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Flying High with Eero Saarinen

Now that an authoritative overview is finally before us, some judgments can be made. Although the catalog is abundantly illustrated, a better sense of why Saarinen stood apart from his peers can be gathered from another new book, Eero Saarinen: Buildings from the Balthazar Korab Archive, with striking color images that practically leap off the page. The Michigan-based Korab and his two major competitors—Ezra Stoller of New York and Julius Shulman of Los Angeles—were to the photography of midcentury modern architecture what their contemporaries Ansel Adams and Yousuf Karsh were to the western landscape and celebrity portraiture, respectively: unapologetic showmen who played to popular notions of the heroic in order to ennoble their subjects. And both were adept (if formulaic) technicians with foolproof commercial instincts.

Stoller’s 1962 black-and-white photo essay on the TWA Terminal remains unsurpassed in conveying the essence of an unconventional architectural masterpiece. But neither he nor Shulman (whose virtuosic ability to bring out a thousand shades of gray was akin to that of 1930s cinematographers) commanded Korab’s gift for high-keyed color. Like all but a few of his High Modernist colleagues, Saarinen had little interest in the expressive potential of architectural color. But the sensuously modeled contours of his strongest buildings never looked more alive than when Korab shot them against the ravishing tints of dawn or twilight. He captured the buoyant optimism of his favorite subject to perfection, the visual equivalent of Frank Sinatra’s infectiously upbeat 1957 LP Come Fly with Me, the ideal soundtrack for Saarinen’s aerodynamic structures, which seem ready to lift into orbit.

3.

No modern architect derived greater benefit from family connections than Saarinen, who was born in Finland in 1910, on the thirty-seventh birthday of his father, Eliel, their homeland’s pre-eminent architect during the first third of the twentieth century (until Alvar Aalto, a half-generation between the two Saarinens and much more significant than either). Eero was raised at Hvitträsk, the communal country house and studio near Helsinki created by his father and two colleagues in the arts-and-crafts-oriented National Romantic movement, which asserted Finnish independence after centuries of domination by Sweden and Russia. Although this vigorously embellished ensemble was influenced to some extent by the other new free styles that erupted around the turn of the twentieth century, these utopian young Finns were more politically motivated than their European counterparts. As was true with exponents of the widespread fin-de-siècle phenomenon called Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), the National Romanticists placed great emphasis on the complete coordination of all aspects of design, from the grandest environmental concepts to the tiniest decorative grace notes, the same unified approach then being pursued in America by Frank Lloyd Wright under his rubric of “organic architecture.”

Eliel Saarinen attracted international attention with his second-place entry in the Chicago Tribune Building competition of 1922, which many thought superior to the prize-winning scheme, by John Mead Howell and Raymond Hood. Saarinen’s powerfully massed, clean-lined proposal, free of fussy historical details, made an immediate impact on American skyscraper design (as seen in the rapid adaptation of his principal ideas by Ralph Walker for his look-alike New York Telephone Building of 1923– 1926 in Lower Manhattan). Rarely has losing a competition been such a boon to an architect’s career. Favorable publicity about Saarinen caught the eye of the Detroit newspaper magnate George Booth, who wanted to establish an American design school based on arts-and-crafts principles. He asked the recent émigré not only to design the Cranbrook Academy of Art, built on Booth’s estate in suburban Detroit, but also to head the school and shape its curriculum, whereupon the architect resettled with his family on the nascent campus.

Eero’s formidable mother, Loja (herself the child of an eminent architect, Eliel’s Hvitträsk collaborator Herman Gesellius), was an accomplished textile designer and sculptor who further ensured that her boy’s precocious talents were not merely encouraged, but given ample opportunity for application. He began working in his father’s architectural office at fifteen, creating decorative elements and furnishings for Cranbrook. (Such early employment was a throwback to craft apprenticeships, which traditionally began after religious confirmation at age fourteen.) Although the younger Saarinen’s mature work adhered to the High Modernist proscription against the applied ornament and vivid pattern so integral to his father’s arts-and-crafts credo, he never abandoned his great concern for the sympathetic furnishing and landscaping of his buildings.

