Flying High with Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future

an exhibition at the National Building Museum, Washington, D.C.,May 3–August 23, 2008; the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Walker Art Center, September 14, 2008–January 4, 2009; the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis, Missou
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and Donald Albrecht.
Yale University Press, 382 pp., $65.00; $50.00 (paper)

The Gateway Arch: A Reflection of America

a film directed by Scott Huegerich and Bob Miano, narrated by Kevin Kline
Civil Pictures, DVD, $24.95


The premature death of a major artist inevitably raises an unanswerable question: What might have been? But when an exceptionally promising architect such as Eero Saarinen dies at an early age the loss seems especially tragic, because the slow pace of the building process has always made architecture anything but a young man’s game. For ages, aspiring master masons served long apprenticeships until they were judged ready to erect their own designs. More recently, graduate education and professional certification have further delayed architects’ construction careers. Today, few practitioners outside large firms are able to execute anything bigger than a private house before they turn forty.

A number of renowned architects throughout history have reached a great age. Christopher Wren died at ninety, an eighteenth-century Methuselah. In our own time, Frank Lloyd Wright reached ninety-one, Philip Johnson ninety-eight, and Oscar Niemeyer turned one hundred last December. But Wright would still be considered a genius if he had died at forty, having already demonstrated his most important concepts. Conversely, one of the most influential early Modernists was the Italian visionary Antonio Sant’Elia, who was killed in action in World War I at twenty-eight. Although Sant’Elia never erected a single building, his Città Nuova scheme of 1914—a fantasy skyscraper metropolis as psychologically fascinating and structurally implausible as Piranesi’s carceri d’invenzione—has inspired urban provocateurs from Le Corbusier to Rem Koolhaas. However, unlike poètes maudits and Hollywood sex symbols, it’s generally a bad career move for architects to die young.

Eero Saarinen was cut down in his prime when he died, of a brain tumor, in 1961, a mere fifty-one years old. In his all-too-brief heyday, during the expansive Eisenhower years, he was one of America’s most lionized architects, a pet of the popular and the professional press. Yet almost a half-century later, there is still no critical consensus about what his place should be, mainly because this stylistic vagrant has remained so difficult to position among his more readily classifiable High Modernist peers.

Saarinen’s head cheerleader was his well-connected second wife, Aline, a best-selling arts journalist, New York Times editor, and ubiquitous cultural broadcaster during the golden age of television. As she confided to her mentor Bernard Berenson in 1958, “Now I observe myself ardently promulgating the Eero-myth.” But academic critics were far from enthusiastic. The Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully detected in Saarinen’s more exuberant designs an oppressive triumphalism—epitomized by the flamboyantly engineered, dinosaur-like David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink of 1956–1958 at Yale—and found his buildings symptomatic of “a good deal that was wrong with American architecture in the mid-1950s: exhibitionism, structural pretension, self-defeating urbanistic arrogance.”

Others thought Saarinen was prone to cloying scenographic effects. After the British critic Reyner Banham visited the architect’s Morse and Stiles Colleges of 1958–1962 at Yale—a village-like dormitory complex that brings to mind an opera buffa stage set, or worse, a Tuscan-themed Las Vegas resort—he wrote that it “disgusted me at sight, and it still disgusts me.” And the Italian architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri denounced…

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