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Artists Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen Photo

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.

Biography

Eero Saarinen Photo

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.

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Eero Saarinen Biography Continues

Important Art by Eero Saarinen

The below artworks are the most important by Eero Saarinen - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

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

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

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chapel, Cambridge, USA (1950-55)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chapel, Cambridge, USA (1950-55)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

J. Irwin Miller House, Columbus, Indiana, USA (1953-57)

J. Irwin Miller House, Columbus, Indiana, USA (1953-57)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

More Eero Saarinen Artwork and Analysis:

Ingalls Ice Rink, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (1953-58) Tulip chairs and tables (1955-56) Trans World Airlines Terminal Idlewild (now John F. Kennedy) International Airport, Queens, New York (1957-62) Hill College House, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1958-60) CBS Building, New York, New York (1961-64) Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri, USA (1948-65)


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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.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Charles EamesCharles Eames
Lilian Swann

Personal Contacts

Eliel Saarinen
Norman Bel Geddes

Movements

Modern ArchitectureModern Architecture
The International StyleThe International Style

Influences on Artist
Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen
Years Worked: 1935 - 1961
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Alexander Girard
Dan Kiley

Personal Contacts

Kevin Roche
Robert Venturi
Cesar Pelli
Harry Bertoia

Movements

BrutalismBrutalism
PostmodernismPostmodernism

Useful Resources on Eero Saarinen

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

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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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
Content compiled and written by Peter Clericuzio
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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