America in the late 1950s and early ’60s. It was the beginning of the age of the “Mad Men,” whose Madison Avenue genius would soon be rewarded by a country dominated by consumerism. It was the beginning of the end of the cigar-chomping, pipe-smoking old boys’ club that dominated the American architectural scene at midcentury.
In this world, Eero Saarinen was a “starchitect” before the term existed. Young, born of Finnish architectural nobility (his father was the famous architect Eliel Saarinen) and red hot, he won major commissions for the TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, better known as the St. Louis Arch, and made the cover of Time.
His vibrant and elastic style pleased his corporate clients and offered the public an embodiment of an ascendant America. The future was bright and impatiently anticipated.
Indeed, Saarinen’s design of the General Motors Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, whose “Futurama” envisioned life in the 1960s, jump-started his career. Its prediction of an America dominated by grand superhighways and suburban development was generally accurate, although the accompanying utopia failed to materialize. The building, a collaboration with Norman Belle Geddes, was energetic and free-flowing and set the stage for the architect’s future success, at first in practice with his father and then on his own.
The Museum of Design Atlanta’s excellent “Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation” exhibition, on view through June 30, offers a comprehensive, if compact, look at the architect’s career by focusing on a number of iconic projects such as the GM Pavilion and on his equally important furniture design. The traveling show is curated by Georgetown University professor Mina Marefat.
It includes his 1939 winning entry for the design of the Smithsonian Gallery of Art, whose controversial selection upended American architecture. The sleek, thoroughly modern design, conceived with his father, formally recalls the Bauhaus school and would have provided architecturally conservative Washington with a seminal modernist building. Byzantine Washington politics and World War II conspired to kill the project, but it stands as an early influential design of the modern era.
Saarinen’s 1949 entry in the renowned Case Study House series, sponsored by Arts & Architecture Magazine, was designed in collaboration with his former classmate and friend Charles Eames. These low-slung, minimalist homes offered a vision that is again in style. As with most of the architecture displayed in the show, a beautifully crafted model is the centerpiece of the display.
A display about Saarinen’s World War II service in the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, is perhaps the exhibition’s only non-stellar component. His fairly pedestrian, if significant, contributions to the war effort are played up here, but they are only a mildly interesting and minor part of the architect’s life and career.
Touted as the first jet-age airport terminal, Saarinen’s building at Dulles Airport near Washington is a highlight of the show, as is his TWA terminal. (The TWA model alone, large and finely crafted, is worth the price of admission.)
The terminals’ expressionistic, super-dynamic forms are probably Saarinen’s best-known work. The abstract yet clearly expressed metaphors for flight and the references to avian form were unorthodox in the age of Miesian abstraction, and they hint at his possible direction had his career not been cut tragically short by his death at age 51 in 1961. They are also perhaps, in retrospect, the first sign of cracks in the monolithic façade of modern design that, by the start of the 1970s, would give rise to a radical postmodernism in which signs and metaphor became architecture’s dominant form of expression.
Saarinen won the 1948 competition for the design of the St. Louis Arch, a monument to the expansion of the American West, with a design consisting of a majestic catenary curve. A companion film recounts how Eero’s father Eliel assumed that a telegram announcing that “E. Saarinen” had won the competition referred to him and that his classical arch had carried the day. Once the truth was known, the focus of the celebration quickly turned to the son.
The dated and sometimes awkwardly produced film also highlights the design of the GM Technology Center in suburban Detroit. A series of minimalist low-slung buildings, it illustrates the architect’s responsiveness and willingness to rethink design for each client.
Saarinen’s seminal furniture designs are displayed in the corridor gallery. The pieces, some designed in collaboration with Eames, represent the rethinking of furniture design and eventually their dominance of the modern workplace. His Womb and Tulip Chair designs are virtually metaphors for the 1950s and ’60s.
Saarinen’s star began to fall in the late ’60s as modernism’s architectural monopoly gave way to the more radical postmodernists. His name and fame became widely discredited among architects and critics alike. His work was ignored or barely mentioned for years, and mentioned, when at all, in derogatory terms. His willingness to adopt divergent styles according to his clients’ needs was widely seen as a weakness in an age of strong wills and stronger opinions.
But in our current time of wide-open and diverse architectural explorations, Saarinen’s experimental and expressionistic modernism has enjoyed a substantial renaissance. Recent books and exhibitions have returned him to a more significant role in the history of 20th-century design.
MODA should be commended for bringing this show to Atlanta. It and others on the museum’s calendar, which would otherwise bypass our city, can contribute much to increasing understanding and enthusiasm about design. In contrast to previous MODA shows featuring products (bathroom fixtures come to mind), this one has real depth and significance for both the design and larger communities.
MODA lecture: “Candid Shots: Inside the Office of Eero Saarinen,” Wednesday, May 8. For more information, click here.
Click here for book recommendations from Mina Marefat on Saarinen and his work.