David Chasco Reflects on Experiences with Gunnar Birkerts
The Plym Distinguished Professorship
The Plym Distinguished Professorship is a very special position within the School of Architecture. It was made possible by a gift to the school in 1981 by the late Lawrence J. Plym of Niles, Michigan. Mr. Plym was past president of the Kawneer Corporation. Mr. Plym and his family have a very warm association with the University of Illinois and the School of Architecture.
The Plym Professorship is conferred on an architect who has a distinguished record of achievement and can make a positive contribution to the enrichment of the professional education of students in thesSchool. Our past Plym Professors have included Gunnar Birkerts, Paul Rudolph, Joseph Esherick, Minoru Takeyama, Edmund Bacon, Thom Mayne, Carme Pinos, Dominque Perrault, Frances Halsband, William Miller, Norman Crowe, Ken Yeang, Kengo Kuma, Kenneth Frampton, and Juhani Pallasmaa.
Gunnar Birkerts was the first recipient of the Plym Distinguished Professorship in Architecture at the Illinois School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gunnar was in full residence at the School of Architecture’s Erlanger House for the entire spring term in 1983. Professor Emeritus James Warfield served as the faculty host and collaborated with Gunnar in the development of his semester in residence, which included a series of lectures, symposiums, design crits, and exhibitions. Assisting Professor Warfield were Professors Jack Baker and Visiting Professor David M. Chasco. An initial trip by Warfield and Chasco was made to Birmingham, Michigan, to visit Gunnar in his office and begin the process of defining the characteristics of his Plym Professor semester in residence.
Gunnar, as the first Plym Distinquished Professor, quickly set the standard for all Plym Professors who followed. Gunnar spent the entire semester in residence at the Erlanger House and could be seen most days at the school. His presence in the school was natural. He fit in as if he belonged here. Not until Juhani Pallasmaa’s Plym Professorship in 2010 did another Plym Professor occupy the entire semester in residence at the Erlanger House. Gunnar’s stay from a personal, professional, and academic standpoint became the barometer by which all future Plyms were measured.
Early Career Reflections
Of course there were many special moments between Gunnar and me. As a member of the “greatest generation” of late century modernists who were part of the Saarinen experience and legacy, he was well known to the school’s faculty and its student body. I knew Gunnar’s/GBA’s body of design work well. At that time, we would discuss how Gunnar was among the top five most influential design architects in America and the only one who practiced in the mid-continental. We all waited for his arrival. At the time, I had just graduated with an M.Arch from Illinois and was finishing a three-year visiting professor teaching contract. I was quite excited to be selected to assist with Gunnar’s visit.
My earliest encounter with Gunnar once he was settled in the Erlanger House was to visit him and plan an exhibition of his conceptual sketches. In the two-story living room, we had several white top tables set up back to back with chairs on each side. I had seen his sketches during the office visit and felt they would make an informative and fascinating exhibition if mounted in a professional format. He agreed to the idea and ultimately was thankful for the effort. The sketches became the background for a complete series of posters announcing his semester Plym public activities!
I felt privileged to sit alone with Gunnar that evening, talking across two simple white tables in the middle of the two-story living room. Of course he had a bottle of his Orvieto wine on the table. He invited me stay and talk . . . over wine . . . talk about architecture, about him, about me. Gunnar loved the contemporary house with the two-story living room and brick wall interiors, with the sunken conversation pit separated from the living room by a sculpted black painted metal fireplace whose metal flue sleekly descended from the upper ceiling. The full south face of the loft bedroom extended east to west across the whole of the two-story living room and the large plate glass windows giving view to the south courtyard. He appreciated that every morning he could arise, take a few steps to the loft edge, and look out, seeing earth and sky, and he could look down to the living room below and see the day’s tasks arranged on the white tables. It was an elegant rectangular scheme made powerful in its simplicity; he loved living in it, entertaining in it, and spending time in it with the architect, Professor Jack Baker.
