft’s frequent collaborator, Greenwich Village artist and sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and later graced by the addition of artist Jean Dubuffet’s Group of Four Trees sculpture, which was for a time the largest piece of outdoor art in New York City. But the building’s elegant grid of exposed stainless steel beams may have been the apogee of Bunshaft’s corporate modernism. The first postwar development in the Financial District, it would unleash the flood of office towers that would soon wash over that neighborhood. 

(clockwise from top l.) One Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza, the pre-Chase Manhattan Bank Lower Manhattan skyline, and the Noguchi (bottom) and Dubuffet sculptures on the plaza

Bunshaft’s other celebrated works include the nearby Marine Midland Bank Headquarters of 1967 (landmarked 2013) at 140 Broadway (also adorned with a Noguchi sculpture), which saw his previous gridded forms characterized by structural transparency, replaced with a sleeker, tauter aesthetic reoriented towards expressing the sinuous possibilities inherent in glass and steel. This was was further developed with the swooping, curved glass and travertine-clad Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street, completed in 1974 and for a while the most expensive building in New York City.  

(l.) Marine Midland Bank HQ at 140 Broadway, and the Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street

Bunshaft also continued to make an impact with his institutional buildings, which includes the highly-regarded Beinecke Library of 1963 on the campus of Yale University, a crisply-incised box of thinly-sliced marble panels which admits filtered light to the interior of the rare book repository to prevent damage to its fragile contents, and the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of 1974 on the mall in Washington, D.C., a sculpted mass of concrete and granite surrounding a garden which looks like the sort of contemporary art the museum is designed to house. 

(top) Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library, and the Hirschorn Museum

All of this may make Bunshaft seem like an unlikely resident of Greenwich Village, especially during such a formative period of the development of his corporate modern aesthetic and language. And it may make especially puzzling his choice of a carpenter-built, federal style wood frame brick faced early 19th century rowhouse to live in. The contrast between his home at 36 Barrow Street and the “International Style” glass and steel structures Bunshaft would design for corporations and large institutions could not be more striking. One is diminutive in scale, hand-crafted, and proudly sported the architectural style distinctive to its place of origin. Bunshaft’s designs were (for the most part) quite large in scale, completely machine-made in material and aesthetic, and spoke an “international” language that was purposely not specific to any one place. But both Bunshaft’s designs and his federal rowhouse of residence showed a meticulous attention to detail, and very much reflected the realities of their time — one a nation emerging from the shadow of an empire to assert its own identity, the other a nation suddenly finding itself the lynchpin of the “free” world, and leaning on business and industry to provide the power to do so. 

(l.) 36 Barrow Street, and Lever House

Nevertheless, it should come as less of a surprise that after Bunshaft’s Manhattan House apartment complex was completed in the early 1950s, he decamped from Greenwich Village to take up residence in his new creation on the Upper East Side, which remained his home until his death in 1990. His arc of residences is perhaps unsurprisingly like that of another iconic shaper of mid-to-late 20th century corporate aesthetics, albeit a fictional one. Mad Men’s Don Draper also lived somewhat modestly in Greenwich Village during a key period of his life and career, before making his triumphant move to a white brick high rise on the Upper East Side, during what would also be his period of ever-expanding power and influence. 

(l.) Don Draper, and Gordon Bunshaft

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