Gunnar Birkerts, a modernist architect who created dozens of elegant, gleaming buildings around the world, including a national library in his native Latvia that has become the country’s symbolic “Castle of Light,” died Aug. 15 at his home in Needham, Mass. He was 92.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said a son, the literary critic Sven Birkerts.
Mr. Birkerts began sketching buildings as a teenager in Latvia, studied architecture in Germany and built his career in Michigan, where he was a protege of the Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen.
In 1982, a survey of architecture professors named Mr. Birkerts one of the country’s 10 most important architects of “nonresidential structures,” along with I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson and others.
With one of his first major buildings, the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis (completed in 1974 and now a commercial office building), Mr. Birkerts adapted construction principles of the suspension bridge, with most of the building’s floors supported by cables, allowing for a column-free interior. The idea was further reflected in the glass facade, with a deeply curving line reminiscent of bridge cables.
Mr. Birkerts rarely repeated himself throughout his career and did not have a signature visual style, other than an ingenious ability to arrange windows and mirrors to refract light deep inside his buildings.
“I suppose I just feel too secure to need a dogma,” he told The Washington Post in 1980. He rejected unified design theories because “they take out the spirit of invention.”
Some of his buildings, such as the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, which seemed to grow naturally from its setting in the foothills of the Andes, had an organic, earthy quality. His corporate headquarters for Domino’s Pizza in Ann Arbor, Mich., was designed, at the behest of company founder Tom Monaghan, in the low, ground-hugging manner of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style.
Mr. Birkerts’s Calvary Baptist Church in Detroit is an orange pyramid thrusting out of the earth. Other buildings, including the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo., used concrete, glass and steel in ways that seemed to flow, almost as if shaped by hand.
The Corning museum, which opened in 1980, “has the sensible beauty of a hand-cut crystal tumbler,” architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt wrote in The Post. “And like a crystal tumbler, the building can be viewed as a precious work of art or as practical utensil.”
Mr. Birkerts designed many buildings on college campuses, including additions to libraries at Cornell University, the University of California at San Diego and the University of Michigan, where Mr. Birkerts was a longtime faculty member. At Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, he built an underground law library addition that filtered light into three subterranean levels.
Mr. Birkerts said an architect should be “someone who has compassion for humanity,” adding that “architecture may indeed be an art of accommodation, but it is also an art of communication.”
Gunnar Gunivaldis Birkerts was born Jan. 17, 1925, in Riga, Latvia. His parents were divorced when he was an infant, and he was raised by his mother, a teacher and folklorist.
As a teenager during World War II, he fled his country to escape the Russian army as it approached his homeland. Latvia, which was independent during Mr. Birkerts’s childhood, became a satellite state of the Soviet Union.
He moved to Germany, where he received dual degrees in architecture and engineering in 1949 from what is now Stuttgart Technology University of Applied Sciences. While there, he met his future wife, also a native of Latvia.
Mr. Birkerts then came to the United States, where he hoped to work for Saarinen, who designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the main terminal at Dulles International Airport.
Knowing that Saarinen worked late at night, Mr. Birkerts went to the architect’s Michigan office after hours and introduced himself. Saarinen didn’t have a job opening at the time but recommended Mr. Birkerts to a firm in Chicago. After a year, Mr. Birkerts joined Saarinen’s office, where his colleagues included such budding architectural giants as Cesar Pelli, Kevin Roche and Robert Venturi.
Mr. Birkerts later worked at a firm headed by Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the World Trade Center in New York, before opening his own architecture practice in 1963. He taught at the University of Michigan from 1959 to 1990 and moved to Massachusetts in 2007.
Survivors include his wife of 67 years, the former Sylvia Zvirbulis of Needham; three children, Sven Birkerts of Arlington, Mass., Erik Birkerts of Lake Bluff, Ill., and Andra Birkerts-Footer of Wellesley, Mass.; and seven grandchildren.
Mr. Birkerts often explored architectural ideas by drawing rough conceptual sketches he called “brainwaves.” His finished buildings, including the National Library of Latvia, often show few changes from the early sketches.
When he received the commission for the library in 1989, he imagined it as a reflection of the historic Latvian notion of the “crystal mountain,” which few people had the courage or tenacity to scale.
After Latvia won its independence in 1991, Mr. Birkerts decided the library would embody another element of Latvian folklore, that of the Castle of Light, representing the abiding strength of wisdom amid the country’s rebirth of freedom.
“Allegiance to history and culture, and not simply the mode of the day,” he told Blueprint magazine in 2014, “is essential to the lasting quality I strive for in my architecture.”
After 25 years, the library was finally completed in 2014. It rises like a shimmering mountain beside a river, with vertical strips of windows aligned to represent birch trees.
“The birch forest is as Latvian as they come,” Mr. Birkerts said.
Inside, the eight-story atrium blossoms with crystalline light, reflecting off triangular metal fins hanging from the ceiling.
This year, Mr. Birkerts won the Library Building Award of the American Institute of Architects, which pronounced the library a “contemporary Modernist masterpiece.” It was perhaps his greatest design and was certainly his most personal.
Before the library opened its doors, 14,000 Latvian citizens formed a mile-long human chain to pass books from the old library to Mr. Birkerts’s new structure — the accumulated wisdom of a nation moving from one hand to the next until it was safely stored in the Castle of Light.