The Building Blocks of a Modernist's Vision

In a new exhibition, the National Building Museum reflects on the career of architect Eero Saarinen, designer of Dulles Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

When Eero Saarinen, the architect who designed both Dulles International Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, described the state of his profession in 1959, it sounded a lot like our own architecturally muddled times: Our surroundings, he observed, "have become total chaos."

Saarinen, who is the subject of an absorbing retrospective at the National Building Museum, was part of that chaos -- a clash between old-guard modernism and its more freewheeling second generation, plus the usual din of sprawl and generic mass building.

But while he called it chaos, it was clear that for him, chaos was productive.

Saarinen was keenly aware of both the American and international forces that he, a Finnish American modernist, had to balance, channel and harness. By the time of his greatest productivity, the decade or so before his sudden death from a brain tumor in 1961, architects were facing increasingly vehement arguments about how rigidly the principles of modernism should be applied.

Yes, form should follow function. Yes, buildings should honestly reflect their structural innards. But did it all have to look as austere as the buildings being built by the lesser followers of Mies van der Rohe, who perfected (and perhaps exhausted) the lean-and-mean corporate box?

Saarinen said no, and the current exhibition, first seen in Helsinki in 2006, documents his brilliant efforts to find creative space amid the dogma. There are fabulous successes, such as Dulles, the St. Louis arch and the TWA terminal at what is now John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and some brilliant failures, too. In the latter category are his 1953-58 plans for a Lutheran campus, Concordia Senior College, in Fort Wayne, Ind., a project that looks dated and feels bland and thin, as if the buildings are trying too hard not to compete with a landscape that is flat and monotonous.

One is also glad that Saarinen didn't get every idea built. One of his plans for Yale University would have sunk an oppressive rectangular behemoth right in the middle of one of the university's most elegant and open squares.

So, while it's a pleasure to be able to study a model of Saarinen's plans for a Smithsonian museum (which would have sat where the National Air and Space Museum is now), it's also a relief to know that it never happened. The design is elegant and chilly, and would very likely have felt woefully unmonumental in its surroundings.

The National Building Museum has a decent bullet-point summary for this exhibition: Saarinen is a great and famous architect about whom we know surprisingly little. This can be explained, in part, by his sudden death, which cut short his career at its zenith and left several of his most important projects to be finished posthumously. It can also be explained, in part, by his eclecticism. Even in his own day, his fellow architects and many critics felt that Saarinen reinvented his vocabulary with every project.

In the short run, that sort of stylistic adventurism is problematic. Critics wondered, who is the real Saarinen? The refined practitioner of corporate headquarters? The maker of eccentric forms? The contextualizer with a sense of history who tried to fuse campus Gothic with contemporary style?

In the long run, however, this sort of eclecticism only makes Saarinen seem prophetic. The breadth of his practice, his fondness for "iconic" forms, his forays into furniture and design, his fame -- all of this feels very familiar. Another quick bullet point for this exhibition might be: Eero Saarinen, the first "starchitect."

That term is a pejorative in most circles. And if you want to apply it to Saarinen as a pejorative, it's not hard to find evidence to support your case. His imagination could seem self-aggrandizing, as in the strange and perhaps discordant duet he set up between a low domed auditorium at MIT and a pleasingly perverse little chapel that sits near it. Martin Moeller, senior vice president and curator at the Building Museum, points out that many critics of these seemingly disconnected buildings fail to take into account an unrealized plan that included another structure and some landscaping that would very likely have given the whole ensemble more meaning.

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