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Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990)

Dates of Interview:

April 4, 5, 6, 7, 1989

Location of Interview:

Bunshaft's home in New York City


Betty J. Blum

Length of Transcript:

333 pages
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Biographical Summary

Gordon Bunshaft was born in 1909 in Buffalo, New York. He studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning his bachelor's degree in 1933 and his master's degree in 1935. Bunshaft was awarded both the MIT Honorary Traveling Fellowship and the Rotch Traveling Fellowship, with which he traveled in Europe from 1935 until 1937. Upon his return to the United States he took a job in the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where he worked until 1942. He rejoined SOM in 1946 after serving in the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Bunshaft's designs include the award-winning Lever House and Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City; Connecticut General in Bloomfield, Connecticut; the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University; the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas; and the National Commercial Bank and Haj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He was a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art and served on the President's Commission on Fine Arts (1963-72). He was awarded many honors, including the Brunner Memorial Prize, the Gold Medal from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1984), the Medal of Honor from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the Pritzker Prize (1988). Bunshaft was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1958. He died in 1990 in New York City.

Interview Highlights

Bunshaft speaks about his family and early years; studying architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; travel in Europe; the beginnings of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; influence of Le Corbusier; meeting Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe; military service in World War II; Lever House; Chase Manhattan Bank's art program; the National Commercial Bank and Haj Terminal in Saudi Arabia; the Beinecke Library at Yale University; the Lyndon B. Johnson Library at the University of Texas in Austin; serving on the President's Commission on Fine Arts.

Lever House; New York City, 1952.
Photograph by Annemarie van Roessel.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; New Haven, Connecticut, 1963.
Photograph by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Yale University Office of Public Affairs.

Interview Excerpt

"Perhaps the most important thing that ever happened to me was that I was born on May 9, 1909, with parents who had just come from Russia a year before I was born. Most of the rest of the period up until the time I graduated from MIT was made possible through the devotion and determination of my father and mother that I should have the opportunity to get a full education in the country they had just become part of. It was their devotion and their dedication and encouragement that made life relatively easy for me the first twenty-five years of life....They were poor when they arrived, but my father worked very hard and saved money and eventually sent me through MIT as if I were the son of a very rich man....So, I have my parents to thank for most of this....The fortunate thing that I was born at that time was that the timing was perfect, because when I returned from the army after the Second World War, I had already had a few years of practice at SOM. I already had two degrees from MIT and a Rotch Traveling Fellowship. So, in 1947 the United States, especially in New York, was starting on a building boom. Clients wanted modern architecture, and here I was at the right age, excited about modernism, and fortunate enough to join Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1937 when it consisted of Owings in Chicago and Skidmore in New York with a couple of men. That's the point of my being excited about having been born in 1909." (pp. 1-3)

Additional Resources

Gordon Bunshaft images in the R&B Archives
Related archival materials in the R&B Archives
Works by Bunshaft in the Department of Architecture and Design

Funding for this oral history was provided by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Funding for the electronic presentation of this transcript was provided by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council.