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Book Review: "Gunnar Birkerts: Metaphoric Modernist" by Sven Birkerts and Martin Schwartz

A major architect in the history of Modernism finally receives recognition - and sundry asides about why Modernism never exited.

By Norman Weinstein
October 30, 2009

Does anyone now believe that Modernism in any of the arts simply disappeared into a black hole in order to make room for Postmodernism? You don’t have to go back far in time to discover trendy architectural academics that were promulgating variations on this theme. As a result of this massive historical distortion codified both in highbrow architectural journalism and college texts, some lesser known architects dedicated to thinking of Modernism as an ever-regenerative mind-set and rigorous tool kit for bold design were marginalized. And among the most talented? Gunnar Birkerts.


My first experience of Birkerts’ architectural power was during a visit to the Kemper Museum of Modern Art and Design in Kansas City. Overshadowed by the nearby Nelson-Atkins museum, it must be the most overlooked small museum in the U.S. Gunnar Birkerts: Metaphoric Modernist offers a fine assortment of Birkerts’ plans: initial and finished drawings and clear color photographs of the Kemper. Martin Schwartz, whose commentary fills most of this text, describes the Kemper as “muscular and assertive even if it is only about 23,000 square feet in area. One observer is reported to have called this museum, ‘the biggest little building he ever saw.’” I would concur – and add that the interior spaces possess a swooping vertiginous dynamism wholly appropriate to the Kemper’s collection. Think of an architect influenced by Aalto who brings to that Northern European austere sensibility the flash and dash of Futurism.


Birkerts has maintained fidelity to his Latvian roots while embracing Aalto’s humanism, a sense that an architect’s sensitivity to materials and site is ultimately about sensitivity to a client’s daily life delicately shaped by aesthetics. Since Latvian culture is so little known outside of Europe, Birkerts’ greatest achievement to date – the Latvian National Library – has not attracted the attention it warrants. A craggy mountain of modern library replete with subtle references to Latvian folklore, the illustrations in this book make a case for some future architourism to view as provocative a library as Rem Koolhass’s in Seattle.


Prefacing this informative and well-illustrated monograph is an elegant introduction by Sven Birkerts, the architect’s son, a literary critic who never suffered the critical neglect his father has known. From this preface a portrait emerges of a stubborn genius who has never wavered in pursuit of his long-term goals – in spite of Modernism falling out of favor. Gunnar Birkerts is alive and well and working assiduously at age 84. This monograph proves Gertrude Stein’s assertion that no artist is ahead of his or her time. There are simply many people behind theirs. Stein might also have added that many who most loudly proclaim themselves au currant are actually among those behind their time. And whether the label attached to architecture is “Modernist” or “Postmodernist,” the point is always how to make architecture utterly pragmatic and utterly other-worldly. Gunnar Birkerts has achieved success in exactly these terms.



Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record and The Christian Science Monitor, and is the author of the monthly “Words That Build” – an exclusive series on focusing on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably. You can reach him at


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(click on pictures to enlarge)

Edition Axel Menges

Gunnar Birkerts: Metaphoric Modernist