Dulles International Airport Terminal, Chantilly, Virginia, c. 1963. Photograph: Balthazar Korab. © Balthazar Korab Ltd.

Of Arches and Terminals, Eero Saarinen, Shaping the Future

Mildred Lane Kemper
Art Museum
Washington University
One Brookings Drive
St. Louis
Eero Saarinen:
Shaping the Future

January 30-April 27, 2009

Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) was among the most prolific, unorthodox and controversial architects of the 20th century, creator of the monumental St. Louis Gateway Arch as well as sweepingly abstract terminals for New York's John F. Kennedy International and Washington's Dulles International airports. In January the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis will present Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, the first retrospective to explore the complete career of the acclaimed Finnish American architect.

In the 1940s and '50s Saarinen developed innovative construction techniques and deployed a highly personal, exuberant and often metaphorical aesthetic that defied Modernist orthodoxies and gave iconic form to the postwar American ideals of diversity, openness and unbounded freedom — ideals that persist to this day. At the same time, though often celebrated as a lone, heroic creator, Saarinen worked frequently and enthusiastically with other architects, artists, engineers and clients to create cohesive, harmonious environments across a wide range of architectural scales.

Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future comprehensively examines both aspects of Saarinen's oeuvre, investigating the aesthetic, cultural and political significance of his work within the larger context of postwar modern architecture, while also exploring the personal and working relationships between the architect and his many collaborators. Materials, drawn largely from the archives of Saarinen's office, include drawings and full-scale building mock-ups of more than 50 built and proposed projects — from private residences, to religious and educational buildings, to large-scale urban planning projects such as airports and corporate headquarters — as well as photographs, personal documents, press clippings, films and other ephemera.

The resulting portrait shows the architect to have been guided by a clear vision of modern life as a constant collaborative dialogue. Saarinen also emerges as a man in full command of the most sophisticated — and media-savvy — architectural and design strategies of his age.

Born in Finland in 1910, Saarinen immigrated to the United States in 1923. His family settled in Chicago but soon moved to suburban Detroit, where his father, the celebrated architect Eliel Saarinen, began designing the campus of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. There the younger Saarinen befriended designers (and future collaborators) Charles and Ray Eames, as well as Florence (Schust) Knoll, whose company would later produce many of Saarinen's furniture designs.

In 1929 Saarinen studied sculpture at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris and in 1934 graduated from Yale University with a degree in architecture. After a year spent traveling across Europe and North Africa, he accepted a teaching post at Cranbrook and began a series of collaborations with his father. In 1939 the pair won a national competition to design the Smithsonian Gallery of Art on the Mall in Washington (never built) and in 1940 they completed the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Ill — widely considered a milestone in postwar U.S. educational architecture.

In 1948 both Eero and Eliel were named semi-finalists in the competition to design the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, located on 91-acres of Mississippi riverfront in downtown St. Louis. Eliel proposed a gigantic freestanding "frame" of four tapered columns joined by a flat-topped lintel, while Eero called for a modified catenary arch, a shape he designed with structural engineer Hannskarl Bandel. When jurors announced the five finalists, a telegram was sent to "E. Saarinen," and for a few hours the family mistakenly assumed that Eliel had advanced. Eero's design ultimately won the competition, catapulting the 38-year-old architect into the national spotlight.

Saarinen opened his own office, Eero Saarinen and Associates, following his father's death, in 1950. His first major project was the $100 million, 25-building General Motors Technical Center outside Detroit, which pioneered the use of neoprene gasket as well as the idea of the corporate campus. Completed in 1956, the center was proclaimed "a Versailles of Industry" by Life magazine and brought the architect instant renown, leading to a series of high-profile commissions for IBM, Bell Laboratories and John Deere & Company, among others.

Over the next decade Saarinen's work grew increasingly sculptural and curvilinear, and increasingly departed from boxy modernist convention. In addition to the Gateway Arch, his Kresge Auditorium and Kresge Chapel — both completed in 1955 for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — are based on a partial sphere and a cylinder, respectively. The tent-like Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale, completed in 1958, features an oval perimeter of anchoring cables surrounding a curved spine of reinforced concrete.

Such sweeping forms found their ultimate expression in Saarinen's radical, almost futuristic designs for the TWA Flight Center (now Terminal 5 at JFK) and Dulles International, both of which thrilled travelers and gave expression to the emerging glamour of worldwide flight. The TWA Flight Center, commissioned in 1956, is all curved lines and soaring spaces, its thin concrete shell suggesting an abstracted bird. The latter, commissioned in 1958, offers a similar, if more formal, sense of uplift, with massive colonnades tipping outwards and upwards beneath a gracefully sloping roof.

Both airports were completed in 1962, followed by the Gateway Arch in 1965. Sadly Saarinen did not live to see the completion of these three projects, his most famous. He died of a brain tumor in 1961, at the age of 51.


Deere and Company Administrative Center, Moline, Illinois, c. 1963. Photograph: Harold Corsini. Courtesy Eero Sarinen Collection. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University.

Sketch of David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, c. 1953. Courtesy Eero Saarinen Collection. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University.

Miller House, Columbus, Indiana, c. 1957. Photograph: Ezra Stoller. © Ezra Stoller / ESTO.

IBM Manufacturing and Training Facility, Rochester, Minnesota, c. 1958. Photograph: Balthazar Korab. © Balthazar Korab Ltd.

TWA Terminal, New York International (now John F. Kennedy International) Airport, New York, c. 1962. Photograph: Balthazar Korab. © Balthazar Korab Ltd.

Dulles International Airport Terminal, Chantilly, Virginia.