Progression of Art
General Motors Technical Center, Warren, Michigan, USA
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
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
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.
Ingalls Ice Rink, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
Saarinen completed several buildings for Yale, his alma mater, among which the Ingalls Ice Rink was the first. Oddly, despite the fact that Saarinen was Finnish, he had never designed any sporting venue before, let alone a hockey rink. Thus, when Saarinen received the commission in 1953, he sent some of his office staff to go around the United States to look at similar structures to find out what a well-designed hockey rink looked like. Upon their return, his staff delivered a unanimous report: they all looked horrible!
The solution that Saarinen produced consists of an oblong structure surmounted by a massive, wide, very strong concrete arch - in fact, the upper portion of a catenary - which stretches the entire length of the building's spine. From this are hung cables on each side that provide the contour of the wood-paneled ceiling, and roof above. The distinctive exterior humpback shape has given the building the affectionate nickname "The Yale Whale," which is underscored by an elongated protruding spike above the entrances at each end of the building, which is surmounted by a set of four lights. It evokes the image of the end of a harpoon that pierces the body of the whale, appropriate for New Haven, a former port for the whaling industry in the 19th century. On the inside, however, this use of maritime themes is turned upside down, as many have compared the arched wooden ceiling to the overturned interior of the hull of a great Viking ship, thus also connecting the building to the cold climates and northerly regions associated with winter sports like hockey.
The Ingalls Rink therefore represents an ingenious marriage between modern engineering and organic form, a kind of forward-looking solution that nonetheless pays homage to historical, regional themes. It also noticeably closes its interior off almost completely from its surrounding environment. These aspects constitute a quite unusual and distinctive achievement for the 1950s, disclosing Saarinen's ambition to avoid slavishly associating himself with a particular style or simply popular trends, but to carve out his own niche within the profession.
Tulip chairs and tables
Saarinen had trained at Cranbrook in the 1920s and taught there in the '30s, during a period when the school was becoming an epicenter of design talent and instruction. As a result, he had the chance to train, teach, and design alongside some of the brightest minds in the field. In the 1930s he even taught Florence Schust, who would later become the head of the furniture manufacturer Knoll, which had been founded by her husband. It was through his relationship with Florence Knoll that Saarinen was able to develop the designs for the Tulip series of furniture.
Saarinen's concept for the chairs, which have variants both with and without arms, grew out of his design for the table, which has a seamless kind of unity wherein the stem flares into a single wide circular base and likewise expands into the thin flat expansive tabletop, as if to use a minimum of effort to achieve the full function of the piece. The chairs are supposed to mirror this kind of unity, with Saarinen observing that "[t]he undercarriage of chairs and tables in a typical interior makes an ugly, confusing, unrestful world. I wanted to clear up the slum of legs. I wanted to make the chair all one thing again." Indeed, the chairs and tables appear to be sprouting out of the floor, as if they not only display their own sense of unity, but a complete harmony with the larger interior space they occupy. Not surprisingly, the design has also commonly been called the "pedestal chair" for its similarity with display stands.
The ease of the aesthetic of the pedestal chair belies the difficulty in the engineering of the design. Saarinen had originally hoped each unit could be made completely out of a fiberglass structure, but the pedestal proved too fragile to support the weight of a human body. Instead, the pedestal is made out of cast aluminum - which keeps the structure light - covered with a plastic veneer, while the upper portion of the actual seat remains fiberglass. The separation of the two parts also fortuitously allows for the user to swivel 360 degrees, arguably increasing the utility of the chair from that of Saarinen's original design.
Cast aluminum and fiberglass - Manufactured by Knoll, New York City
Trans World Airlines Terminal Idlewild (now John F. Kennedy) International Airport, Queens, New York
The TWA Terminal (or Flight Center) is, along with the main terminal at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, one of Saarinen's two masterpieces of design for aviation; even sixty years later they remain - virtually unaltered - as some of the most iconic examples of the type. The terminals arguably represent the ultimate in space-age design and the sculptural possibilities of poured reinforced concrete. In the TWA Terminal, now actually disused and slated for potential conversion into a airport hotel lobby, Saarinen evokes the idea of flight in several ways, most strikingly with the roof of curved shells that extend from either side of the central pavilion. From an angle the building appears like the body of a giant eagle about to take off, with its head extending over the driveway.