Saarinen fils had a flair for furniture design, rewarded when he and a close Cranbrook contemporary, Charles Eames, won two first prizes for chairs they collaborated on for the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition of 1940. Eames and his wife, Ray, went on to become the supreme furniture designers of the twentieth century. Eero Saarinen went on to create two icons of modern seating: the spindly-legged but warmly enveloping Womb chair of 1946–1948 (a wool-upholstered reinterpretation of the traditional high-backed club chair) and the sleekly reductive Pedestal chair of 1954–1957 (a continuous flow of white plastic supported by a single, centered column flaring upward from a circular base). These classics are still produced by Knoll, the high-style furniture manufacturer whose longtime presiding spirit, Florence Schust Knoll, studied at Cranbrook during the 1930s and was welcomed into the Saarinen family circle (although she did not marry Eero, as his mother wished).

By the time large-scale civilian construction resumed after the war, young Saarinen—a partner in Eliel’s practice since 1937—was better positioned than any other architect of his generation to land the big new jobs that poured forth following years of pent-up demand. The backing of his father’s long-established office lent weight to the thirty-seven-year-old’s winning entry in the St. Louis memorial competition. Two years before Eliel’s death in 1950, Eero assumed full creative control of the firm, which saw the last of his father’s stuffy Stripped Classicism—the farthest the rather conservative Eliel was prepared to go on the road to High Modernism. Always a quick study, the younger Saarinen grasped how avidly the postwar American business establishment was taking to the cost-efficient, easily adaptable International Style. In his no-nonsense, meticulously Miesian design for the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, begun in 1948, we can see the precise moment when the mantle passed from father to son. On his own, Eero quickly became more famous than Eliel ever had been.

Saarinen’s output as a whole divides quite easily between the building categories he excelled at—corporate offices and airports—and others he never seemed to master—embassies and dormitories. In 1954, the US State Department began a commendable (if ultimately disappointing) program to improve the quality of its foreign-service architecture, reflecting America’s new position as an international superpower. Although several of the country’s (and the century’s) most lauded architects were enlisted—Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Paul Rudolph, and I.M. Pei among them—none delivered his best work, perhaps inhibited by notions of official decorum or daunted by how to represent the nation in architectural form.

Saarinen’s skyrocketing professional status was confirmed by his receiving three of these coveted commissions: an addition to the American Embassy in his homeland’s capital, Helsinki (1952–1953, but never executed), and the US Chancellery buildings in Oslo (1955–1959) and London (1955–1960). The London legation offices were accorded a prestigious site that had been leveled by the Blitz, on Grosvenor Square in Mayfair. The architect’s early sketches document his struggle with a landmark urban setting worlds away from the spacious corporate arcadias and idyllic campuses he was used to. He finally gave up his classicist attempts and defaulted to a variant of his modernist Oslo solution: a long, relatively low, flat-roofed façade paneled with stone-framed, upright rectangular windows.

Ten years after VE Day, debate still raged over whether bombed-out London ought to be reconstructed in a historical or contemporary manner. Saarinen somehow thought his buff-colored, New Brutalist scheme was sympathetic to its redbrick Georgian surroundings. Few British critics, traditionalist or modernist, agreed, and they stirred up the biggest controversy of Saarinen’s career. The embattled architect was not helped when he asked Theodore Roszak to sculpt an enormous eagle to adorn the Grosvenor Square façade. This garish gilded-aluminum mascot, with the wingspan of a small plane and a predatory mien, handed the project’s opponents a made-to-order caricature of Ugly American hubris at a time of mounting British resentment over the role reversal between the two imperial powers—ours waxing, theirs waning.

The unprecedented growth of American higher education after World War II demanded new student housing to keep up with ballooning enrollment. A year before victory, Saarinen was asked to prepare a master plan for Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, one of many institutions bracing for the influx of demobilized GIs eager to complete their education. In the typical pattern of architectural patronage, one commission begat a similar one, then another and another, but more often than not Saarinen’s academic schemes were as lackluster as his State Department designs.

Oddly for an architect who grew up on a campus designed by his own father, Saarinen had little apparent feeling for the social aspects of student life, and his dorm layouts often failed to encourage personal interaction. One noteworthy exception was the visitors’ lounge at Vassar’s Emma Hartman Noyes House of 1954–1958. This secluded seating area, which the architect recessed below floor level, encouraged intimacies unanticipated by the bemused client but seized upon by grateful residents and their suitors, who dubbed Saarinen’s popular innovation “the passion pit.” However, none of his many dormitory designs approached the brilliance of his countryman Alvar Aalto’s Baker House of 1946–1949 at MIT. Aalto’s audacious, serpentine ground plan emerged from his desire to minimize the dehumanizing effect of long residence hall corridors, rather than to maximize an eye-catching exterior, all too often Saarinen’s seeming motivation.

