Gunnar Birkerts - Interview

From Massachusetts, where he's relocated after a career in Michigan, the legendary Latvian émigré Gunnar Birkerts talks to Herbert Wright about influences, Latvia and the new National Library


Blueprint: You admire Aalto, Asplund and Saarinen. Is there something in the Baltic background you all share that informs the architecture?

GB: We are all North Europeans, we have these climactic conditions, we have the same vegetation and all that. I was working with Saarinen. There was something with us in common, otherwise he would not have hired me, probably.

Corning Glass Museum extension (1980): Birkerts says it’s the building he’s most proud of

Corning Glass Museum extension (1980): Birkerts says it's the building he's most proud of

Blueprint: Yet you say architects and styles don't influence you. What is your creative process?

GB: I do synthesise everything in my mind. I don't have any attachment or particular interest with any direction or philosophy or dogma -- I have design principles. I don't believe in any architect's form-giving whatsoever. If I design a building, I might look at a published building -- not to be influenced, not to do what's been done before, [but] just to stay away from influence. The mind is not that clear that it would not reproduce something it saw from years back.

Blueprint: Metal surfacing characterises your portfolio and is central to the new National Library. Does it spring from Fifties' American optimism, a futuristic Atomic Age dawning?

The futuristic Duluth Public Library (1980) refers to barges and ‘speaks of the transportation of coal and the Great Lakes’, says BirkertsThe futuristic Duluth Public Library (1980) refers to barges and 'speaks of the transportation of coal and the Great Lakes', says Birkerts

GB: I was influenced by that. And I went to Japan, the [1970] World Exposition Osaka; there was technology and urban movement and stuff. I was influenced by that.

Blueprint: What was your experience of Latvia during Soviet times?

GB: I had one or two trips, to give lectures and show what I was doing [in exhibitions]. There were overwhelming crowds of people coming to us and they liked it. You couldn't talk about intuition and the sub-conscious, and I use that an awful lot in my architecture.

Blueprint: What Latvian architecture from the Soviet period impresses you?

GB: The [Riga] TV Tower [1986, by Gunars Asaris 1934-88)]; that definitely was one. There was a strong modernist in Latvia, Modris Gelzis [1929- 2009, designer of Jurmala Sanitorium, and collaborator on the new library].

The Federal Reserve Bank, Minneapolis (1973)

The Federal Reserve Bank, Minneapolis (1973)

Blueprint: How did the form of the National Library of Latvia develop?

GB: I'll tell the story. My proposal was the Glass Mountain, it was the right image. People embraced the idea. Then a new idea came about the rising up of independence, symbolised by a Castle of Light that was sunk in the dark [and] should rise, and it did rise. What did that do visually? It changes stuff -- how the light was defused into the interior, it meant more terraces, physical projections on the roof.

Blueprint: Is the building both metaphors at the same time?

GB: Yes. There are many metaphors, it's so hard to take them and put them on the table. They are amalgamated in this form.

Blueprint: How do you feel about the original design being reduced in size? GB: The ceilings were lower than I wanted them to be. The building was originally twice as big. It was the same height but it went over the street at the back. It was more flowing; it became less elegant.

Blueprint: What about the building's colour?

GB: In the early models, the building was shown as almost white. The building is basically concrete, the glass is just skin, cladding. I stayed with the glass. The problem is, it's sort of grey-green. My countrymen cannot quite adjust to that. They may expect it to be like window glass. When you take a big piece of glass, it's green. I'm happy with it, I just want everyone to be happy with it.

Blueprint: How was it to work in the metric system after a career using imperial units?

Among Birkerts’ museum projects is the Kemper Contemporary Arts museum (1992) in Kansas CityAmong Birkerts' museum projects is the Kemper Contemporary Arts museum (1992) in Kansas City

GB: I was coming back to something that I knew well.

Blueprint: Is the National Library of Latvia your final great work?

GB: I'm not doing any more architectural work

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