Born August 20, 1910, in Kirkkonummi, Finland; immigrated to the United States, naturalized citizen, 1940; died of a brain tumor, September 1, 1961, in Ann Arbor, MI; son of Eliel (an architect) and Loja (a sculptor and weaver) Saarinen; married Lily Swann (a sculptor), 1939 (divorced, 1953); married Aline Bernstein Louchheim (an art critic), 1954; children: (first marriage) two children; (second marriage) one son. Education: Académie de la Grand Chaumière (Paris, France), studied sculpture, 1929-30; Yale University, B.F.A., 1934.
Architect and furniture designer. Saarinen and Swanson (architectural firm), Ann Arbor, MI, cofounder and designer, 1936-41, expanded as Saarinen-Swanson-Saarinen, 1941-47, and Saarinen, Saarinen & Associates, 1947-50; Eero Saarinen and Associates, Birmingham, MI, founder and designer, 1950-61. Major works include Community House, Fenton, MI (with Eliel Saarinen), 1937-38, Berkshire Music Center, Tanglewood, MA (with Eliel Saarinen), 1938, Kleinhaus Music Hall, Buffalo, New York (with Eliel Saarinen), 1938-40, Tabernacle Church of Christ, Columbus, IN (with Eliel Saarinen), 1939-42, houses, School and Community Hall, Center Line, MI (with Eliel Saarinen and J. Robert Swanson), 1941, A. C. Wermuth House, Fort Wayne, IN (with Eliel Saarinen), 1942, schools, Willow Run, MI (with Eliel Saarinen and J. Robert Swanson), 1942, Summer Opera House and Chamber Music Hall, Berkshire Music Center, Tanglewood, MA (with Eliel Saarinen), 1942, Lincoln Heights Housing Area, Washington, DC (with Eliel Saarinen and Swanson), 1943, General Motors Technical Center, Warren, MI (with Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls), 1945-56, Metropolitan Milwaukee War Memorial, Milwaukee, WI, 1946-57, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, (Gateway Arch), St. Louis, MO, 1948-65, Kresge Auditorium and Chapel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge (with Anderson and Beckwith), 1953-56, Irwin Miller Residence, Columbus, IN (with Alexander Girard and Dan Kiley), 1953-57, Concordia College, Fort Wayne, IN, 1953-58, dormitory complex, University of Chicago, 1955-58, United States Chancellery Building, Oslo, Norway, 1955-58, United States Embassy, London, England (with Yorke, Rosenberg, and Mardall), 1955-60, Ingalls Hockey Rink, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1956-59, Law School, University of Chicago, 1956-60, Terminal, Trans World Airways, Kennedy Airport, New York, NY, 1956-62, dormitory, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1957-60, Thomas J. Watson Research Center, International Business Machines Corporation, Yorktown, NY, 1957-61, Bell Laboratories, Holmdel, NJ, 1957-62, Deere and Company Headquarters, Moline, IL, 1957-63, Dulles Airport, Chan-tilly, VA (with Ammann and Whitney), 1958-62, Samuel F. B. Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, Yale University, 1958-62, Columbia Broadcasting System Headquarters, New York, NY, 1960-64, and North Christian Church, Columbus, IN, 1964. Also designer of furniture, including "Tulip" chair, the "Womb" settee, and pedestal stools, among other designs for Knoll International. Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI, instructor, 1939-49. Exhibitions: "Between Earth and Sky," Matthew Architecture Gallery, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, 2003; retrospective, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 2005; many others. Military service: British Office of Strategic Services, served 1942-45.
First prize (with Charles Eames), Organic Design in Home Furnishings, New York's Museum of Modern Art, 1941, for molded plywood furniture designs; first prize, Designs for Postwar Living, California Arts and Architecture, 1946; Gold Medal, American Institute of Architects, 1962; winner of numerous architectural competitions.
Eero Saarinen on His Work: A Selection of Buildings from 1947 to 1964 with Statements by the Architect, edited by Aline B. Saarinen, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1962, second edition, 1968.
Contributor to periodicals, including Architectural Forum, Architectural Record, Journal of the American Institute of Architects, and National Association of Housing Officials Journal.
