Iconic Workplace: Eero Saarinen and Associates

The young architects in Saarinen’s office—Robert Venturi, Kevin Roche, Cesar Pelli—reshaped postwar America. Today they reflect on what they learned from the master.

At the time of his death in 1961 at the age of 51, Eero Saarinen was falling out of critical favor. It took more than three decades for the start of a revival, but with recent exhibitions, symposia, and books, the tide has finally turned for this neglected master. He was clearly an immense talent—perhaps a genius—but that talent was backed up by an impressive roster of colleagues who worked in his office in Bloom­field Hills, Michigan. Architects and designers such as Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, Ralph Rapson, Gunnar Birkerts, and Niels Diffrient are some of the familiar names, but many others—among them, Chuck Bassett, Warren Platner, Richard Knight, Balthazar Korab, Don Petitt, Gene Festa, John Buenz, Willo Von Moltke, and Leonard Parker—also contributed to the firm’s success, working on models, preparing slide presentations, and conducting research.

“Eero had marvelous self-confidence, but he also questioned a lot of things,” says Knight, author of Saarinen’s Quest: A Memoir (William Stout Pub­lishers). For the Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, at Yale University, Eero did some planning research (which was not a part of his contract) and discovered that the school was made up of marvelously tight spaces. “The folks assigned to the project—Cesar Pelli was one—did these footprint studies, black shapes on a white background that showed important piazzas that came to Eero’s or Kevin’s mind,” Knight says. “They put them up around the room, just as sort of grist for the mill.”

One of the office’s signature tools was large architectural models, often placed about four feet off the ground so that team members could stick their heads into the space and look around. Diffrient remembers seeing Saarinen and Roche crawling around on the model for the TWA terminal, crafting it out of shingled layers of cardboard and tape to get a feel for the forms. The modeling sessions, which ran late into the night, and the occasional (OK, frequent) parties resulted in projects such as the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the CBS Building, the TWA terminal, and Dulles Airport’s main terminal. We asked former employees to talk about their experiences in the office and the unique Saarinen process that created these iconic buildings.

KEVIN ROCHE
Eero was always very contemplative. He always wanted to research the project to its ultimate point. He had a tremendous intensity for searching out: What’s the reason? Why is it there? What can we challenge? What do people want? It was a great lesson, because it established a basis for design, which is entirely different from the idea of sketching.

Early on, the office was quite disorganized. So after the Miller House, which I got a lot of compliments on, I fell into the role of taking over the projects and organizing them. There would be a design team, and then John [Dinkeloo] and I worked with them.

I would assemble the material and bring it to Eero and say, “You have to look at this.” We’d talk and then I’d say, “Now you have to look at this…” I tried to organize it so that he would look at all aspects of the job. I used to say, “If the problem was to plow a field, Eero would dig a hole.”

TWA was the big switch. Our office was getting bigger, and the organization for that project had to be intense. We had to get additional space so that we could build models, because you couldn’t design these things on paper. Cesar [Pelli] headed up that team, and I developed the idea of large models as a way of communicating, a way for Eero to see. Showing him ideas in three dimensions was the way to get him involved, to sway him. The basic ideas, of course, were his. And he was interested in the pragmatic aspects: how long it took a plane to taxi; where passengers arrived; how long they spent at the ticket counter. When we traveled, Eero went around with a stopwatch, measuring everything: “This took four seconds more than last time.” Of course, I was just waiting for the goddam plane to take off so I could get a martini. He was fully in control of the whole process. It was his intelligence, ability, attentiveness, penetration, and guts. And we were lucky to be participating.
As told to Paul Makovsky and Martin C. Pedersen

CESAR PELLI
TWA was being run by another chap, Leon Yulkowski, but Eero had decided to review the scheme, and there was a problem that he found devilish: the lines of forces in the columns were such that the columns were cross-legged. When he did cross-legged columns, they just looked like “X”s, or like people crossing their legs. He didn’t like that, so he asked me to transform them. I spent about two months all by myself in a room that he had rented on top of a gas station—at that time I was the only person there—building a three-dimensional model. It was like sculpting these big legs. And he liked it, so he then asked me: “How would a straight wall next to it look?” So we started curving the wall. If the wall curves, what happens when it turns the corner? How is the roof? That’s how the huge model grew, around those legs that I had built. That was a very exciting moment for me—it allowed me to pour myself into this little piece of the whole building, within Eero’s general vision.

