Architect. Designer. Lover. Spy: The Eero You Never Knew
Eero Saarinen was the architect of some of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century, doing as much as anyone to define the Jet Age. He may also have been the ultimate Organization Man. The clients for whom he designed major buildings read like the acronymic roll call of the titans of industry – TWA, CBS, IBM, GM.
The graceful, primordial forms of his TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy (Idlewild) International Airport in New York, the Dulles International Airport terminal in Chantilly, VA, and the Jefferson Expansion Memorial (Gateway Arch) in St. Louis are symbols of American postwar optimism as potent as a ’57 Cadillac or Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe.
Lesser known is Saarinen’s work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA, during World War II. Saarinen created innovative 3-D maps, backlit panels for transparencies, bomb disassembly manuals, and the war room that was later satirized in Dr. Strangelove. He never wrote about the work, as it was classified.
Lesser known still is the struggle contemporary architectural historians have undertaken to preserve his original drawings and tell his story from a human level.
It’s this latter story and its artifacts that make the exhibition “Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation,” as compelling as it is. Mina Marefat, RA, PhD, an architect and design historian in Washington, DC, curated the exhibition, which originated at the Finnish Embassy in Washington, traveled to the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle and currently resides at the Architecture + Design (A+D) Museum in Los Angeles, where it will run until Jan. 3, 2013.
Now It’s Personal
It’s clear the project is a highly personal one for Marefat, who was born in Iran, emigrated to the U.S. and studied architecture at MIT and Harvard. The exhibition takes care to show the human face of a man who defined the look of corporate America.
“When TWA lost my luggage I was not as upset as I should have been,” she says. “I was in awe, because the first building I saw in the USA was Saarinen’s terminal.”
Among other vignettes, the exhibition details the romance that developed between New York Times art critic Aline Louchheim and the subject of her article, “Now Saarinen the Son,” which ran in the Times Magazine in April 1953. Louchheim had gone to Michigan to interview the architect about his recently completed GM Technical Center, a disciplined set of steel and glass boxes enlivened by a domed demonstration building, floating staircases over interior pools, and colored glazed brick and exterior pipes. The story of his time there includes functional innovation (using the neoprene gaskets he saw in use on car windows to create seamless window walls on buildings) and charming gaffes (he drove a Chrysler onto the campus and was asked to please select a vehicle from GM’s inventory).
Even before the swooping forms that defined his later work were created, Louchheim wrote of Saarinen, “He brings a personal expressiveness to functional integrity.”
There is personal expressiveness in the Case Study House #9, for John Entenza in Pacific Palisades. Here, a fireplace recalls the centrality of the hearth to Finnish life, and a curving couch surrounding it, amidst the rectilinear gridlines and sliding panels of “outside-in” California modernism.
There is personal expressiveness in the chairs he designed for Knoll, some of which are still produced today. The chairs fused new, industrially processed, lightweight materials with intuitively organic shapes, and were given names such as “Womb” and “Tulip.”
Saarinen’s personal expressiveness impressed Louchheim, who was taken with the slow and deliberate speaking style of a man who seemed “almost touchingly surprised at his own levity.” Saarinen divorced sculptor Lillian Swan and married Louchheim the same year. A telegram from Louchheim declined an offer to write another piece on Saarinen for the Des Moines Register, saying, “Since I am marrying Eero Saarinen on Monday I think it tasteless for me to make further public appraisals of his architecture. Thanks any way.”
But Louchheim continued to advocate for Saarinen in other critical ways, according to Marefat. The Vassar alum got Saarinen a commission to design a dorm there, and played a role in his contract to design the CBS “Black Rock” headquarters in Manhattan (even though she was an NBC correspondent). She also published the first collection of his work after his death in 1961.
To The Rescue
Ardent advocacy returned to the aid of Saarinen’s memory just in time. Given the iconic nature of his work, it’s surprising how difficult it is to obtain Saarinen’s original drawings. The week before Thanksgiving, 1989, Marefat was a researcher at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and had become fascinated with the unbuilt Smithsonian Gallery of Art, commissioned in 1939 by the New Deal administration. That’s right: Congress mandated the creation of an art museum, an act almost impossible to imagine in a climate where even Big Bird can’t get a break.
Saarinen designed the Gallery with his father, Eliel, also a well-regarded architect in Finland and the U.S., and his brother-in-law, J. Robert F. Swanson. The gallery would have played a counterpoint to the National Gallery by displaying contemporary works of living artists, but was scuttled at the onset of World War II. A close cousin to the only other contemporary art museum at the time, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the sleek rectilinear form would have stood where the current National Air and Space Museum stands, which is somewhat fitting given Saarinen’s deep relationship with American aviation.
The powers that be at the National Museum were not as captivated with the drawings as Marefat. After months of inquiries, when a call came that the 4-foot high stack of 36-by-48-inch drawings were at a General Services Administration (GSA) storage facility but had exceeded their 50-year destruction threshold, no one was interested in authorizing Marefat to use a museum-owned vehicle to retrieve them.
“I prevailed by threatening them with a Washington Post story about how they let these drawings be destroyed,” Marefat says. In a snowstorm, Marefat raced to the facility in Suitland, MD. Once the drawings were safely in hand, Marefat called the Post anyway, resulting in a feature piece in January 1991, sealing the Smithsonian’s interest in the collection.
