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Eero Saarinen’s Turn
The rediscovery of a great modernist architect

On July 2, 1956, the 45-year-old architect Eero Saarinen ’34BFA was awarded the American Century’s closest thing to a knighthood: the cover of Time Magazine. The United States, the magazine said, “now has a virtual monopoly on the best creative architectural talent … and of the whole U.S. cast of modern architects, none has a better proportioned combination of imagination, versatility, and good sense than Eero Saarinen.”

Saarinen was at the top of his form, working on high-profile projects such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., and the U.S. chancellery in London. Five years later, he died suddenly of a brain tumor. His critical reputation collapsed almost as suddenly: by the mid-1960s, his work was virtually ignored by the architectural establishment.

Born in Finland in 1910, Saarinen was the son of another famous architect.

Now, once again, it is Saarinen’s turn. Scholars are reconsidering his work, which was once considered too populist and shallow to merit study. The last two years have seen a surge of new books, articles, and symposia about Saarinen, and in October, a major exhibition organized in part by the Yale School of Architecture will open in Helsinki, accompanied by a hefty volume published by Yale University Press. The exhibition, “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future,” draws on materials in Saarinen’s archives at Yale. (After traveling in Europe and the United States, the exhibition will come to the Yale Art Gallery in 2010.)

Born in Finland in 1910, Saarinen was the son of another famous architect. His father, Eliel Saarinen, made a name for himself in Finland before coming to America in 1923. The younger Saarinen more or less grew up in his father’s studio in Michigan, then went to Yale for an accelerated degree in architecture.

Saarinen and his father won acclaim for their work together in the 1930s and '40s, but Eero’s big break came in 1948, when he won a competition to design the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. His design, a breathtaking 630-foot-high catenary arch, was chosen over 171 other entries, including his father's. After Eliel Saarinen died in 1950, his son went on to become one of the best-known architects of his day, called on by corporate and institutional clients to produce highly visible buildings that helped to define their images.

Saarinen is often associated with the curvilinear geometries of his airline terminals, the Gateway Arch, and Ingalls Rink at Yale. But unlike others of his time and today, he did not have a signature style that he applied to every building. “He believed that each project had its own artistic expression that grew out of the program and the client,” says School of Architecture dean Robert A. M. Stern '65MArch. “You talked to the client and found out what their sense of themselves was, and how they saw what we could now call their brand.”

To that end, Saarinen cheerfully explored one idiom after another in his buildings. His TWA terminal was a curvaceous, biomorphic concrete structure that seemed to suggest birds and flight. A research center for Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, was a simple six-story box clad in reflective glass—the first use of a material that would in a few years become a modernist cliché.

Saarinen’s work was distrusted while he was alive and dismissed after his death.

And his two projects for his alma mater could scarcely be more different. Ingalls Rink is all curves, a strategy determined in part by the superior sight lines of an oval plan and also by his desire to make a building that would be, he said, “graceful” and “dynamic.” But for Ezra Stiles and Morse colleges, he created a polygonal, abstract version of Yale’s Gothic colleges, using poured concrete in an attempt to create what he called “masonry without masons.”

Critics distrusted Saarinen’s work while he was alive and tended to dismiss it after his death. The influential Yale art history professor Vincent Scully '40, '49PhD, said at last year’s symposium that he had once seen Saarinen’s work as a “stylish packaging of forms” as opposed to the “newly integral kind of design” that Louis Kahn was pursuing at the same time. (Scully, whose views on architecture changed dramatically in the 1960s, has since said he “respects and admires” Saarinen’s buildings; he pays tribute to the TWA terminal on page 48.)

Scully’s criticism reflects the state of architectural thinking at the time. There was a stern air of moral seriousness among architects in the postwar period, and such once-essential attributes as ornament and allusions to past architecture were considered not just ill-advised but wrong. Architects were expected to conform to a specific kind of modernism called the “International Style” (flat-roofed glass boxes and the like) or, at the very least, to have unshakable convictions that were expressed in consistent forms.

Saarinen failed on both counts, which is one reason he was so little studied for so long after his death. (Until recently, only two monographs on his work had been published, in 1962 and 1972.) But it was not just Saarinen’s indifference to the orthodoxies of modernism that kept scholars away: a more practical problem was that the architect’s drawings and papers were largely unavailable to scholars for 40 years. Saarinen’s widow Aline gave some of his papers to Yale in 1971, but the bulk of his drawings, photographs, and project files were in the hands of his successor firm in Connecticut, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, where they had been only partially catalogued. Four years ago, the firm donated the papers to Yale as part of a campaign by Stern to acquire the archives of important architects. Staff of Sterling Library and the School of Architecture have been busily organizing them since then.

It couldn’t have happened at a better time, says Stern. “Saarinen’s dramatic shapes and technical innovations, and his sense that each project was its own unique thing, were highly criticized in his lifetime,” he says. “But that idea has come back into favor and is at the basis of what many young architects have done recently.”

The Yale archive includes some 500 rolls of drawings and more than 100 boxes of other materials.