Research was integral to almost everything we did. There was always an investigation of another way of doing something, a way that had not been used before. When we were doing the Stiles and Morse Colleges, one of the first things Eero did was have his estimator estimate how much [Yale’s] Branford College would have cost to build in 1961, and the estimator figured out that it would cost about $100 per square foot. Eero’s budget was $21 a square foot, about a fifth of what Branford would have cost. So he and John Dinkeloo came up with this wall that was extraordinarily economical—cheaper than a brick wall. The approach Eero had seen before he died would have given a rougher texture, with great depth in the wall, but the technology failed. The concrete was supposed to be washed with water at very high pressure so as to expose two inches of stone. But it didn’t work, didn’t wash evenly, and then that also meant that, when you’re on the second or third tier, all of this concrete washed down the existing walls and created an impossible cleaning problem. So that idea was abandoned, but that’s the approach he had expected and that he did not get. It’s a great pity.
As told to Belinda Lanks

GUNNAR BIRKERTS
When I arrived in Bloomfield Hills, Eliel Saarinen, the father, had just died. The ashes were still warm in the conference room. So the team became very important. We were quite close. His method was different from what I was used to. He looked at a lot of different ideas. That’s why model-building was so prevalent in that office, because Eero could not always make up his mind. There were many models built. If the idea evolved, the model changed. Other offices built models to show the client or gain approval. We built them so that Eero could see them and make selections through a process of elimination. Another thing that was going on was he needed approval from his girlfriends. He liked other people’s opinions. I wasn’t used to that.

But through this process, we arrived at a refined result because there were so many people involved in the solution. Many nights, as we were leaving work, he’d give us the same problem—five of us—and say, “Come in tomorrow and see how many you can develop.” The next morning, everyone was pinning up their ideas, and we would talk. I don’t know about the initial process for Eero, but whatever he brought in, he wanted to display, get opinions, and then develop them from there. It was a unique process. And we were all part of it.
As told to Suzanne LaBarre

BALTHAZAR KORAB
I started working in the office in 1955, and the IBM building in Minnesota was one of my first projects. Peter Carter and I worked on a colored-enamel-panel scheme for the facade. Peter did diagonal patterns while I fooled around with the vertical, rectangular patterns. We pinned our schemes on the wall and then Eero decided to go with the rectangular ones.

I was quite skillful with photography, and for our models we used smoke-and-mirror effects—and I mean that literally. For the TWA project, we had a model where you could almost stick your head into half the shell. So out of that half model, we added the mirrors and cutouts of people; then we blew smoke to create depth, and took the photograph. It gave you an impression of being in the space. The atmospheric and sculptural effects were beautifully expressed through photography. The clients were shown a slide show of the photographs, and the effect was so successful that they bought the whole project without even seeing the model. Photog­raphy was a very important part of the process, and everything we did was, of course, predigital. For the IBM offices in Poughkeepsie, we photographed cutout figures in the model. There’s a paper cutout of Gene Festa and Jill Mitchell standing, and the fellow sitting at the desk is John Dinkeloo. The scenery in the background is really a slide of nature that was projected on a white wall. Very often we didn’t show the models to the clients; we would show them a slide show.

We worked continuously, and we had great fun, really, because the office was small. Because there was a baby boom at the time, many of the designers had to quit to work for larger, better-paying firms to provide for their families. Each time someone left, we had a party, serving martinis in this crystal searchlight that was three or four feet wide. We had good times. They used to refer to the office as Eero’s all-night drive-in because it never stopped working.

