History & Architecture

About the Building

Gunnar Birkerts designed the Kemper Museum’s signature building. Construction began October 2, 1992, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art opened October 2, 1994.

A large atrium, central to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, culminates in an articulated skylight 22 feet high. Extended from either side of the atrium are two wings. Overall, the Kemper Museum measures more than 23,200 gross square feet. The main gallery, measuring 5,697 square feet, features selections from the permanent collection and is used for changing exhibitions. Smaller galleries feature rotating exhibitions, and a meeting room offers works on paper and other glazed works from the permanent collection. Works of art are always on view in the atrium and the corridors of each wing.

In addition to gallery spaces, the Museum houses an A/V-equipped meeting room, an indoor courtyard, a café, and a museum shop.

About the Architect

Gunnar Birkerts founded Gunnar Birkerts and Associates in 1963 and has since established a reputation as one of the country's foremost modernist architects. His many projects include museums, corporate headquarters, and government buildings for clients in the United States, Europe, and South America.

Born in Riga, Latvia, Birkerts trained in Germany and began his professional career in the office of the visionary modernist Eero Saarinen. Sharing Saarinen's affection for expressive forms, Birkerts is noted for architectural designs that are highly evocative and that emphasize the dynamic flow and illumination of space.

Birkerts has completed a number of major museum projects, including the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York; the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston; and the South Wing addition to the Detroit Institute of Art. Other major commissions include the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis; the headquarters for Domino's Pizza in Ann Arbor, Michigan; the United States Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela; and three projects in Italy: a sports center in Venice; a housing complex in Milan; and Novoli, a multi-use center in Florence.

Birkerts served on the faculty of the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Design for more than 30 years, and has also taught at the University of Illinois and the University of Oklahoma. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and has received the Brunner Memorial Prize in Architecture, given by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. 

Architectural Statement

The dynamic building form is expressive of the constant progression of modern art. It presents the distinct personality of the museum while using an informal vocabulary that is not related to any architectural historical style, yet is expressive and accommodating.

The free-flowing interior space unfolds as it progresses. It is not compartmented, but allows flexible transitions from one space to the next, from one gallery to the next, and to the Grand Atrium. A continuous ribbon of daylight provides for continuity and direction within the museum and a connection to the outside. The weaving of nature into the building form further establishes a visual dialogue within the context and a space for outdoor exhibitions.

The building represents its own and unprecedented image. It is not a style to be emulated, but a standard for design quality and responsiveness.

–Gunnar Birkerts