The upcoming Saarinen exhibition and book, edited by architecture professor Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen '98MED and Donald Albrecht, are the first major projects drawing on the Yale archive, which includes some 500 rolls of drawings and more than 100 boxes of other materials. (Most of the images in this article are from the archive.) The collection offers a detailed look into Saarinen’s creative process—early sketches in which the fundamentals of a design like the Gateway Arch are being worked out or communicated to colleagues, photographs of mockups, and construction drawings showing just how he proposed to build his designs.

Through correspondence and project files, the archive also documents one of the secrets of Saarinen’s success: his ability to work so well with large, conservative corporations—including General Motors, Bell Telephone, IBM, and TWA—and persuade them to try novel forms and technologies.

“Many people today say, ‘There are the commercial architects over there and there are the artistic architects over there, and the twain never meet,’” says journalist Jayne Merkel, whose biography of Saarinen was published last year. “But Saarinen never saw a conflict between architecture as an art and as a profession.”


Architect of Optimism

“In order to see why there’s been a resurgence of interest in Saarinen, you have to ask why he went out of style in the first place. Why was he forgotten so completely?

“One of Saarinen’s great talents was that he had a sense of the spirit of the times. And the work embodied the values of the times. There’s his tremendous interest in technology. The GM tech center, the Yale Whale, the TWA terminal—each time a new technology, as if he were saying, 'Let’s make a challenge for ourselves.' This was that postwar period of optimism when everybody thought technology was going to make the world wonderful.

“And then of course, since Saarinen’s work was so right for that time, it had the wrong aesthetic when the times changed in the Sixties. Nobody believed in optimism and technology when they saw what it wrought in Vietnam and when they saw that it didn’t really create equality in our cities. It took another optimistic time with a resurgence of faith in technology—beginning in the 1990s—for Saarinen’s upbeat, buoyant buildings to seem meaningful again.”


Preparing for Takeoff

“What Eero did understand—had always understood—was American space, America’s vacant space, and he understood the airport, which best serves it. Two of Eero’s greatest designs [the TWA Terminal and Dulles International Airport] clearly come out of that understanding of America’s continental scale. I criticized TWA at the time, reacting to the concrete structure choked with steel and questioning the bird imagery when it was the planes that flew. But what Eero was trying to do with those forced forms is much more important from a human point of view. It is to make those of us who are about to fly move calmly and intelligently from the tin-can containers of our automobiles to those other tin cans out there on the field, in order to be shut up in them and projected into empty space. What an irrational series of actions. Anything could happen at any time, and yet we do it all the time, habituated to it though never entirely free of anxieties. (I suspect the bravest hero of the Middle Ages could not have been induced to climb into one of those things.) But everything about Eero’s TWA terminal says, You can do it; it is going to be wonderful up there. The beautiful volutes of the plan sweep us up and forward and into space. … It takes this secular act of faith that so many Americans make so often in their lives, this commitment to flight, and transforms it into a sacrament. The first time I flew out of TWA, which I am sorry to say was long after Eero’s death, I thanked his shade, and asked his pardon for my blindness.”


Bend it Like Eero

“There was a whole thread of modern architects who used curves and expressive geometries, like Alvar Aalto, Jorn Utzon, Erich Mendelsohn, and Saarinen. That thread was ignored for a long time by architects, in favor of mid-century high modernists like Richard Neutra. Now, people like Martha Stewart and Calvin Klein have picked up on the high modernist approach, so people in the profession are moving in other directions because that work has already been assimilated. So they’re paying attention to Saarinen and those geometries again.

“With all the digital tools that are available now, architects are looking at what was being done with those kinds of geometries in other kinds of architecture historically. Saarinen was much more hooked up with American corporate culture than Aalto or Utzon, so his architecture has a scale and a monumentality and an institutional presence that those architects didn’t have. So he’s one of the few architects to look to for precedent.

“If you could have given Saarinen a digital modeling tool, he would have loved it. Because I think in his work there was a real struggle, an attempt to figure out how to rationalize these things and get them built with existing technology. Now it’s much easier, and you don’t need a project on the scale of an airline terminal to do that kind of stuff. It’s more feasible and reasonable on a budget.”


The Undergraduate Heart

“From the beginning, I think his plans for Morse and Stiles were questionable. I think it was a very important quest that Eero engaged in, but only partially successful. Perhaps he was trying to do too much; he was trying to invent a whole new idiom for these colleges, and he didn’t ever get complete control over that idiom.

“Eero wanted the rooms to be irregular—I never discussed with him why he wanted that. The competition for him was the Harkness Quadrangle, which had simply-organized, standardized rooms. But he really wanted to do something that would capture the heart of an undergraduate at that moment when people are still dreaming about life and living in a slightly unreal world. All of the old colleges do so very well.

“The urban design aspects of the project are absolutely fantastic. The space in front of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium is magnificent—the gymnasium never looked as good before as it did after the colleges were built. And the passageway between the two colleges over the common kitchen was brilliant. He was very successful at connecting these cheap buildings with the rest of Yale so they would look as interesting and as rich as the older buildings on the campus. On the whole, though, it was probably too great a task that he set for himself within the time and the budget that were available.

“When he died, the colleges were just starting construction. He was ready to move to Connecticut, and we were just on the cusp of that huge change. I wish he had had at least a year here. Most of his buildings were finished after he died. I still have a hard time accepting that he had to die at that moment. It just seemed so unfair.”



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