Architect Eero Saarinen once commented that design had a much too limited vocabulary, and that his work was an attempt to "enlarge its alphabet beyond ABC." An innovator in the use of such structural elements as the thin, porcelain-faced panel that can be used as both exterior wall and interior finish, and of reflective mirror glass, Saarinen was also a tireless experimenter in form. Though some of his structures are reminiscent of the International Style that held sway in the early- to mid-twentieth century, he was not controlled by such a standard. According to Peter C. Papademetriou, writing in Grove Art Online, "Saarinen remained free in his conceptions." His individual aesthetic led him to create new architectural forms and structures. Papademetriou concluded: "His systematic, almost engineer-like insistence on analyzing the nature of a project suggested the possibility of an autonomous architecture for each building, a concept of 'the Style for the Job.' He sought to direct contemporary technology in diverse architectural expressions to the advancement of the symbolic and environmental content of that tradition through the exploration of special architectural vernaculars for each project."
Thus, Saarinen's work does not bear one unmistakable stamp; rather it is in its multiplicity of forms that Saarinen's work is understood. His projects cover a broad range of styles, from more cuboid and simple abstract forms employed for industrial research parks for IBM and Bell Telephone Laboratories, to the sweeping symbolism and expressionism of his TWA Terminal at JFK Airport in New York. With the TWA project, his curvilinear forms suggest a bird about to take off in flight. For the Ezra Stiles and Samuel F. B. Morse Colleges at Yale University, however, he reverted to a more staid appearance to suggest a medieval community of scholars. For Yale he also built a hockey rink that suggests the movement of the sport; his St. Louis Gateway Arch has become a totem of the city, a project four decades in the making and one that has become "one of the few great monumental structures of the twentieth century," according to John Winter in the Architectural Review. Saarinen pioneered what has become the traditional look of office buildings with his General Motors Technical Center near Detroit with its grid lighting and ventilation, but unlike its copies, the GM center "has glamour; it has staircases and public areas that can still startle," according to Winter.
Mark Cousins noted in Building Design that Saarinen "believed in architecture as a fine art and worked tirelessly to instill his buildings with what he called 'lasting truths.'" Cousins went on to observe that what sets Saarinen's work apart from that of other architects is his "thorough exploration of materiality" and his "determination to push both the technical potential and the poetic dimension of specific materials." For Elizabeth Donoff, writing in Architecture, Saarinen was "an unsung hero of modern architecture," and writing in Vanity Fair, Matt Tyrnauer noted that "though each of Saarinen's buildings may seem different, there is a strong unifying theme which binds them—what Saarinen referred to as 'total architecture.'" Tyrnauer concluded, "[Saarinen] was the maverick genius of his generation."
Born in 1910 in Kirkkonummi, Finland, Saarinen came from a distinguished family of architects and artists. His father, Eliel Saarinen, was an internationally renowned architect, while his uncle, aunt, and grandfather were also well respected in the same field. Saarinen's mother, Loja, was an artist of many talents: sculptor, photographer, weaver, and architectural model maker. Thus Saarinen grew up in a household where drawing and art were everyday affairs and taken seriously. Ambidextrous, the young Saarinen drew well and industriously. At the age of twelve, he won a Swedish matchstick design contest. From his parents he learned an essential design aesthetic: an object should be designed in the context of its next largest space. For example, a chair should be thought of in the context of a room, a room in the context of a home, and the home in the context of its urban neighborhood or rural environment.
When his father won second place in the competition for the Chicago Tribune building in 1922, the elder Saarinen became better known in the United States. As a result, the family moved across the Atlantic, settling in Michigan, where Eliel Saarinen became architect-in-residence and president of the Art Academy of Cranbrook Educational Community, one of the most influential art schools in the United States at the time. Young Saarinen grew up in the house his father designed, and for which his mother provided woven textiles, his sister added wall and ceiling stenciling, and for which Eero himself designed furniture.
Eero Saarinen apprenticed in the Cranbrook architectural office in 1928 and 1929, and then left for sculpture studies in Paris. Upon returning to the United States, his interests had settled more firmly on architecture. He attended Yale University, where he studied fine arts and graduated with honors in 1934. He worked for a time in New York as a draftsman for architect Norman Bel Geddes, then won a fellowship for travel in Europe, where he helped in the remodeling of a theater in his native Finland. Returning to the United States, Saarinen joined his father's practice in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and also took up a teaching post at Cranbrook. Through-out the previous decade, Saarinen had been attempting to define his own modern style, a blending of International Style with the best elements of older architectural forms. He was now ready to put such theorizing into practice.
From Functional Furniture to Multifunctional Buildings
Working in the shadow of his father was not always easy for Saarinen. One of his first independent triumphs, working in collaboration with Charles Eames, was a design for furniture which used molded plywood and metal. Entered in a contest at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940, their design took first place. Saarinen would continue to design furniture over the next decades, including the "Tulip" chair and the "Womb" settee, as well as the "Pedestal" furniture series, all of which were produced by Knoll Associates. Such furniture, using inexpensive materials including foam rubber, steel tubing, plywood, and plastic, could lead, Saarinen thought, to a whole new type of functional and inexpensive modern furniture.