The 1949 Case Study house was extensively restored in the early 1990s, but here again, Marefat had to chase down reluctant parties. The renderings sent by a Santa Barbara architect that had performed the modifications were copies and unusable as source material, Marefat says. The Eames Foundation refused to part with their drawings. Marefat finally found the originals in the Library of Congress.
The Principles of the Things
Unlike Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright, in Saarinen there is little of the egomania or logorrhea characteristic of prominent 20th century architects.
After giving a lilting, deliberate soliloquoy during a presentation, Saarinen was asked if he could speak any faster. He said, “No, but I can say less.”
Though fully committed to the idea of total design integration, Saarinen didn’t scold people for moving chairs in buildings he’d designed. He also found room for others to collaborate, including fellow Cranbrook Academy student Charles Eames on furniture, first wife Lillian Swann on sculpture and Alexander Girard on murals inside the Gateway Arch. Industrial designer Raymond Loewy designed the Union News coffee shop at TWA Flight Center.
Of Dulles, he said, “Maybe it will explain what I believe about architecture.”
But Saarinen had already succinctly done so, with six “pillars” that informed each of his projects:
Respect for Function: “It is deeply embedded in me. Sometimes, the problem is ripe for an entirely new, functional approach.”
Integration with the Environment: “The conviction that a building cannot be placed on a site, but that a building grows from its site, is another principle in which I believe. I see architecture not as the building alone, but the building in relation to its surroundings, whether natural or manmade.”
Structural integrity: “It is a potent and lasting principle and I would never get away from it. To express structure, however, is not an end in itself. It is only when the structure can contribute to the total and other principles that it is important.”
Unity of design: “Architecture must make a strong emotional impact on man. Once one embarks on a concept for a building, this concept has to be exaggerated and overstated and repeated in every part, so that wherever you are, inside or outside, the building sings the same message.”
Expression of meaning: “Conveying significant meaning is part of the inspirational purpose of architecture and therefore, for me, it is a fundamental principle of our art.”
Awareness of our time: “The thinking and technology of our time is for me an ever-present challenge. I want always to search out the possibilities in new materials of our time and give them a proper place in architectural design.”
Awareness of Our Time
Though the basic principles are timeless, nevertheless some of Saarinen’s work is so redolent of the optimism of Atomic America, and so hard done by contemporary demands, that it’s not always easy to appreciate how revolutionary the “retro” design was for its time.
The General Motors pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair, designed with Norman Bel Geddes, was one of the most popular in the park. The swooping ramps and forms suggested motion and freedom, and its huge diorama of 500,000 structures, over which visitors sailed in motorized chairs, laid forth a new, auto-centric world of prosperity and synthetic materials for the home. It’s better known by the name of the ride inside: Futurama. At the time, Business Week rhapsodized, “It unfolds a prophecy of cities, towns, and countrysides served by a comprehensive road system.” In other words, the Interstate Highway System and suburbia, almost 20 years before both hit full swing. That particular prophecy was Bel Geddes’, but Saarinen’s architecture is inextricably associated with “retro” futurism, satirized in the Matt Groening cartoon of the same name.
The TWA Flight Center, now surrounded by the contemporary JetBlue terminal, but no longer a functioning part of it, hosted a wide range of firsts. It was the first terminal with enclosed passenger jetways, closed circuit TV, a central public address system, baggage carousels, and an electronic schedule board. Of course, Saarinen cannot be blamed for his failure to anticipate the huge changes in the nature of air travel that would come in just a few decades, from the advent of the hub system, to the demise of flag carriers like TWA and PanAm, to the demeaning security procedures we now endure.
The Flight Center, protected as a landmark and recently renovated by Beyer Blinder Belle, still sits empty. It may see rebirth yet as a boutique hotel, but given the radical change in program and everything that now surrounds the structure, it will be an enormous challenge to make the hotel design sympathetic to Saarinen’s vision: “We wanted passengers passing through the building to experience a fully-designed environment in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same formal world.”
The “mobile lounges” of Dulles, giant wheeled machines that rise up to a plane’s door, were intended to save people long walks in the elements across the tarmac – “take the people to the plane, rather than take the plane to the people” – a problem that jetways obviated a few years later. Furnished to accommodate the Jet Set, it was actually intended that people would sip martinis as the mobile lounges made their plodding way to the planes, according to Marefat. As aircraft became larger, the “loungier” furnishings were stripped away, rendering the vehicles mere buses that stressed out travelers who couldn’t get out of one metal tube and into another fast enough. Soon, an underground train will take over most of the mobile lounges’ duties.
To ascend the Gateway Arch, one boards an ingenious tram, designed by Richard B. Bowser, a part-train, part-elevator contraption that moves over a system of racks and cogs, swinging gently on an independently rotating axles as it moves up, then over, then up. To me, even as a child, the jaunty white, globular carriages, which placed five passengers face to face as in a European train compartment, resembled nothing so much as Mork’s egg ship from Mork and Mindy. But even as these warhorses begin to break down more frequently under the strain of more than 4 million visitors per year, nothing gets in the way of the symbolic power and simplicity of the monument itself.
It’s hard to believe Saarinen would not have had a sense of humor about his place in the canon. One of his first chair designs for Knoll was labeled, “Chair, or the Like.” He also acknowledged the effect his late hours might have on others when he painted a picture depicting his office as “Eero’s All-Nite Diner.” The pipe-smoking Finn epitomized the ambition, yet softened the edges of an age in thrall to the shock of the new.
“Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation” runs through Jan. 3, 2013, at the Architecture + Design (A+D) Museum in Los Angeles.
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