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A Look Into the Past, at a Man Who Helped Build the Future

Although the Saarinen exhibition highlights architecture designed more than half a century ago, it poses questions still relevant now. What makes a building beautiful in form and craft? How does it respond to site and climate? Does it use technology creatively? Is it functionally efficient? And within the context of place, time and culture, is the building's style -- embodied in its publicly visible massing and geometry, materials, details, and decorative motifs -- appropriate and compelling?

The exhibition also reminds visitors that architecture is different from painting, poetry and performing arts, for which an artist's signature style is expected. Unlike other forms of art, a building must offer more than an aesthetic experience. It must be useful and durable, yet capable of accommodating change. A building stands fixed in its environment, is part of a site-specific culture, and cannot be transported or displayed elsewhere.

Looking at Saarinen's work, visitors may appreciate the risks of treating architecture only as sculpture. Saarinen understood that embracing a one-size-fits-all design strategy and an unchanging, favorite kit of parts -- geometric forms, materials, colors, details -- would have been constraining rather than liberating.

"Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future" runs through Aug. 23 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW.

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

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