Inside, the sense of glamour and drama of the experience of air travel are made fully apparent with a huge open foyer whose elevation continues to rise as the passenger makes their way from the entrance towards the jets gathered at the rear, as if to physically express the idea of taking off from the airport. This is accented by the massive inclined curtain walls of windows that flood the space with sunlight during the day, as well as by the catwalk that spans the interior foyer, allowing the smartly-dressed passengers to be seen in all their finery before boarding. The effect of moving through the spaces - including its lounges, restaurants, and boutiques - is thus that of a modern promenade, an updated version of the experience of ascending the staircase in the first-class cabin of a great ocean liner.
Saarinen's terminal was constructed at the dawn of the jet age that promised sleeker aircraft with luxurious appointments for its patrons. Ironically, however, the terminal itself became obsolete before it was finished, as it could not accommodate the larger wingspans of Boeing 707 aircraft to connect directly to the terminal through jetbridges; passengers were thus forced to walk out onto the tarmac to board their planes. Nonetheless, the building continued to serve as TWA's major international Atlantic coast gateway until its acquisition by American Airlines in 2001. JFK's new Terminal 5 was eventually constructed around its rear, ensuring that the TWA Flight Center could never be used again for its original purpose, though it is possible to visit it on occasion during open house events.
Hill College House, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Saarinen's only work in the state of Pennsylvania, Hill College House is exemplary amongst his numerous designs for student housing on American university campuses. It was originally constructed as a women's dormitory, and several aspects of it speak to Saarinen's extraordinary sensitivity to the program for the commission. The building employs a skin of rough red brick that firmly ensconces it within the building traditions of both Penn's campus and Philadelphia more generally. It is encircled by a steel fence, crowned by another fence at the roofline, and is entered by a bridge over a ravine, all features that point to the picturesque medieval architecture normally associated with college campuses but also with castle-like fortifications, thereby adding an extra layer of security - theoretically an important feature for women's housing. Such a connotation is emphasized by the slit-like windows that alternate between vertical and horizontal orientations in order to break up a potentially monotonous facade.
The severe brick envelope, however, only underscores the way in which Hill College House brings its residents together on the inside; indeed, Saarinen's guiding theme when designing the complex was "a small village, self-sufficient, inward-focused and protected." The building consists of four separate multilevel wings of dormitory suites that each originally accommodated 16 to 24 students. These wings converge in a great five-story atrium flooded with light, with a cafeteria on the lowest level and projecting communal lounges overlooking it from the four wings, an effect that one original resident compared to living "in a Mediterranean town." Its centerpiece is a large 1926 N.C. Wyeth painting, moved to the atrium in 1978 from New York, entitled The Apotheosis of Franklin, an homage to one of Penn's founders, Benjamin Franklin.
Saarinen designed all the interior surfaces to be white, because, as he quipped when presenting the building to the press, "the walls in my house are white and I wouldn't want anything else" - though he also claimed, in perhaps his one concession to individuality in the structure, that white made them as neutral as possible in order that students might easily personalize their spaces.
CBS Building, New York, New York
The CBS Building in midtown Manhattan was the last major project that Saarinen took on before his death in 1961; it was finished by his senior designers, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, whose firm succeeded Saarinen's practice. The 38-story CBS Building serves as the headquarters of CBS Corporation, but not the actual broadcast centers for any of its media. It is Saarinen's only true skyscraper, and it is rightly considered his answer to the International Style image of American corporate modernism that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and other firms were establishing as a paradigm in the 1950s.
