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Saarinen Developed a New Architectural Vocabulary for Each of His Projects

At Yale University, searching for more ways to dramatically span large spaces, he designed the David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink with a roof supported by a reinforced concrete spine that arches lengthwise over the entire hockey rink. The roof surfaces are then suspended laterally between the spinal arch and lower side walls varying in height. The resulting curvilinear form resembles a whale -- an unintended metaphor -- and engendered the building's nickname, the Yale Whale.

Yet Yale's many neo-Gothic edifices led Saarinen to fashion for the university a new dormitory complex -- the Ezra Stiles and Samuel F. B. Morse Colleges -- that could not have been more unlike the hockey rink. A tight, bending cluster of low-rise, faceted buildings is clad entirely in randomly patterned, rough-hewn limestone with narrow, vertically proportioned windows. They were clearly inspired by and meant to evoke a medieval village.


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Dulles's suspended, seemingly hovering roof recalls an inverted aircraft wing and sweeps your view skyward. Its cousin, Saarinen's TWA Terminal Building at New York's Kennedy Airport, looks like a mythical bird, hovering with its curving, outstretched wings sheltering the concourse below. Both terminals were explorations of the use of thin-shell concrete technology to shape metaphorically expressive yet functional structures.

The soaring Gateway Arch overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Louis was designed early in Saarinen's career, as part of a competition. But it was completed only after he died in 1961 at age 51. It is yet another tour de force, not because of its shape -- the arch is an ancient structural form -- but rather because of its great height, thin proportions and method of construction.

Many architects reject the search for a new form for each new project that characterized Saarinen's practice. Instead, they fall in love with and nurture a particular stylistic language. This usually occurs early in their careers. Such architects see themselves primarily as dedicated artists, motivated in part by a desire to differentiate their work from the work of others, just as sculptors, painters, poets and writers might.

Embracing and avidly pursuing a signature style is not inherently a good or bad way to practice architecture. But it can be problematic if the stylistic language becomes overly immutable and formulaic, if it makes little sense for the circumstances of a particular project, or if it yields buildings whose structural and aesthetic durability prove to be short-lived.

Throughout his architectural quest, Saarinen clearly understood this, and for those architects continuing the quest, he remains a worthy role model.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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