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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.

One of the pleasures of the current exhibition is the emphasis on Saarinen's interior spaces, including spaces designed by others for his rooms. He designed the famous tulip chair, which is still in production and is an icon of mod-Americana from the mid-century.

But it's even more revealing to compare a photograph of the master bedroom of his parents' house at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan -- where he grew up and, with his father, played a large role in the innovative school's design -- with later Saarinen interiors. For his parents, Saarinen designed furniture and a sterling silver vanity. The color photograph is shockingly sumptuous, the room a frilly, almost baroque mix of textures and patterns.

Years later, for Saarinen's signature domestic project, the Miller House in Columbus, Ind., designer Alexander Girard produced something even more daringly saturated with hues seemingly drawn from a candy store and a new car lot. Saarinen's design also included a large conversation pit, with red fabrics and pillows making it feel more baroque than bohemian.

One wonders if this, too, played a part in Saarinen's unstable reputation over the years. Photographs of the TWA terminal, seen in black and white, remind one of a space-age Le Corbusier. Photographs of the same building in color are more exciting and problematic -- suggesting the architecture of James Bond flicks and the tacky, giddy cool of America at its postwar high-water mark of self-confidence. Proponents of intellectually rigorous modernism could detect something too rich, too decadent, too sybaritic in these spaces.

The 1960s are just coming onto our horizon of aesthetic reevaluation -- that strange, delayed historical process that makes the "when our parents were our age" past suddenly feel strange yet familiar and nostalgically lovable for the first time. In terms of architecture, and preservation, and historical reevaluation, mid-century modernism is where the action is. And nobody did it with more flair than Saarinen.

In the same 1959 speech in which he mentioned "total chaos" in our built world, Saarinen went on to say: "Never have the architects 'had it so good.' There is a great building boom. We can build at our hearts' content. There is a greater recognition of architects than ever before." Those were, for Saarinen, good times. And while the United States was about to experience the turmoil of long-suppressed racial, social and economic inequities raging into the open, he was riding a wave of confidence that was broadly felt throughout the privileged majorities of the society.

In January 1961, Saarinen attended the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Nine months later the architect was dead. The TWA terminal at Idlewild Airport, which is becoming a mostly idle adjunct to a new JetBlue terminal on the grounds of the renamed Kennedy Airport, was opened in 1962, as was Dulles. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Saarinen's last completed project, was finished in 1965. By 1968, the confidence that Saarinen channeled was yielding to what has often felt like four low, dishonest decades in a row.

That's a glib version of history. But looking at Saarinen's best work in this exhibition, and reading his words about boom times and great days for architects, it's hard not to feel that Saarinen's death came at a moment when confidence was beginning to leach out of American aesthetic life. If architects are able to separate Having It Good from Doing Good, they can sample the same heady waters that Saarinen drank. But first they must go to Dulles, fight their way through the clutter of idiotic security, and head east to where the building boom continues. To the Gulf. To China. Where the tulip chair, and its descendants, are blooming yet.

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