Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen was born on August 20th, 1910, in Kirkkinummi, Finland to Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and his second wife, Loja Gesellius, a textile designer, and sculptor, on his father’s 37th birthday. He was one of the leaders in a trend toward exploration and experimentation in American architectural design during the 1950s.

The family immigrated to the United States in 1923 when Eero was thirteen. They first settled in Evanston, Illinois, and then in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He grew up in the town of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan where his father taught and was the dean of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He took courses in sculpture and furniture design there. Saarinen began studies in sculpture at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris, France in September 1929. He recounted years later, “it never occurred to me to do anything but follow in my father’s footsteps.” Between 1931 and 1934 he studied at the Yale School of Architecture, where the curriculum was untouched by modern theories. He completed his studies in 1934. His father’s architecture in Finland had focused on a free adaptation of medieval Scandinavian forms and in the United States he designed various private school buildings from 1925-1941, including Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. At Yale, young Saarinen won a traveling fellowship that made possible a leisurely European visit in 1934–35. He stayed an additional year in Helsinki working with the architect Jarl Eklund. Subsequently, he toured Europe for two years and returned to the United States in 1936 to work in his father’s architectural practice.

Eero Saarinen’s professional work in the United States began in 1936 with research on housing and city planning with the Flint Institute of Research and Planning in Flint, Michigan. He joined his father’s practice in Bloomfield Hills in 1938, and one year later their collaborative design for the mall in Washington, D.C. won first prize in the Smithsonian Institution Gallery of Art competition. Unfortunately, the design was never executed.

Saarinen married Lillian Swann, a sculptor, in 1939, and they had two children, Eric and Susan. The marriage ended in divorce in 953 and Saarinen remarried the following year to Aline Bernstein Loucheim, an art critic. A son, Eames, was born later that year.

In 1940 Eero and his father designed Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois, which influenced postwar school design, being a one-story structure generously extended in plan and suitably scaled for primary-grade children. Also, in 1940, Eero became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1945 he joined a partnership with Eliel Saarinen and J. Robert F. Swanson that had been organized in 1939. This partnership was dissolved in 1947 and a new partnership of Saarinen, Saarinen, and Associates was then formed that lasted until the elder Saarinen’s death.

In the 11 years that he survived his father, Saarinen’s own work included a series of dramatically different designs that displayed a richer and more diverse vocabulary. In questioning the presuppositions of early modern architecture, he introduced sculptural forms that were rich in architectural character and visual drama unknown in earlier years. The exciting results were welcomed by many who were bored by the uniformity and austerity of the International Style of modern architecture.

Saarinen’s first independent work, built in 1956, one that brought immediate renown, was the vast General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. Here Saarinen arranged five major building complexes, each for a different research study around a 22-acre reflecting pool. Strips of planted forest rimmed the 320-acre site. The precision and modular rhythm of the low building recall the designs of the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as well as the early automobile factories of the U.S. architect Albert Kahn. Saarinen’s technical solution for the curtain wall (metal panels and glass set in aluminum frames) was widely copied. The scale and visual splendor of the center suggest a 20th-century Versailles.

With the success of this project, Saarinen was then invited by other American corporations to design their new headquarters. In the 1950s he began to receive more commissions from American universities for campus and building design. These include Birch Hall at Antioch College, the Noyes dormitory at Vassar and Hill College House at The University of Pennsylvania as well as the Ingalls ice rink, Ezra Stiles & Morse Colleges at Yale University, the MIT Chapel and neighboring Kresge Auditorium at MIT and the University of Chicago Law School building and grounds.

Saarinen’s firm carried out many of its most important works including the Bell Labs Holmdel Complex, Holmdel Township, New Jersey; the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri; the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana; the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport; the new East Air Terminal of the old Athens airport in Greece.  Many of these projects use catenary curves in their structural designs.
Like many contemporary architects, Saarinen was challenged by furniture design, especially the chair, which presents aesthetical and structural problems that are particularly difficult to solve. In 1941 he and the designer architect Charles Eames won a national furniture award for a chair design in molded plywood. In 1948 Saarinen created a womblike chair using a glass fiber shell upholstered in foam rubber and fabric. His last furniture designs comprised a series of pedestal-based chairs and tables that combined a sculptural aluminum base with plastic shells for the chairs and discs of marble or plastic for the table tops. The curvilinear forms of his furniture designs paralleled his growing interest in sculptural architectural forms.

As a person, Saarinen was outwardly a stocky, calm man of informal manner and puckish humor, but underneath he was intensely serious about architecture and was compulsively competitive with his designs.  His wish that a building makes an expressive statement established new horizons for modern architecture. He was exploratory in his thinking and
committed to research on every level. His buildings were created with meticulous care, from the original analysis of a client’s problem to the final execution, and were sympathetically received by both the general public and his fellow architects.

Eero Saarinen’s work was a series of dramatically different designs that displayed a richer and more diverse vocabulary. He had to be included in the famous architect’s list as he introduced sculptural forms that were rich in architectural character and visual drama in contrast to the existing modern architecture. 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 point to why nearly all of his major buildings have survived nearly unchanged to the present day.

Saarinen died of a brain tumor in 1961 at the age of 51, leaving numerous projects to be completed by his associates. Always immersed in architecture, he had no other real interests. He never wrote a book, and he only occasionally commented on his buildings and architectural philosophy. Saarinen is now considered one of the masters of American 20th-century architecture.

We at Scarano Architect, PLLC admire the works of Eero Saarinen. We revisit the architectural accomplishments of this great man and hope you enjoyed learning about his life and achievements.

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