Gordon Bunshaft was a singular force behind Modernist architecture in America. Now his greatest gift to his hometown may be at risk.
In 1962, the famed architect Gordon Bunshaft was asked to explain his approach to the expansion of Buffalo’s Albright Art Gallery, a 1905 Beaux-Arts structure designed by beloved local architect E.B. Green. He said it was to simply “leave it alone.”
An earlier addition proposal—a glass-enclosed expansion by Paul Schweikher at the base of the 1905 building—was received rather poorly by Buffalonians. So the museum asked Bunshaft, an avid art collector who’d grown up a short walk from the gallery and was then one of the country’s most admired modern architects, to step in. His design solution was simple—a black, glass-enclosed box popping out at a respectful height and distance from Green’s original building, with the two structures connecting via a new entrance, gallery, and courtyard.
The addition for the renamed Albright-Knox was immediately received as a modern masterpiece. Upon seeing it in person, architect Kenzo Tange called it “the most beautiful building in the world for an art museum.” Bunshaft’s assistant told the local press at the time of its 1962 opening that the architect regarded it as “his baby,” lavishing “on it a personal attention that far outweighed its monetary rewards.” Bunshaft, rarely one to publicly speak at length about anything, only said the design “speaks for itself.”
Under the guidance of Buffalo businessman and philanthropist Seymour Knox II, who played an invaluable financial and intellectual role in the museum’s expansion, Bunshaft later recalled being treated as if he were Michelangelo. In a 1974 Buffalo Evening News feature, the man behind modern masterpieces such as the Lever House and the Manufacturer's Trust Company building said, “I worked even harder on that building than I have ever worked before in my life.”
Sixty years after the original, rejected expansion plan, the museum now appears to be setting itself up to repeat its own history.
The Albright-Knox will soon become the Albright-Knox-Gundlach thanks to its $42.5 million dollar gift from bond fund manager Jeffrey Gundlach, a Buffalo native who lives in Los Angeles. It’s the largest private donation by an individual to a cultural organization in the region’s history (and Gundlach may end up donating even more to fill in a $30 million gap from the museum’s $155 million fundraising goal). The Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) was chosen last year to head the expansion project. Late last month, the firm unveiled their conceptual drawings.
The plan, which is still its early phases, would see Bunshaft’s tranquil gap between his black box and the 1905 building filled in with a new, glass-enclosed space; Bunshaft’s galleries and courtyard would be demolished. Surface parking currently in front of the 1905 building would be converted back into green space—as it was before the 1962 expansion—with parking and future gallery space buried underneath.
As a Buffalo native with an interest in architecture, I share this dismay. It’s hard to understand how a historically sensitive front lawn facing Elmwood Avenue, a major urban street, could be more sacred to the museum’s function and identity than its Bunshaft addition. While the *east side of the museum faces a tranquil scene of green space and a lake (courtesy park designer Frederick Law Olmsted), its west end faces a state college and high volumes of vehicular traffic coming on and off an expressway traveling to and from one of the city’s most vibrant commercial corridors. There’s no good excuse not to extend the museum over its current surface lot and closer to Elmwood. OMA’s visual bridge between the 1905 and 1962 structures would in no uncertain terms overshadow and compromise Bunshaft’s vision for the campus.
Even local preservationists, who rarely come to the defense of Buffalo’s postwar architecture, appear to mostly agree that the plan is deeply flawed. “What some people don’t understand is that it’s not just about the box,” says preservation architect Barbara Campagna. “It’s also about the pedestal that connects the two buildings. You can’t separate them. That’s what makes it such a brilliant and beautiful dialogue with the 1905 building. I think that the Albright-Knox and OMA think they’re respecting the box, but they don’t understand it.”
While presenting his firm’s first public drawings, Shohei Shigematsu, partner at OMA and the project’s lead designer, explained the firm’s reasoning. “Because there is a perfect box next to it, I would like to make it if possible not so boxy.” Shigematsu said. Instead, he would like to make something “soft, something that has a depth or something that has a formal reaction to the context.”