The Morse and Stiles dormitories really showed Eero’s talent. He was able to have a Gothic building on a Gothic campus without using the Gothic arches. When it came to the Concordia Theological Seminary, Eero did a little German village with pitched roofs and created a beautiful atmosphere that contributed to the remarkable academic environment of this religious campus. And then there’s the John Deere building, which I just love. It’s a Mies building without being Mies. It’s glass and steel but with a sculptural quality to it, and it was the first use of Cor-Ten for a building. That was the genius of Eero Saarinen. He could apply his language to the full expression of the building.
As told to Paul Makovsky

ROBERT VENTURI
My first job out of college, I worked for a year with a guy named Oscar Stonorov in Philadelphia. I also knew Louis Kahn, who was barely known then. Kahn couldn’t stand Stonorov, but he liked me and said, “I have to get you out of there.” So he recommended me to Eero. I wasn’t particularly a Saarinen fan, but I went and learned a lot there. Eero was sort of eclectic and used the vocabulary of other architects—different ones for different buildings. He did that for almost every project. I am not so negative about that kind of eclecticism now as I was then. At the time, I thought it was rather arbitrary. I was a bit snob­bish. But I’ve come to admire his St. Louis Arch very much. I consider it equivalent in terms of urban architectural quality to the Washington Monument.
As told to Martin C. Pedersen

RICHARD KNIGHT
When I started, in 1957, I was not the person with the greatest experience there. They hadn’t figured out what kind of security bars to put down on the street level for the American embassy in Oslo, so I did a decent scheme that wasn’t penitentiary-looking. Eero didn’t pay heed to me at all. And I thought, Geez, what’s going on here? But, luckily, Gene Festa, a very capable guy, drew me aside and said, “The name of the game here is this: First of all, we’re here to help Eero. Don’t ever get your hopes up that you’re going to be able to point to something that you designed. You’re just part of the process.” And then he said, “If you’re working on something, you can’t have too many alternatives.” So I went back to the drawing board, and cranked out ten or twenty more.

There were about thirty people in the office, so it was still not so large that he and Aline [Eero’s wife] couldn’t still have a party at their house. All the pictures of Eero show him as a pretty serious-looking guy, but he really loved to party! At the parties, of course, his favorite topic obviously was architecture. He was just such a focused guy. One time, Paul Kennon asked Eero what he felt was the most impor­tant ingredient to doing exceptional architecture? And without flinching, Eero said, “Just to do more. You can never do too much.” And just looking at what he accomplished, I’d say that perfectly characterized his work. Heavy advice, I thought.
As told to Paul Makovsky

NIELS DIFFRIENT
I was hired on for my model-making and drafting abilities. I remember the office had no air-conditioning. On really hot days, the answer was to bring in a big washtub with a twenty-five-pound chunk of ice in it filled with lemonade to cool us off, but somebody got a few bottles of gin and poured it in. It was a lively place, and it was a major share of my own enlightenment and education.

What did I learn from working in the office? The number one thing was to take design seriously. How much can you do to advance a notion of design if you really work at it? Eero had ideas for an office chair using some of the principles of the Womb chair. He had already made a handful of small-scale simple models that he wanted to get into full scale. Before I got to the office in the morning, Eero himself the evening before must have cut—out of paper and cardboard sticks—fifteen or so one-quarter-scale models of chair ideas he had in mind that I would then pick up on. He never stopped. He was a creative fool. He didn’t land on a first good scheme and stay with it. The minute he had a scheme, he’d move to another one. That’s why it was very hard for Eero to make any money. He was always telling me how to do something better. We did a lot of talking about form. When two designers are talking, it’s not exactly a literary narrative; it’s a lot of grunts, pointing, and hand waving. A lot of the working techniques I employ today had their genesis with Eero, that’s what I meant when I said I learned how to take design seriously.
As told to Paul Makovsky

Categories: Architecture, Workplace Architecture

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