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Eero Saarinen

Finnish-American Architect and Designer

Movements and Styles: The International Style, Modern Architecture

Born: August 20, 1910 - Kirkkonummi, Grand Duchy of Finland, Russian Empire

Died: September 1, 1961 - Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

Eero Saarinen Timeline

Quotes

"The purpose of architecture is to shelter and enhance man's life on earth and to fulfill his belief in the nobility of his existence."
Eero Saarinen
"Confusion comes from trying to amalgamate several conflicting ideas."
Eero Saarinen
"One finds that many different shapes are equally logical - some exciting, some earthbound, some soaring. The choice has really become a sculptor's choices."
Eero Saarinen
"Function influences but does not dictate form."
Eero Saarinen
"I have come to the conviction that once one embarks on a concept for a building, this concept has to be exaggerated and overstated and repeated in every part of its interior so that wherever you are, inside or outside, the building sings with the same message."
Eero Saarinen
"Compromise comes from a fear of being pure."
Eero Saarinen
"Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan."
Eero Saarinen
"Our architecture is too humble. It should be proud, more aggressive, much richer and larger than we see today. I would like to do my part in expanding that richness."
Eero Saarinen

"Experimentation can present great dangers, but there would be greater danger if we didn't try to explore at all."

Eero Saarinen Signature

Synopsis

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.

Key Ideas

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.

Most Important Art

Eero Saarinen Famous Art

General Motors Technical Center, Warren, Michigan, USA (1948-56)

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.
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Eero Saarinen Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

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.

Unlike Kahn, who was born into very modest circumstances, Eero Saarinen (whose first name translates to "Eric" in English) came from a very artistically-inclined and cultured family. His father Eliel Saarinen - with whom he shared his birthday, August 20 - was a highly accomplished Finnish architect, one of the masters of Art Nouveau in Finland, who had designed the central railway station in Helsinki and, along with two other architects, built a combination architects' house and studio complex called Hvittrask, in the woods east of Helsinki, in 1903.

Eliel's second wife Loja, Eero's mother and sister of Eliel's former partner, was herself an accomplished sculptor. The Saarinens were friends with many cultural luminaries of the period. Eliel was very close to the composer Jan Sibelius, and on at least one occasion the family welcomed the Marxist writer Maxim Gorky into their home to help him evade Russian authorities.

Photograph of Eliel Saarinen working with a young Eero Saarinen sitting on the floor beside him
Photograph of Eliel Saarinen working with a young Eero Saarinen sitting on the floor beside him

Eero grew up literally in his father's architectural office. Often as a very young child he would be sitting under his father's drafting table drawing while his father would be working on commissions right above his head. Reputedly, every day he would ask one of his father's draftsmen, named Otto, to draw him a horse. Later, when Eero interviewed potential employees in his own office, he would have them draw him a horse, claiming that he could tell how good a draftsmen anyone was from about two or three strokes of sketching the figure.

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Eero Saarinen Biography Continues

Move to the United States and Formal Education

From right: Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames at Cranbrook (1939)
From right: Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames at Cranbrook (1939)

The Saarinens immigrated to the United States in 1923, after Eliel's entry in the famed Chicago Tribune Tower competition won second place. (The same week, Eero won a matchstick design contest sponsored by a Swedish newspaper, which netted him 30 Swedish kroner, the equivalent of about $8 at the time.) Two years later, Eliel accepted an invitation to design the campus for the Cranbrook Academy of Art, just outside of Detroit, Michigan; in 1932 he would later become head of the institution. Eero, predictably, matriculated to Cranbrook, where he made friends with Charles Eames, Ray Kaiser, and Florence Schust. (Kaiser would later marry Eames to form the famous design duo, and Schust would later marry Hans Knoll and become head of the Knoll furniture company, for which Saarinen would produce some of his most famous pieces.) In 1929, Eero entered the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris to study sculpture, his only real foray into anything besides architecture and interior design.

Between 1932-34, Eero studied at the Yale School of Architecture, where he won a small travel fellowship that allowed him to journey after finishing his studies to Europe and North Africa, where he became intimately acquainted with the architectural history of these various regions. He ended up in his native Finland, where he briefly got a job for a year in 1935 working in a local architecture firm.

Work in His Father's Firm and Military Service

In 1936 Eero returned to the United States and began to teach at Cranbrook and work in his father's architecture firm in Bloomfield Hills, where he would remain until 1950. In 1939 he married the sculptor Lilian Swann, with whom he eventually had two children, Eric and Susan. Eric later went on to become a filmmaker, producing the 2016 documentary for PBS about his father, Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw The Future. Lilian was, to be certain, a key influence on Eero, inspiring him to maintain a sculptural, plastic quality in his designs and sometimes contributing relief sculpture to Eliel and Eero's architectural projects. Their marriage, however, was not a particularly happy one. Eero's energies were completely focused on his work, and it was normal for him to spend virtually no time with his family, staying at the office until very late at night and leaving Lilian to look after the children and tend to domestic duties. Eric later recalled, "I always resented my father for literally abandoning my mother, my sister, and me. But I never saw it from his point of view." Eero and Lilian divorced in 1953.

