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

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 24, 2008

The National Building Museum's exhibition about Eero Saarinen presents an inspiring account of the Finnish-American architect and his memorable portfolio of modern buildings and furniture.

But "Shaping the Future," as its title implies, illuminates an issue still facing architects 47 years after Saarinen's death: What does it mean to be modern, to design for the future?

For some, it means striving to break with tradition and precedent, to challenge the status quo by inventing visual languages and styles. For a few, it requires a unique, personal style to be applied repeatedly, whatever the circumstances. For others, it means design shaped by context, with aesthetic appropriateness and functional practicality valued above innovation for innovation's sake.

Saarinen is especially notable because he produced highly innovative work as well as more conventional work inspired by circumstances and context. Indeed, having never adopted a signature style, Saarinen defied easy classification and was often criticized for being a stylistic chameleon.

Saarinen, who lived from 1910 to 1961, loved exploring the possibilities presented by new materials and techniques. Yet when project circumstances made structural and geometrical experimentation inappropriate, he designed projects using conventional geometry and construction methods.

In the 1950s, Saarinen was particularly fascinated with curved roof surfaces constructed as thin shells of reinforced concrete and capable of spanning great distances. This yielded structurally and geometrically innovative buildings that have become architectural icons: the Dulles International Airport terminal building (1962, expanded in 1996); the bird-like TWA Terminal (1962) at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport; the Yale University Ingalls Rink (1958), looking a bit like a whale carcass; and his first thin-shell-roof experiment, MIT's acoustically challenged Kresge Auditorium (1955), a concrete dome resting on three points.

His last structural tour de force, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (1966) in St Louis -- better known as the Gateway Arch -- was rendered in steel. Like other of his firm's projects, it was completed after his death.

But Saarinen also designed less well-known, less experimental projects for major corporate clients: the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich. (1956); the IBM Research Center in Rochester, Minn. (1961); the Bell Labs building in Holmdel, N.J. (1962); the Deere Administrative Center in Moline, Ill. (1964); and the high-rise CBS headquarters building in Midtown Manhattan (1965).

These edifices sometimes embodied new materials and inventive details, but they are most laudable for simple, legible massing; rational structural skeletons; and taut, elegant glass and metal skins. Unlike his iconic structures, Saarinen's corporate work looks corporate, clearly in sync with much of the nation's corporate and institutional architecture of the '50s and '60s.

One other Saarinen project is significant, the Stiles and Morse Colleges (1962) at Yale University, housing about 500 students. Resembling none of Saarinen's other works, the project was simultaneously contextual and innovative.

Drawing aesthetic clues from the prevailing neo-Gothic character of surrounding campus buildings -- strong vertical articulation, thick stone walls, narrow windows, intimate courtyards -- Saarinen created two clusters of abstractly neo-Gothic but clearly contemporary buildings. The colleges have narrow windows stacked vertically within walls made with large stones and concrete placed together in formwork.

At the time, the quasi-medieval site plan, its historically allusive massing and its unique wall-fabrication technique were decidedly original. But the project baffled some architects and critics, who seemed to be waiting for Saarinen to make up his mind about style.

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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