Nighttime panoramic picture of Saarinen’s Gateway Arch.
By: Greg Wooden, Assistant Director of Design, Professional Office Environments (POE)
This Fall, St. Louis, Missouri celebrated the 50th anniversary of its Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the banks of the Mississippi River. Construction of Eero Saarinen’s famed Gateway Arch was completed on October 28, 1965. If only as transcendent architecture, this elegant structure surely deserves recognition. In fact, it earned the American Institute of Architects’ prestigious 25-Year Award in 1990, and is properly regarded as a signature masterpiece of the Modern movement. While it was initially commissioned as a monument to early United States history, most would agree that the Arch has become something more than a simple historical marker. Not only is it the centerpiece of the St. Louis waterfront, it’s also a much-beloved symbol of the city itself. For these very reasons, however, it often overshadows Saarinen’s larger legacy—even the memorial’s documentary film “Monument to the Dream” barely mentions his name. In light of the building’s cultural significance, it seems only appropriate that we also salute the creative genius behind it.
Eero Saarinen was born in Kirkkonummi, Finland, on his father’s 37th birthday: August 20, 1910. The Saarinens were a family of exceptional talents. Eero’s father, Eliel Saarinen, was an acclaimed proto-modernist architect and his mother, Louise “Loja” Saarinen, an accomplished textile designer and sculptor. His older sister, Eva Lisa “Pipsan,” was also destined to become a professional designer. As a child, Eero demonstrated prodigious artistic abilities and his parents began grooming him early for a career in architecture. He grew up in his father’s studio, absorbing the elder Saarinen’s working methods and professional ideology. From his mother, he learned the essentials of sculptural form. The Saarinens’ life centered around the arts, and Eero’s boyhood home often hosted his family’s gifted friends – among them, such luminaries as Hungarian sculptor Geza Maroti, Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Together, these influences formed an auspicious introduction to the life Eero’s parents envisioned for him.
In 1923, encouraged by his second-prize award in the competition for design of the new Chicago Tribune Tower, Eliel Saarinen moved his family to the United States. Here, he capitalized upon his earlier success, soon earning a commission to design the campus of the nascent Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and eventually becoming the school’s first director. Campus development was a family enterprise in which the Saarinens all participated. Still in his teens, Eero contributed by designing furnishings and fixtures for the new buildings. The academy flourished under Eliel’s guidance, and there Eero continued his design education among some of the brightest talents of his generation. Cranbrook’s notable alumni would eventually include sculptors Harry Bertoia, Bernard (Tony) Rosenthal and Carl Milles, and designers Charles Eames, Ray (Kaiser) Eames, Florence (Schust) Knoll, Ralph Rapson, Paul Evans, Jack Lenor Larson, Neils Diffrient and Pipsan Saarinen, as well as architects Harry Weese and (future HOK principal) Gyo Obata, to name a few. The personal associations Eero developed at Cranbrook continued to nurture him throughout his life.
For a while, young Eero wavered between the professions pursued by his parents. He eventually studied sculpture at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris, France before completing his architecture education at Yale University in 1934. The lyrical, soaring forms of his mature work would one day demonstrate his mastery of both disciplines. In 1936, after a two-year sojourn in Europe, North Africa and Finland, he returned to Michigan where he accepted a position on the teaching staff at Cranbrook Academy and joined his father’s architecture practice.
In 1940, Eero became a naturalized citizen of the United States. That year also brought his first professional recognition. He partnered with his Cranbrook colleague Charles Eames (a St. Louis native) for the “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition sponsored by New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art. Their experiments in seating, using upholstery over molded plywood shells, garnered two first-prize awards from among six juried categories. This initial triumph eventually spawned an even more fruitful collaboration. By the mid-1940s, Eero’s close friend Florence Schust had married furniture entrepreneur Hans Knoll and was directing the design studio of their company, Knoll Associates. Impressed by furniture prototypes designed for the MoMA contest, she produced Eero’s first true commercial effort, the “Grasshopper” chair of 1946. Soon thereafter, her request for “a chair like a basket full of pillows…something I could really curl up in,” became Knoll’s classic “Womb” chair. Eero continued to develop innovative furnishings and production techniques for Knoll over the next decade. The futuristic “Pedestal Collection” tables and chairs from 1956 surely rank among his most famous efforts. His creations quickly became staples of both corporate and residential interior design, and several remain in production.
The Pedestal Collection. Courtesy of Knoll, Inc. http://www.knoll.com/designer/Eero-Saarinen
During World War II, Eero was appointed Chief of the Special Exhibitions Section for the United States’ first intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). His burgeoning reputation had preceded him. His supervisor reported, “Mr. Saarinen came to the OSS with the reputation of being the most versatile and gifted young designer and architect in this country.” The skills acquired in promoting his father’s architecture served Eero well at OSS where he generated wartime propaganda, designed sophisticated organizational systems, supervised construction of precise scale models for use in planning military strategy, and developed designs for the White House Situation Room, among other classified duties. Here, as in the civilian arena, his innovations continually reestablished the boundaries of design as a profession.
