Finnish-American Architect and Designer
Kirkkonummi, Grand Duchy of Finland, Russian Empire
Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
Summary of Eero Saarinen
One New Year's Day at 8 o'clock in the morning, Eero Saarinen arrived at his office, looked around and, seeing only his assistant Kevin Roche, said, "Where the hell is everybody?" Roche then had to remind Saarinen that it was a major holiday. But most people who worked or lived with Eero Saarinen would probably say that was par for the course, as he was a highly ambitious and extremely motivated architect - we might say today that his work gave him "tunnel vision". Saarinen's passion for architecture and design, recognized from a very early age, led him to develop his personal, often sculptural, direction and an adventurous spirit. In a rather brief career, Saarinen's imaginative daring produced an extraordinary set of highly futuristic buildings of virtually every possible type, whose impressive stature and visionary designs mean that they still seem to be ahead of their time and have largely remained unaltered more than a half-century later.
- Saarinen's works, like the St. Louis Gateway Arch and TWA Terminal, often are very sculptural - a quality likely derived from both his mother's influence and his own brief training in sculpture - and structurally adventurous, defying our expectations of how they must stand up. They also exploit the possibilities of modern materials - particularly concrete - and engineering know-how to the fullest extent.
- Though ostensibly an architect of the International Style, whose mature period coincides with the heyday of the movement, Saarinen's genius lies in his focus on finding unique solutions for each individual commission. Occasionally, as with his GM Technical Center, he could employ the International Style perfectly, but Saarinen is often called a "second-generation" modernist for the way he moved beyond the rigid glass-box aesthetic pioneered by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
- Saarinen's buildings, including the Ingalls Ice Rink and CBS Building, tend to resonate with familiar themes within human experience, evoking relationships with structures and environments that may at first be unexpected, but harmonize well with their purposes upon further exploration. Saarinen's keen grasp of history and culture helped him understand the context in which his buildings would be inserted, and the strong connections that they make with their surroundings points to why nearly all of his major buildings have survived nearly unchanged to the present day.
Biography of Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen was, along with Louis Kahn, one of the two great European emigres who would become titans of midcentury American architecture. Both were born in areas around the Baltic Sea that, at the time of their births, were technically part of Russia, though Saarinen's family was decidedly Finnish (Finland became independent of Russia during the 1917 Russian Revolution), and both immigrated to the United States as children.
Important Art by Eero Saarinen
Along with structures such as the Lever House and Seagram Building in New York, the General Motors Technical Center is one of the projects that best exemplifies the new identity of American corporate modernism in the 1950s. Unlike those two skyscrapers, the GM Technical Center consists of a sprawling horizontally-oriented 710-acre campus. Quite astutely, Architectural Forum proclaimed it an "Industrial Versailles" upon its completion in 1956, as the campus exudes the same sense of man's ability to order and partition the landscape to his will with modern technology, just as Versailles exuded the new mastery of landscape and natural space during the era of the Scientific Revolution in the late 1600s. (This sense of order is reflected in the repetitive bays and modular layout of the interiors of individual buildings on the campus.) It likewise signals the vast resources and strength of American corporations as the USA emerged as one of the world's two superpowers during this decade.
The aerial view here shows how the Technical Center's various buildings are neatly arranged on a grid-like layout, in harmony with the employee parking lots, which indicate the triumph of American car culture in the economic boom of the postwar era. The large expanses of water serve several purposes: not only do they beautify the landscape and provide breaks between the buildings, roadways, and open land, but they also practically serve as reservoirs to assist in the event of fire - something that GM was acutely aware of since the largest industrial fire in history occurred inone of its Michigan plants in 1953.
Saarinen took inspiration from the sleek precision of GM's vehicles, placing them literally at the center of the concept for the buildings' interiors, which include large foyers characterized by a minimalist geometric rigor that double as showroom for top-of-the-line new vehicles, whose acute angular and curvilinear forms of their fins, body shapes, and rooflines would have been accented in such spaces. On the exterior, this precision is mirrored by the crisp glass-and-steel boxes that use the same kinds of industrial materials needed for manufacturing cars. Saarinen would employ similar design strategies for his subsequent corporate commissions, thus reinforcing this aesthetic of American postwar modernism.
