Architect Gunnar Birkerts (1925–2017)
Gunnar Birkerts (Gunārs Birkerts) is one of Latvia’s most celebrated architects, well-renowned in the USA and further afield for his striking Modernist designs. Throughout his career in the second half of the 20th century, Birkerts delivered almost 300 designs, including the highly geometrical Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Corning Museum of Glass, which is fashioned to look like melting glass. His final masterpiece is the award-winning National Library of Latvia seated on the left bank of the river Daugava in Rīga with the ambition to become one of the symbols of present day Latvia.
Birkerts stood by the idea that architecture is a form of art yet each project should still respect its space, context and purpose. He found great inspiration in the works of Modernists Alvar Aalto (1898–1976), Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) and Carlo Scarpa (1906–1978) among others. His signature style is characterised by “bold forms, space before structure, minimal detailing, stratified walls and daylight in interior spaces,” wrote architecture critic Kay Kaiser (1951–2016) in “The Architecture of Gunnar Birkerts” in 1989. His preferred materials included concrete, steel and glass.
One of Birkerts’ first success stories is the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, completed in 1973 (now – Marquette Plaza). The bold design calls to mind a suspension bridge. Also well known is the building of the Embassy of the USA in Caracas, Venezuela, which complements the backdrop of the Andean foothills. One can immediately pick up on the zeitgeist of his time in Birkerts’ designs.
What brought Birkerts name back to Latvia is his last work to come to life and, possibly, one of the projects he considered most important – the building of the National Library of Latvia. Commissioned as far back as 1988, yet completed in 2014, also referred to as the Castle of Light (Gaismas pils), the building is a metaphor for a Latvian folk tale, in which the Castle of Light represents wisdom.
The building is rich in symbols and allegories from Latvian culture and nature, and many of the building’s features pose a deeper meaning. The asymmetrical shape of the building is inspired by a Latvian folk tale about three men scaling a glass mountain on horseback to rescue an imprisoned princess – the story that is also related to Latvia’s quest for independence. Its windows are inspired by and represent birch trees. The floor of the atrium has polished granite laid in a traditional Latvian linen-weave pattern. Birkerts designed not only the building itself, but also its interiors and furniture.
Birkerts was born in Rīga in 1925 to writer, folklorist and philosopher Pēteris Birkerts (1881–1956), and linguist, folklorist and teacher Mērija Šopa Birkerts (1895–1982). Like many Latvians from the intelligentsia, Birkerts fled to Germany during World War II to escape potential deportation to Siberia by the Soviets. In Germany, he completed his Architecture studies at the Technical University of Stuttgart. With a degree in hand, Birkerts emigrated to the USA where he spent most of his time in the metropolitan area of Detroit. After working with a number of influential architects – at Perkins & Will, with Minoru Yamasaki (1912–1986), Eero Saarinen and Robert Venturi (1925–2018) on projects including Dhahran Airport (now – King Abdulaziz Air Base) in Saudi Arabia. In 1962 Birkerts founded his own firm. Often, his works would feature on the covers of architecture magazines.
In the 1970s, Birkerts spent time in Italy where he took on the role of resident architect at the American Academy in Rome. For 30 years, Birkerts was also an academic at the University of Michigan. Never one to stop practicing while teaching, his addition to the university’s Law Library was included in the 2007 American Institute of Architects (AIA) list of the 150 most notable buildings constructed in the USA. He holds a number of awards to his name and was nominated for the AIA’s highest annual honour – the Gold Medal – in 2012, 2014 and 2015. Birkerts was married to fellow Latvian Sylvia Zvirbulis (Silvija Zvirbulis) with whom he had three children.
After completing the National Library of Latvia, Birkerts donated his own professional book collection to it. In 2016, part of it was made openly accessible to library visitors in the so-called Birkerts’ Corner. It provides a unique look into Birkerts’ mind, his inspirations and his era. Since 2017, visitors to the National Library of Latvia are also welcome to learn more about the building and its architect at the free-of-charge permanent exhibition dedicated to him.
National Library of Latvia. Gunnar Birkerts, Modris Ģelzis, Mārcis Mežulis, Dainis Rūdolfs Šmits, Sandra Laganovska, Andis Arbidāns. Latvian Architecture Award 2015, video by Latvian Association of Architects.
Birkerts, G. (2000). Arhitektūrai jābūt laikmetīgai, nevis modernai: [saruna ar arhitektu]. No: Millenium. Skats uz Latviju. 2. sēj. Rīga: Madris; Latvijas Zinātņu akadēmija.
Birkerts, Gunars. (2009). Gunnar Birkerts: metaphoric modernist. Stuttgart; London: Edition Axel Menges.
Čaklais, Māris. (2002). Gaismas kungs jeb Sāga par Gunaru Birkertu. Rīga: Pētergailis.
Demakova, Helēna, Vanags, Mārtiņš (sast.). (2002). Gaismas pils: Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas projekts, arhitekts Gunars Birkerts: Venēcijas biennāle. 8. Starptautiskā arhitektūras izstāde = Castle of Light: The National Library of Latvia Project, architect Gunnar Birkerts: La Biennale di Venezia. 8th International Exhibition of Architecture. Rīga: Latvijas Laikmetīgās mākslas centrs.
Kaiser, Kay. (1998). Gunnar Birkerts: metafore ed espansioni sotterranee. Torino: Testo & Immagine.
Latvijas Nacionālā bibliotēka: arhitekts Gunārs Birkerts = National Library of Latvia: architect Gunnar Birkerts. (2015). [Rīga]: Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Atbalsta biedrība.
The architecture of Gunnar Birkerts. (1989). Washington (D.C.): The American Institute of Architects Press; Florence: Centro Di.