Organic Chairs (in the foreground) by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, on display at the Museum of Modern Art's Organic Design in Home Furnishings exhibition, New York (1941)
Organic Chairs (in the foreground) by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, on display at the Museum of Modern Art's Organic Design in Home Furnishings exhibition, New York (1941)

1940 was a banner year for Saarinen. He officially became an American citizen, but even more importantly, he partnered with his friend Charles Eames in entering a competition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for an upcoming exhibition, Organic Design in Home Furnishings. Saarinen and Eames' entries won in the categories for both chair design (for the famed "Organic Chair") and the living room, for which they were awarded contracts for manufacture and distribution with major department stores (the first day of sales coincided with the exhibition's opening in 1941). This gave Saarinen his first national exposure as a designer independent of his father. In the late 1940s, Eames and Saarinen would both briefly work with John Entenza, editor of Arts and Architecture magazine, on the design for Entenza's own house as part of the Case Study House Program sponsored by the periodical.

Saarinen's career in his father's firm was interrupted in 1942 during World War II, when he was recruited by his friend Donal McLaughlin, from his days at Yale, to join the newly-formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which would later morph into the Central Intelligence Agency. There Saarinen became "irreplaceable," according to his superiors, designing situation rooms and military schools as well as prototype models for weapons and other devices. He also drew illustrations for bomb disassembly manuals and developed presentation charts for showing work flows through different parts of the OSS's organization.

Mature Career

Eero Saarinen's legs hanging out of a model in his office of the Trans World Airlines Terminal for Idlewild (now JFK) International Airport (c. 1958)
Eero Saarinen's legs hanging out of a model in his office of the Trans World Airlines Terminal for Idlewild (now JFK) International Airport (c. 1958)

Eliel Saarinen died in 1950. But even before then Eero had shown signs that he would make a serious name for himself apart from his father. In 1948, both Saarinens had independently submitted competition designs for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis - literally creating their separate submissions on opposite sides of a wall in the same office. The competition jury sent the announcement that Eero had been named one of the competition's five finalists to "E. Saarinen;" the Saarinen family interpreted this to mean Eliel, and broke out a bottle of champagne in celebration. Two hours later, they received a phone call from an embarrassed official who clarified that Eero Saarinen had advanced in the competition. The Saarinens immediately broke out a second bottle of champagne. Though the mood was celebratory, Eric Saarinen claims that privately it was difficult for Eliel to come to terms with the fact that his son had surpassed him. Eero, of course, would go on to win the competition and the $50,000 prize as the chief designer. His design, the now-famous Gateway Arch, would only be realized posthumously, however.

By the mid-1950s Eero Saarinen became famous enough to be on the cover of Time Maganize (April 2nd, 1956 issue)
By the mid-1950s Eero Saarinen became famous enough to be on the cover of Time Maganize (April 2nd, 1956 issue)

Eero launched his own architectural practice after his father's death, and in the ensuing decade produced a flood of important buildings and interior projects, establishing him on his own firmly within the canon of great modern architects. Nearly all of his important designs date from this relatively short 13-year period between 1948 and 1961. Saarinen loved models, especially large ones into which he could stick his own head in order to visualize the interior space, and numerous photographs exist showing him and his employees inspecting or constructing them.

Aline and Eero Saarinen boating (c. 1955)
Aline and Eero Saarinen boating (c. 1955)

Well before his divorce from Lilian, Saarinen had met Aline Bernstein Louchheim, an art critic at the New York Times, and they grew very close. In one of Eero's love letters to Aline, he quite bizarrely compared himself to root vegetables, declaring "You don't realize that I'm like a turnip or a potato, one of those plants that has stored up below ground a tremendous amount of lust for a full blooming life." Aline's promotion of Eero's career had begun even before the two of them married in 1954, and while they were certainly in love, practically their union formed a very potent team for the rest of Eero's life. Aline was instrumental in increasing Eero's profile among American designers, helping him to be featured on the cover of Time magazine in July 1956, an honor previously accorded to such names as Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright. She also, unlike Lilian, was capable of discussing Eero's work with him on a regular basis. After Saarinen's death, Aline became her late husband's greatest ambassador, frequently appearing on camera and giving interviews explaining the significance of his architecture. The year following Saarinen's passing, she published Eero Saarinen on His Work: A Selection of Buildings Dating from 1947 to 1964 with Statements by the Architect.

Cartoon by one of Eero Saarinen's employees poking fun of Saarinen's long hours at the office and the expectations of his staff
Cartoon by one of Eero Saarinen's employees poking fun of Saarinen's long hours at the office and the expectations of his staff

Saarinen supposedly also became more of a family man during his marriage to Aline, though his ambition did not shrink and he did not slow down the pace of his work. There were few days during the year when the firm's offices were closed. He expected his employees to follow his routine of working from morning until dinner time, return home for the evening meal and then reconvene to work late into the night. As he once simply quipped, "I would like a place in architectural history."