4.

Saarinen’s desire to make modern architecture more emotionally expressive, at a time when the late International Style seemed to be running on empty, won his office a following for its churches, a growth industry during the suburbanization of 1950s America. But his attempts to convey spirituality through a new vocabulary of forms were only intermittently successful. Unlike Aalto, who used indirect natural light to define sacred space with a power matched in modern architecture only by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, Saarinen relied for the most part on new iterations of familiar religious motifs. For example, the needle-like, 192-foot-high spire of his North Christian Church of 1959–1964 in Columbus, Indiana (commissioned by his most frequent patron, the industrialist J. Irwin Miller, who turned his small hometown into a Modernist wonderland), updated the imagery of medieval spires, and proved that the flèche is not weak if the spirit is willing.

Saarinen’s most moving work of religious architecture was his nondenominational Kresge Chapel of 1950– 1955 at MIT, the form and materials of which owe a great deal to Aalto’s Baker House, a few hundred feet away. The rough-finished brick that Saarinen chose for both the circular exterior and undulating interior walls of this small but monumental cylinder is so similar to the cladding of the undulating Baker House that direct inspiration seems certain. The chapel’s windowless sanctuary is illuminated by an oculus directly above the minimalist white marble altar, behind which is suspended a see-through, floor-to-ceiling metal screen by the sculptor Harry Bertoia. Only cynics will interpret Bertoia’s glittering reredos as a rain of golden banknotes fluttering down from a beneficent deity.

Saarinen came closest to expressing the zeitgeist of the incipient Space Age in his three superb aviation terminals: TWA; Dulles International Airport of 1958–1963 in Chantilly, Virginia; and Athens Airport of 1960– 1969. It is hard enough for an architect to rethink conventional attitudes toward familiar functional problems. It is an even greater challenge for an architect to invent a structure that can accommodate a function for which there is little or no precedent. The latter was often required during the nineteenth century, when the proliferation of new technologies prompted innovative architectural solutions that could mesh modern functions with the existing urban fabric. The train station is the prime example of this phenomenon: a building unknown before the Industrial Revolution, but essential to all cities after the advent of railways.

Commercial air travel was no longer a novelty by the time Saarinen was hired by Trans World Airlines, in 1956, but the air transport industry was about to embark on a vast expansion made possible by the new generation of large-scale jet aircraft, which would transform a privilege for the elite into a commonplace for the masses. The idea of transcontinental and foreign air travel needed to be marketed to an inexperienced public skeptical or even afraid of flying.

All three of Saarinen’s airport schemes were intended to make getting onto a plane an exciting but above all a reassuring experience. The TWA Terminal is now nearing the end of a long-overdue renovation by its new owner, JetBlue, which will return the run-down landmark to something like its original state. While TWA’s soaring lines suggest the common perception of it as a bird in flight, the architect disclaimed any intentional resemblance and other analogies make equal sense. The womb-like, cavernous interiors flow from one into another with an organic inevitability reminiscent of various biological morphologies or geological formations.

Saarinen’s denial of representational references at TWA was the opposite of Santiago Calatrava’s present-day avowal of avian symbolism in his flock of air and rail terminals. However, an airport building that evokes a winged creature is one thing, but a train station in the form of a fowl—Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub of 2004, now under construction in Lower Manhattan—is quite another. This ornithophile architect won many hearts when he revealed that the hub scheme came to him in a vision of the dove of peace ascending heavenward at Ground Zero. To laugh would have risked getting tarred and feathered.

Although Saarinen has been accused of some of the same tendencies now held against Calatrava—particularly a fondness for ostentatious engineering displays when simpler solutions would suffice—Saarinen, even at his shallowest, had far more depth than Calatrava. Nonetheless, despite the best efforts of Saarinen’s valiant partisans, their rehabilitation campaign forces the unfortunate conclusion that his body of work simply cannot bear the sustained scrutiny merited by the oeuvre of a true underappreciated genius of modernism like Aalto (whose lifespan overlapped Saarinen’s and exceeded it by a decade at each end).

The disproportionate interest in Saarinen today shows how historical perspective can be skewed by contemporary fixations, and how immediate concerns can make us believe that we best see the past not through a clarifying lens, but reflected in a mirror. As Venturi mused at Yale,

Is it not ironical that the neo-modernism characteristic of today’s architecture, which is spectacularly expressionistic via its forms rather than richly iconographic via its symbolism, can be said to represent a kind of Saarinen revival—or survival?

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