The MIT Chapel is part of a pair of structures (the other being the Kresge Auditorium) clustered together on the university's campus that Saarinen designed along with all of the landscaping. It consists of a small, cylindrical brick structure perched above a small surrounding moat. One can see the moat from the inside, where the chapel's only windows, located near the floor at the edges of the cylinder, overlook the water below. The chapel's sculptural, undulating rough brick interior walls, paneled in dark wood at the bottom, modulate the space and artificial light not unlike the irregular surfaces inside a cave, making them seem thicker than they actually are. The rather homely chairs are freely arranged facing an altar at the far end that is placed under a circular skylight, signifying the uplifting descent of heavenly spirits into the space.
Saarinen's design finds its complement in the glimmering Harry Bertoia sculpture suspended from the back rim of the skylight (seen here). The overall spatial effect, layered by the moat, solid walls, and thick ceiling, is one of a calm, serene, enfolding sanctuary, a welcome shelter from the vicissitudes of human existence in a complicated modern world. On the exterior, a separate abstract curved metal spire rises above the skylight, thereby underscoring the building's modern sculptural character and its function as a spiritual bulwark.
Saarinen's design arguably also shows a particularly Scandinavian sensitivity that he brought to the commission, possibly prompted by the chapel's location in New England, which like his home state of Michigan is one of the coldest regions of the continental United States. The interior of the MIT Chapel echoes the kind of quiet, serene brick-enclosed modern assembly spaces created in Finland by Saarinen's compatriot Alvar Aalto at nearly the same time, which welcome warmth and comfort needed during the snowy Scandinavian winters, appropriate for promoting a reassuring sense of community. Thus Saarinen's chapel demonstrates his mastery of designing intimate spiritual spaces along with massive projects like the Gateway Arch and the GM Technical Center, and his great airport terminals at JFK and Dulles.
Saarinen rarely designed residences during his mature career, yet the Miller House, built for a corporate scion in the architecturally prominent small town of Columbus, is the best example of these. It resembles the stark aesthetic of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for some of his famous midcentury houses, including the walls of stone and large curtain-wall expanses of glass, and it uses the geometric clarity of the square for the overall form and organization.
Unlike Mies' work, or the residences designed by other great modernists like Richard Neutra or R.M. Schindler, which tend to be asymmetrical, the Miller House's four wings of private spaces branch off of the open living room at the center, similar to a Greek-cross layout. This is unusual for modern houses, but comparable to Andrea Palladio's Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, Italy, from the 16th century and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. In this way, Saarinen demonstrates his own keen understanding of history by linking the Miller House to a specific lineage of great residential designs. But whereas Jefferson and Palladio's buildings dominate the environment through their elevated placement and monumental domes, the Miller House uses a different strategy. Here Saarinen collaborated with landscape designer Dan Kiley to integrate the Miller House into its surroundings using rows of hedges and trees to provide extra privacy.
Yet there is tension in this geometric clarity between the private nature of the peripheral spaces of the house and its central gathering space, which also provides a counterpoint to the austerity of the modern design. With its large scale (some 50 feet on a side), the living room provides ample room for the Millers to socialize, but it also contains the famed conversation pit, an invention of Saarinen's interior designer Alexander Girard. The pit's enclosed shape promotes a sense of community and in some cases intimacy, heightened by the bright colors that both enliven the space and underscore its centrality in Saarinen's overall conception.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Eero Saarinen
- Imagining MIT: Designing a Campus for the Twenty-First Century (2007)By William J. Mitchell / Details on the transformation of the MIT campus and it's relationship to Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen designs
- Eero Saarinen (2014)Our PickBy Jayne Merkel / A monograph of major works by the architect
- Eero Saarinen: An Architect of Multiplicity (2003)By Antonio Roman / Monograph including illustrations and models of famed works and furniture designs
- Eero Saarinen: Objects and Furniture Design, By Architects Series (2013)Our PickShowcase of furniture and object designs by the architect
- Eero Saarinen: Modern Architecture for the American CenturyOur PickBy Alice Friedman / Places Journal / June 2010
- 15 Landmark Buildings by Architect Eero SaarinenOur PickBy Beau Peregoy / Architecture Digest / May 23 2016
- Making the Face of Modernism FamiliarBy Nicolai Ouroussoff / New York Times / November 10 2009
- Miller House and Garden, Indianapolis Museum of ArtOur PickBrief video on the famed Miller House and Garden designed by Saarinen
- Eero Saarinen's Revolutionary Design of the Dulles International AirportSpotlight on Saarinen's Dulles International Airport design
- My Favorite Architect, Eero Saarinen: Deborah Burke, Indianapolis Museum of ArtArchitect lecture based on the influence of famed architect
- Kevin Roche discusses the Ingalls Rink and his additions/renovations, 2014Brief video on the hockey rink designed by the architect