Death

In August 1961, Saarinen complained of headaches as he was preparing for his firm to move from Detroit to New Haven, Connecticut, and checked himself into a Michigan hospital to seek a quick remedy. Doctors discovered instead that he had a brain tumor, and Saarinen elected to undergo an operation that promised a very slim chance of survival. He died during surgery, having turned 51 just a week and half earlier.

Saarinen's death was shocking, as it was sudden and completely unexpected. His leadership at the firm passed to Kevin Roche, and under him, Cesar Pelli, and others, as Saarinen's numerous projects were brought to completion. Aline was instrumental in convincing CBS to stay with the firm to finish its new headquarters in midtown Manhattan, the commission for which Saarinen had received only the year before.


Legacy

Initially, Saarinen's fame suffered greatly due to his early death. He was not physically present at the completion and dedication of many of his most important buildings, and could not reap the benefits of sharing the spotlight or attracting new clients as a result. The brevity of his independent career meant that for some he would always be seen as a "flashing glory" whose brilliance was extinguished almost as soon as it began. Though Saarinen's buildings reveal his great sculptural imagination, their engineering challenges also suggest that the conception and realization of them required collaboration with many other brilliant minds, thus reducing the credit that he received.

Saarinen never developed a particular "style" for his architecture, insisting that every problem was different and thus required a unique solution. While during his lifetime he received much criticism for his versatility, notably from the great architectural historian Vincent Scully, this philosophy has come to be adopted by many contemporary architects. To some extent this has also affected his fame, as he did not launch or pioneer a singular style or movement, and there are no easy markers that indicate what makes a "signature" Saarinen building.

During his lifetime Saarinen received a number of honors, including being named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1952, from whom he posthumously received the AIA Gold Medal in 1962. In 1954 he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Saarinen's Gateway Arch is featured on the reverse of the Missouri state quarter, minted by the USA in 2003, and a commemorative 10-euro coin issued by Finland in 2010, which also features a silhouette of Saarinen's Tulip armchair.

Installation of the 2012 exhibition Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation at the Museum of Architecture + Design, Los Angeles
Installation of the 2012 exhibition Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation at the Museum of Architecture + Design, Los Angeles

Saarinen's reputation has nonetheless steadily grown over the past sixty years. His office attracted a number of talented employees, including Pritzker Prize winners Kevin Roche (whose firm Roche and Dinkeloo became the official successor to Saarinen's practice), Cesar Pelli, and Robert Venturi. The personal papers of Aline and Eero Saarinen were donated to the Archives of American Art by Aline's brother, while Roche and Dinkeloo donated their Saarinen archives to Yale University. Some diazotype copies of Saarinen drawings for the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport also reside at Columbia University in New York. The availability of these sources have prompted the flurry of interest in Saarinen's work in recent years, which includes the major exhibition Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future which toured several locations between 2006-10.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Eero Saarinen
Interactive chart with Eero Saarinen's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Charles EamesCharles Eames
Lilian Swann

Friends

Eliel Saarinen
Norman Bel Geddes

Movements

Modern ArchitectureModern Architecture
The International StyleThe International Style
Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen
Years Worked: 1935 - 1961

Artists

Alexander Girard
Dan Kiley

Friends

Kevin Roche
Robert Venturi
Cesar Pelli
Harry Bertoia

Movements

BrutalismBrutalism
PostmodernismPostmodernism

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Peter Clericuzio

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Eero Saarinen

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
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

designs / works

Eero Saarinen (2014) Recomended resource

By 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

More Interesting Books about Eero Saarinen
Knoll - Eeero Saarinen

Designer spotlight page

Design Within Reach - Eeero Saarinen

Spotlight page on retail design site

ArchDaily

Arch Daily tagged database for the architect

Time Magazine Cover - Eero Saarinen July 2, 1956

More Interesting Websites about Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen: Modern Architecture for the American Century Recomended resource

By Alice Friedman
Places Journal
June 2010

15 Landmark Buildings by Architect Eero Saarinen Recomended resource

By Beau Peregoy
Architecture Digest
May 23 2016

Making the Face of Modernism Familiar

By Nicolai Ouroussoff
New York Times
November 10 2009

Miller House and Garden, Indianapolis Museum of Art Recomended resource

Brief video on the famed Miller House and Garden designed by Saarinen

Eero Saarinen's Revolutionary Design of the Dulles International Airport

Spotlight on Saarinen's Dulles International Airport design

My Favorite Architect, Eero Saarinen: Deborah Burke, Indianapolis Museum of Art

Architect lecture based on the influence of famed architect

Kevin Roche discusses the Ingalls Rink and his additions/renovations, 2014

Brief video on the hockey rink designed by the architect

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