The constructive aspects of the skyscraper set it off from the traditional exposed steel-frame glass prisms pioneered by Mies. It consists of a reinforced concrete frame - the first such skyscraper in postwar New York - with triangular-plan spandrels that act as load-bearing piers set in between the exterior windows. The concrete exterior piers are clad in black Canadian granite and complement the dark-tinted windows set back between them. When one stands at an angle to the building, the triangular shape of the spandrels hide the windows as if turning a set of Venetian blinds. Meanwhile, the projection of the triangular spandrels from the plane of the windows extends for the full height of the building and produces a soaring effect by accenting the verticality of the form. The building thus appears almost like a polished stone monolith set apart from its neighbors in a larger plaza, which quickly earned it the sobriquet "Black Rock" upon its completion in 1964.
Saarinen's tower still aligns with the facades of its neighbors along the Avenue of the Americas in midtown Manhattan, but his use of the plaza was responsible for a change of New York zoning regulations for design of skyscrapers. Since 1916 these laws had encouraged progressive step-back designs to prevent towers from blocking light that otherwise filtered down into the streets; after 1961, the open-plaza model as seen with the CBS Building was encouraged instead.
The CBS Building should also be noted for its significant process of collaboration between the architects and their client, CBS chairman William S. Paley. Paley took an active role in various aspects of the design, specifically selecting Saarinen because he wanted a building that would break from the Miesian mold of the International Style, and courageously stuck with Saarinen even though he did not like the initial design. Paley took an active role in various stages, meeting with Roche and Dinkeloo at least thirty times to view some full models of the structure, adjusting the precise width of the window panels and the selection of the granite for the exterior - a color that Saarinen thought would echo the gray suits of executives. The building received much critical acclaim upon its completion, underscored by the fact that it helped establish the famed Broadcast Row of radio and television media on Sixth Avenue, that includes the headquarters of NBC at Rockefeller Center as well as Fox further south, and previously included ABC and CNN.
Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Officially only a portion of the larger Jefferson National Expansion Memorial that commemorates a number of different events - including St. Louis' status as the oft-cited gateway to the West - the Gateway Arch is nonetheless justifiably often considered as a monument unto itself, due to the colossal singularity of its form. Saarinen and his design team actually titled their competition entry "Gateway to the West," and the name stuck.
The story of Saarinen winning the 1948 competition for this monument, instead of his father is well-known, but less so is the controversy Eero's winning design generated when it was first published. Saarinen was accused of having stolen the idea of the arch from the unrealized plans of Benito Mussolini for a grandiose world's fair to be held in Rome in 1942 celebrating twenty years of Italian Fascism. The competition jury quickly settled the matter with a statement that decreed the concept of an arch was not a Fascist invention, but this did not stop Time magazine from referring to the St. Louis arch as "Mussolini's wicket."
Saarinen based the arch on the reverse form of a catenary (the curve a chain forms when hung between two supports), which is the strongest form of an arch because of the way that it channels all of the weight of its structure into the ground as opposed to leaving lateral forces that need to be buttressed. Saarinen, however, used artistic license by making the arch slightly taller than a pure catenary and slimmer at the top rather the bottom, which produces a more soaring, dramatic effect. The arch's cross-sections consist of double-walled equilateral triangles of stainless steel connected to each other by a layer of concrete. This creates a self-supporting stressed-skin structure, very similar to the designs of the bodies of airplanes, another new technology that was coming into much more widespread use with the advent of the jet age at the end of the 1950s.
Delays prevented the arch from being constructed until 1963-65, and Saarinen's death in 1961 diminished in part the recognition he received for its design, conceived over fifteen years earlier. Despite his bold vision, the feasibility of successfully completing the arch was in doubt throughout the planning and construction process, even with the calculations of Saarinen's trusted engineers Fred Severud and Hannskarl Bandel. Anticipation heightened as the arch's twin legs rose from the ground, with local radio stations broadcasting when further sections would be installed on site by the custom-built creeper cranes. Justly hailed as a triumph of modern engineering on its completion, it remains both the tallest man-made monument in the United States and the tallest arch in the world.