In an email, Jessie Fisher, the executive director of Preservation Buffalo-Niagara, notes that both the 1905 and 1962 buildings are locally landmarked. Since the expansion project will receive state funds, it will be reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office. She adds that “no construction permits can be issued until the City's Preservation Board approves the design.”
“In the spirit of continuing dialogue, PBN stands ready to work with the Albright-Knox and its team of architects to ensure the project progresses in a way that is befitting of this true Buffalo institution,” writes Fisher.
In a letter written last week to museum director Janne Sirén, the city’s preservation board voices some serious concerns:
The concept appears to require the destruction and radical alteration of character-defining elements of the 1962 Bunshaft building (gallery spaces and courtyard) and to impact viewsheds of the original Green building and Olmsted landscape. The Secretary of the Interior Standards, among other things, includes the following requirements:
Changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved
New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features,and spatial relationships that characterize the property.
New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the history property and its environment would be unimpaired.
As the controversy over the museum proposal escalates, this might be a good time take a closer look at Bunshaft and his history with Western New York. I’ve long been surprised at Bunshaft’s relative anonymity locally, compared to the near-cultish worship of Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed a handful of homes in town. When news of OMA’s plans broke, I scheduled a visit to his personal archives at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University with the intent of extracting every last connection I could find between the architect and his birthplace. After all, if Buffalo can earnestly take pride in Millard Fillmore and the Goo Goo Dolls, surely it can make room in its collective heart for one of the 20th century’s greatest architects.
Here’s what I picked up. Besides the art museum, Bunshaft had a few more obscure ideas and subtle additions for his native landscape. And while he was known to be an especially difficult personality (critic Paul Goldberger described him shortly after his death in 1990 as “brusque, arrogant, and impatient with those who could not see the world as he saw it”), clues of a side filled with loyalty to family, faith, and home can still be found in his personal archives.
Gordon Bunshaft was born on Buffalo’s east side to two Russian immigrants, David and Vetta, in 1909. The family soon moved to the other side of Main Street, where their son attended public school before heading off to college at MIT in 1928. His undergraduate thesis, A Brewery and a Beer Garden, displayed not only a committed interest in functional and pleasing modernism, but also a serious understanding of his hometown and its proclivities.
He proposed a sleek facility on Lake Erie just outside Buffalo city limits. Citing a “high percentage of German and Irish people,” and a “knowledge of the inadequate breweries in that city,” Bunshaft saw the perfect site for mass production (access to highways, railways, and the city’s wealth of grain elevators) and consumption (nearby beachgoers and boaters on the lake). Taking into account Buffalo’s pleasant summers and unbearable winters, there would be both an outdoor and indoor beer garden. Showing signs of the calm, restrained aesthetic he would soon master, Bunshaft described his proposed post-Prohibition facility as a “clean, strong-looking building. It expresses exactly what the plans require.” He continued, “a simple electric sign and the huge window in the brew house are sufficient for the purpose of advertising… The general effort has been to give to these gardens a spirit of cleanliness and quiet repose.”
After finishing his master’s and jumping around a few architecture offices, Bunshaft joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1937 before serving in the military and returning to SOM after World War II. Based in their New York office, his minimalist designs for corporate clients in Manhattan confidently announced the arrival of the International Style in America. Founding partners aside, Bunshaft had become the defining force behind SOM as it established itself as the world’s preeminent major architecture firm. He was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1988, a decade after his retirement and in the middle of America’s love affair with nostalgic and ironic Postmodernism, which Bunshaft loathed.
But during the peak of his career, the architect found work and praise back home. He was made an honorary member of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy in 1961, while SUNY Buffalo awarded him with an honorary degree in 1962 and a Chancellor’s Award in 1969. Besides his Albright-Knox expansion, Bunshaft remodeled a banking floor for the local bank Marine Midland (chaired by Knox at the time) in a 1913-built structure downtown by the same firm that designed the Albright. A local newspaper described it in 1974 as “one of the loveliest interior spaces in the area.”
