Revisiting the Work of Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), one of the great architects of the twentieth century, never received the credit he is due. Throughout his lifetime, he was criticized by many of his contemporaries. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, commented on the architect’s eclecticism, telling Saarinen’s second wife, Aline Saarinen, in 1958 to “tell your young architect that I hope he will do something someday that I like.”

It’s strange considering that Saarinen’s studio was an innovative research laboratory, attracting talented architects such as Cesar Pelli, Anthony Lumsden, Kevin Roche, Niels Diffrient, and Bob Venturi. The photographer Balthazar Korab, who also worked in the studio from 1955 to 1958 as a young architect, photographed architectural projects in progress as a way of researching the building process.

It was the influence of Saarinen’s father, Eliel, who taught his son to see something in relation to a larger whole-a chair in a room, a room in a building, a building in a city. Saarinen explained this once: “In any design problem one should seek the solution in terms of the next largest thing. If the problem is an ashtray, then the way it relates to the table will influence its design. If the problem is a chair, then its solution must be found in the way it relates to the room cube. If it is a building, the townscape will affect the solution.”

Sadly, at the time of his premature death in 1961, the architect did not get to see some of his most famous buildings in use. Roche and Dinkeloo, associates in the firm, completed the ten major projects underway, including the TWA terminal at JFK International Airport in New York; the Jefferson National Memorial in St. Louis-better known as the Gateway Arch; Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., Deere and Co. headquarters in Moline, Illinois; and the CBS headquarters in New York.

Now, a younger generation of architects and writers are revisiting the architect’s work. Jayne Merkel is currently writing a monograph on the work of Saarinen (Phaidon, Fall 2004). Antonio Roman’s illustrated monograph, Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity (Princeton Architectural Press) is a good introduction to Saarinen’s work.

Based on his dissertation, the author divides the architect’s work into several “actions”: creating, dwelling, building, socializing, and judging—arguing that the architect’s work can be seen through the lens of multiplicity.

He writes: “In contrast to other architects at the time, so intent on developing one single aspect of design, Eero Saarinen ‘wanted to embrace the entire body’ when designing, something that in turn might lead to inquiry and indecision.”

Though beautifully designed, the book is illustrated using only black and white photographs, a unifying visual element for its overall design perhaps, but it would have been useful to see some of the interiors in color as a way of better understanding the architect’s work.

Reinhold Martin’s forthcoming book, The Organizational Complex, (MIT Press, September 2003), analyzes corporate architecture in the United States after the Second World War, and devotes a significant part of his argument to looking at Saarinen’s work. Instead of a formalistic analysis of some of Saarinen’s built architecture, Martin connects projects, like Saarinen’s work for General Motors, IBM, and Bell Laboratories, to a systems-based model of organization in architecture, in which the modular structure acts as both an organizational device and a reflection of the corporate brand of these companies.

Of course, one of the best ways to understand Saarinen’s work is to actually visit his buildings. One of Saarinen’s early masterpieces, the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, is opening its doors to the public for one day—on June 22, 2003, the public will have a rare opportunity to visit the campus and see the Saarinen’s architecture up close (10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; tickets: $15/ $12 in advance; www.acteva.com/go/eyeson).

In conjunction with The Eyes on Design Auto Exhibition>, GM is organizing an exhibition of more than 300 concept cars from the past 75 years, including cars from the 1920s to the latest corporate concept vehicle. You will be able to visit an actual design studio at the GM Design Center, a space that is usually off limits to the public.

The Eyes on Design is a benefit for the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the research, education and support programs that enhance the independence of the visually impaired. For more information, visit www.eyeson.org.

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