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Does anyone now believe that Modernism in any of the arts simply disappeared into a black hole in order to make room for Postmodernism? You don’t have to go back far in time to discover trendy architectural academics that were promulgating variations on this theme. As a result of this massive historical distortion codified both in highbrow architectural journalism and college texts, some lesser known architects dedicated to thinking of Modernism as an ever-regenerative mind-set and rigorous tool kit for bold design were marginalized. And among the most talented? Gunnar Birkerts.
My first experience of Birkerts’ architectural power was during a visit to the Kemper Museum of Modern Art and Design in Kansas City. Overshadowed by the nearby Nelson-Atkins museum, it must be the most overlooked small museum in the U.S. Gunnar Birkerts: Metaphoric Modernist offers a fine assortment of Birkerts’ plans: initial and finished drawings and clear color photographs of the Kemper. Martin Schwartz, whose commentary fills most of this text, describes the Kemper as “muscular and assertive even if it is only about 23,000 square feet in area. One observer is reported to have called this museum, ‘the biggest little building he ever saw.’” I would concur – and add that the interior spaces possess a swooping vertiginous dynamism wholly appropriate to the Kemper’s collection. Think of an architect influenced by Aalto who brings to that Northern European austere sensibility the flash and dash of Futurism.