Bunshaft was also the creative force behind an SOM-designed office building in downtown Niagara Falls for the Carborundum Company, which opened in 1972. Appropriately, the art-obsessed Bunshaft designed it to include a ceramics museum on the ground floor (since closed) in a glass-and-metal space jutting out from the building’s core onto its plaza. The six-story building, highlighted in a 1973 New York Times article about the city’s ambitious construction boom, has a concrete facade with a deep gray aluminum oxide finish, which the Times noted was a product developed by the client “for use in its industrial sanding belts.”
What would have been his biggest and boldest local project never came close to construction. In the mid-1960s, SOM was asked to come up with a masterplan for a new suburban campus for SUNY Buffalo, with Bunshaft leading the project. As retold by William Greiner and Thomas Headrick in Location, Location, Location, “SUNY wanted a site plan from SOM; Bunshaft wanted to design the whole campus.”
In 1967, the architect proposed a mile-long megastructure to serve a projected 40,000 students, faculty, and staff. Towers would emerge from a 3-story spine for “faculties and associated schools in inter-disciplinary groupings.” Undergraduate colleges would be grouped into integrated academic and residential buildings on the periphery. The proposal was a dramatic departure from the classic campus quadrangle; Bunshaft “had proceeded largely on his own,” leaving a key university official upset with the architect for leaking his concept to the press. A State University Construction Fund (SUCF) official informed Bunshaft that while “creative and daring,” they could not proceed. After a meeting described as “tense and testy, at least on Bunshaft’s side,” the architect stepped away from the project, leaving the rest of his firm to figure it out. SOM submitted a more conservative plan in 1968 before being passed over for another firm.
The only documents in Bunshaft’s personal archives about the project include a copy of the university’s alumni paper in 1966 declaring him as the campus architect, Ezra Stoller’s photos of his model, and a small note that reads:
“Master plan studies for a new University of Buffalo campus. (Our ideas were to [sic] big for the State officials. Never went ahead.) —GB”
Not even a decade after his Albright-Knox addition, there’s no telling how much Buffalo would have been swept up in Bunshaft-mania if he were to have pulled off his heroic megastructure for a growing school hyped as an economic savior and an academic “Berkeley of the East” at the time.
Today, his legend is even dampened by a falsehood. One prominent local historian has erroneously attributed One Seneca Center—an oft-maligned modern skyscraper and Buffalo’s tallest—to Bunshaft in multiple books, describing its foreboding design as “revenge on his hometown” for not getting the SUNY campus built. (The tower was actually designed by Marc Goldstein out of SOM’s San Francisco office.)
Far from seeking “revenge,” Bunshaft donated at least ten art pieces from his own collection, including a Henry Moore sculpture, to the Albright-Knox during his lifetime, and gave $2,000 ($16,000 in 2017 figures) to Temple Beth El, his family’s place of worship, for “general religious and educational purposes,” just before securing plots for himself and his wife in their cemetery.
Bunshaft lived an enviable life that allowed him to assert his creative will at work, in spite of his personality, while collecting art inside at home with his adoring wife. (In his archives, I discovered love letters from Nina to Gordon, some covered in lipstick kisses.) In his will, Bunshaft’s burial wishes express his clear and confident vision of exactly how he would spend eternity: In Buffalo, with his family, and under very specific design standards:
“When I die I am to be buried in the Temple Beth El cemetery in Buffalo, N.Y. I have paid for two plots next to my mother and father. I should be buried next to them and when Nina dies she should be buried next to me. The two tombstones should be exactly like my father’s and mother’s as to size, material, and type of lettering (I designed the tombstone).”
Now it’s on Buffalo to preserve what he gave them for their own time on earth. In the case of an expanding Albright-Knox, surely another architect can once again have the good sense to leave it alone.
A special thanks to the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University for their assistance with this article.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the east and west ends of the museum campus.