That evening defined the career trajectory of my life. As we sat there conversing over wine, he was working on some sketches for a project. He asked me what I thought as he pushed one sketch toward me, probably to get a closer look. I grabbed the roll of sketch paper and laid it over the sketch and sketched over it. Then it dawned on me that perhaps I was to only comment on his sketch. He did not seem bothered. He sketched again in response. It was the beginning of many informal afternoon and evening meetings at the Erlanger House working on various events with Gunnar. When I joined the firm in the fall of 1983, that began an almost 20-year professional and personal relationship with Gunnar, with 17 collaborating directly in the firm on such projects as the Caracas Embassy, the Holtzman and Silverman underground built design, the University of Michigan–Flint Library, the Minnesota History Competition, urban design proposals for the Fiat Corporation in Florence and Milan, the Michigan Technological University Rosza Center for the Performing Arts built design, the Detroit Cathedral Renovation—the last project collaboration with Gunnar, Anthony, and Jane—and many many others in between. Of course I was honored to have worked with and collaborated with so many talented individuals of what I came to view as the third-generation leadership of the firm lead by Gunnar, Kenneth Rohlfing, Anthony Gholz, Tony Duce, Kevin Shultis, and Barb Bos early and then Mary Jane Williamson, Susan Brozes . . . and so many talented design individuals. It was a very humbling time in my career but one that shaped me personally and professionally. My efforts with the GBA and architectural education were recognized with the Plym Traveling Fellowship, the AIA Michigan President’s Award, and Fellowship in the American Institute of Architects. Given the design education I received from Gunnar and these many talented individuals, and given that Gunnar provided the opportunity to teach a design studio at Lawrence Technological University each semester, I eventually became the interim dean of the College of Architecture and Design for two years, from 2002 to 2004 as my involvement with the firm wound down. This led to becoming the director of the Illinois School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 2004 to 2014, becoming the chancellor’s advisor for architecture and master planning from 2007 to 2015, and remaining a professor of architecture in the school.
All as a result of that initial eventful evening at the Erlanger House.
Of course there were so many wonderful and memorable moments wrapped around each project and the teams of individuals I was privileged to collaborate with. However at this time, it is some of the personal moments of interactions that come to mind. Certainly spending the afternoon with Gunnar, Sylvia, and Beth swimming in Lake Michigan comes to mind. We were at the Consumer Power’s South Haven retreat center for the weekend to make a presentation on the State of Michigan Historical Rare Book Library renovation. Governor Engler and his wife, Michelle, the Devoses, Joel Ferguson, and others were there also, as members of the library board, if I recall. We had a free afternoon, and the four of us were trying to body surf in the Lake Michigan waves. Then Beth and I listened as Gunnar and Sylvia recounted how they met! When I came back from a four-month Plym Traveling Fellowship in Europe, Gunnar greeted me at my desk with a bear hug! Then he noted we had lots of work to catch up on. . . . I think we made up those four months of work in the following month! Sitting at my desk on a Saturday morning and meeting with Gunnar, who had just returned from Latvia, who recounted carrying some of his mother’s items across the border with the Russian guards . . . it was a poignant moment and one clearly wrapped up in Europe’s ruptured history of the times and the lifetime struggle of separation and then freedom that allowed Gunnar to return to Latvia as its favorite architect son. Another favorite was standing with Gunnar on the embassy site in Caracas as we discussed design opportunities only to be caught in a tropical downpour. We raced down the road to seek shelter as we stood in a parking lot with water well above our ankles. We wondered then how could we meet the embassy guidelines of not having any canopy at the entry in order to avoid blast infill. Of course we eventually included a long beautiful canopy Gunnar designed once the common sense of realizing the tropical storms would always prevail set in! Of course there were a couple of moments of being taken to the “Latvian woodshed,” but I think I talked my way out the issues at the time. Whew! I will remember all of these special moments in the firm. I will remember the phone calls while director at Illinois. I will remember him always sending the latest book with a short note. My library will always have the special shelves of his signed books, the complete magazine collection of all the journals with featured personal and GBA articles he gave me, old project manuals and rolls of drawings of key projects that Anthony and Ken were kind enough to pass to me. And yes, I will always have my many design sketches of the contributions to the projects that Gunnar allowed me to keep, a most meaningful legacy of our first Erlanger House meeting.
I have lived a life rich in architecture and all of its experiences. It is a life of special memories, meanings, and influences of my early years with Gunnar and the many special individuals he brought into his orbit.
—Professor David M Chasco, FAIA
Past Director, 2004-2014
Plym Traveling Fellow
“If you have a building that has a need, a particular charge to do something; if there is a soul somewhere in the program, that the building has to talk, inspire or project; then this is the biggest challenge: To express the soul, the feeling, the meaning, the essence of what it is and what it does.”
—Gunnar Birkerts, FAIA
Distinguished Plym Professor