The Building Blocks of a Modernist's Vision

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.

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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