Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1909 to Russian immigrant parents, Gordon Bunshaft was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture and came under the influence of a young professor, Lawrence B. Anderson, who fostered an appreciation of modernist design.
Bunshaft worked briefly for Edward Durrell Stone and Raymond Loewy before beginning his forty-two year career at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In his early years with the firm he designed buildings for the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 and Hostess House, a hospitality center for cadets at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois (1941-42). After serving in the Corps of Engineers during World War II, Bunshaft rejoined SOM in 1947. Later that year he transferred to the firm’s New York office; he became a full partner in 1949. It was as chief designer for Lever House (1950-52) that Bunshaft first earned renown. In the words of architectural critic, Paul Goldberger, this twenty-four story office tower was “New York’s first major commercial structure with a glass curtain-wall (only the United Nations Secretariat preceded it), and it burst onto the stuffy, solid masonry wall of Park Avenue like a vision of a new world.”‘
Following Lever House, Bunshaft was involved in the design of a number of outstanding buildings, including the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company headquarters (1957) in Bloomfield, Connecticut; the Pepsi-Cola Building’ (1958-60) on Park Avenue; the United States Air Force Academy (1959) in Colorado Springs; the Chase Manhattan Bank Headquarters and Plaza (1960-61) and 140 Broadway (1964-67) in lower Manhattan; the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (1963) at Yale University; the W.R. Grace Building (1973) on West 42nd Street; the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library (1971) at the University of Texas, Austin; the Hirshhom Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974) in Washington, D.C.; and the National Commercial Bank (1983) in Jedda, Saudi Arabia.
Gordon Bunshaft was awarded the Brunner Prize of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1955, and its gold medal in 1984. He also received the Medal of Honor from the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He was awarded the Pritzker Prize, often called the architectural equivalent of the Nobel Prize, in 1988, two years before his death.