The new technologies and unbridled optimism of the post-war era combined to create a climate of unprecedented prosperity and opportunity in the United States. Nowhere was this quantum shift more evident than in the arts. Suddenly, with much of the Old World in ruins, the U.S. became the artistic and architectural center of the universe, and Modernism was the coin of the realm. Now an accomplished designer in his own right, Eero had developed a uniquely-20th-Century ethos beyond Eliel’s relative conservatism. Though the two men still worked productively as partners under the banner of Saarinen, Saarinen and Associates, Eero had long desired to distinguish himself from his famous father. In 1947, The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association sponsored a competition for design of a park and monument on the St. Louis Riverfront. The proposed project would commemorate President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and mark the beginning of our country’s westward expansion at a point near its geographic origin. For the first time, instead of producing a single, unified submission, Eliel and Eero offered competing designs. Eliel was soon notified, via telegram, that his proposal had advanced among five finalists into stage two of the competition. The family celebrated for three days before an official letter arrived clarifying that, in fact, it was the younger Saarinen’s gleaming arch which had been selected for the final stage. Hence, the celebration began anew; Eero Saarinen had conceived his first masterpiece.
During this same period, Eero also contributed to the now-famous Case Study House initiative on the West Coast. Beginning in January, 1945, California publisher John Entenza used his Arts & Architecture magazine to sponsor a series of experimental, affordable housing prototypes designed by notable architects. Eero reunited with his friend Charles Eames to plan Entenza’s own home, Case Study House #9 in Pacific Palisades – one of 24 houses eventually associated with the program. The result was a modest, open-plan structure built with inexpensive, readily-available materials and equipped with the architects’ own furniture designs. Though Eero demonstrated remarkable facility with a variety of housing types, his career produced only a handful of other private residences. Unlike the majority of his Modernist contemporaries, he generally disregarded the single-family home as an architectural exemplar, preferring to hone his creative vision in the commercial arena.
Eliel Saarinen died in 1950, leaving his son at the helm of the family firm, now rechristened Eero Saarinen & Associates. The purpose of architecture, as expressed by Eero Saarinen,“ is to shelter and enhance man’s life on earth and to fulfill his belief in the nobility of his existence.” With a passion fueled by this conviction, he soon established himself in the upper echelon of his profession. He had inherited his father’s attention to detail and exacting professional standards. By all accounts, he was a determined competitor and a driven, tireless worker who pushed himself and his staff to their limits in the pursuit of excellence. He was also an endlessly-inventive form-giver who refined each new idea again and again in his search for an architecture of enduring significance. He was rewarded with a continual outpouring of professional accolades. The American Institute of Architects accepted him as a Fellow in 1952. His work regularly appeared in the notable architecture publications of the day. Popular magazines such as LIFE, House & Garden, Esquire, Playboy and Vogue also published his designs, and in July, 1956 he was featured on the cover of TIME. In 1960, Saarinen was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His was now one of the most respected and sought-after design partnerships in the nation, with nearly 100 employees and a portfolio of prestigious projects at home and overseas. A list of the firm’s clients reads as a who’s-who among the power elite of the era: General Motors, Deere & Co., Bell Laboratories, International Business Machines (IBM), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), Trans World Airlines (TWA), and the United States Government all commissioned his services for their signature buildings. For a time, his technical innovations and dynamic, sculpted forms redefined Modern architecture.
Eero Saarinen’s celebrated career ended early and abruptly in the summer of 1961. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in mid-August, he died on the first day of September during surgery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was barely 51 years old. Like Merriweather Lewis, whose explorations he commemorated, Saarinen passed before his discoveries could be fully documented for posterity. In 1962, he became the recipient of the AIA’s Gold Medal (its highest honor), yet some of his most important structures remained unfinished. Over the next few years, nearly a dozen commissions, including the swooping, birdlike TWA Flight Center in New York, the graceful, scroll-roofed terminal of Dulles International Airport in Virginia (the first airport designed exclusively for jets), and the majestic Gateway Arch were completed by his business associates. In time, Modernism itself also died prematurely at the hands of its many less-skilled practitioners. The cultural upheaval and political unrest of the 1960s conspired to dampen the general optimism of the previous two decades, and Postmodernism led a retreat into architectural superficiality. In this revised context, Saarinen’s professional reputation gradually fell into neglect. Even during the period of his greatest fame, his work had sometimes been criticized for its lack of a cohesive style. His insistence upon a unique “appropriate architectural expression” for each new commission produced an astonishing array of structural forms which shared few common traits beyond their creator’s singular vision. Later, because his designs were difficult to categorize, Saarinen was viewed as an anomaly among modernists and, for decades, largely ignored.
TWA Flight Center, New York.
More recently, however, renewed interest in classic Modern design has inspired a reassessment of Saarinen’s oeuvre. In the early 2000s, the Finnish Cultural Institute collaborated with Yale University to compile an ambitious career retrospective entitled Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. The resulting exhibition, comprising hundreds of art objects, furnishings, architectural photographs, models, and artifacts toured museums in the United States and Europe from 2006-2010. A comprehensive exhibition catalog and several other lavish books followed, documenting his life and career. The Missouri state quarter-dollar coin, minted in 2003, depicted the Lewis and Clark expedition superimposed on an image of Saarinen’s commemorative Gateway Arch and, in 2010, Finland commemorated Saarinen’s 100th birthday with a 10-Euro coin depicting the Arch and his iconic Pedestal Collection chair. Knoll International even reimagined his Pedestal Collection furniture with special platinum-painted bases. His furniture designs are now in constant demand at both retail and resale venues and, in an ironic reversal of fortune, his buildings are prized for their individuality and diversity. Indeed, his genius has found belated acknowledgement even among some of his harshest early critics. Eero Saarinen has reclaimed his proper place among Architecture’s elite.
Recommended for further study: “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future” (exhibition catalog).