However, it is for his architecture that Saarinen is primarily remembered. Working first as an assistant and then as full partner with his father, he participated in many of the projects of this high-profile firm in the 1940s. The first project to bring Eero Saarinen widespread notice as an architect was his 1945 design for the massive General Motors Technical Center near Detroit. The complex covers some 600 acres, with 60 buildings containing nearly ten million square feet of plant space arranged along three sides of a 22-acre lake. The center includes laboratories, shop buildings, and offices and was designed to be the heart of the company's engineering and research operations. Though begun with his father, this project became Eero's alone by 1948. Inspired by the minimalist aesthetics of Mies van der Rohe, Saarinen wanted to base the construction on elements of the automobile—the company's product. Thus steel was a major component, and neoprene gaskets were used for the window glazing, a system modeled on the installation of windshields. The GM Center was the first time Saarinen used his porcelain-faced "sandwich" paneling for both exterior skin and interior finish.
Saarinen further distanced himself professionally from his father when both entered the competition for the Jefferson Westward Expansion Memorial in St. Louis in 1948. Eero's design for the Gateway Arch won that day. The 630-foot tall metal arch, capable of holding some 160 visitors at a time, was begun on February 12, 1963, and completed on October 28, 1965. The arch, now the defining symbol of the city of St. Louis, stands on the bank of the Mississippi River.
With his father's death in 1950, Saarinen set up his own architectural firm, and throughout the 1950s worked on a series of innovative and landmark buildings. His thin-skin technology and so-called curtain-wall aesthetic was employed in projects from the Noyes House at Vassar College in upstate New York, to the law school of the University of Chicago and the IBM offices at Rochester, Minnesota. With the John Deere buildings, he brought his minimalist perspective to its furthest limits and also first used self-rusting Cor-Ten steel to create a form at once "highly sculptural and articulated," according to a contributor for the International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture.
Designs Airport Terminals
One of Saarinen's most daring projects was his design for the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport, begun in 1956. Here, as the contributor for the International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture observed, "was perhaps the most advanced of sculptural forms, providing a continuity of space and shape which facilitated passenger flow, but whose complex curves were allegorically meant to suggest flight." Further innovations are found in his designs for another airport project, this time for the entire Dulles International Airport in Virginia, a gateway to the nation's capital. Lesley Jackson, writing in Building Design, praised the Dulles project as "uplifting, with its dramatic, sweeping roofline and gravity defying cresting walls. This is organic architecture at its best; architecture from the gut." Saarinen's final project, the Columbia Broadcasting System building in New York, was more sedate in design. The heterodox Saarinen made a strong departure from the glass boxes of other Modernist skyscrapers, giving the CBS headquarters a solid, masonry facade.
Saarinen died before seeing completion of many of his most famous designs. Within two weeks of being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1961, he succumbed. He was just fifty-one years of age.
If you enjoy the works of Eero Saarinen
If you enjoy the works of Eero Saarinen, you may also want to check out the following:
The work of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, American architect and designer Charles Eames, and German-born American architect Mies van der Rohe.
Despite his short working life, Saarinen's legacy is large, blending the legacy of the past with modern architecture in a unique and vital manner. Ironically, however, much of his groundbreaking work is now dated. As Cousins commented, "Eero Saarinen was determined to secure his place in architectural history but, sadly, is now regarded as a relatively obscure figure in the canon of 20th century architecture." Winter also noted that Saarinen's name "once universally respected, rarely comes into architectural debate at present." His most famous buildings are even threatened with renovation. His TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport has long been "obsolete," as Mark Lamster and Joseph Giovannini noted in Architecture, even though it is a "magnificent work of expressive architecture." The authors further noted, "Now, with TWA defunct and the sheen of romance removed from commercial aviation, the terminal is a disheveled and inadequate ward of the state, an orphaned, empty symbol." Extensive retrofitting is needed to bring the building up to twenty-first-century needs in terms of security and passenger volume.
Yet Saarinen's achievements "remain significant," according to Winter. Among these are the GM Technical Center, "the place where the Modern Movement dream of the machine-made, machine-serviced, environment was achieved for the first time." Other Saarinen legacies include the young generation of architects who worked with him or were deeply influenced by his work, and went on to their own careers in the second half of the twentieth century.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Carter, Brian, Between Earth and Sky: The Work and Way of Eero Saarinen, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI), 2003.
Cheek, Lawrence W., Eero Saarinen: Architect, Sculptor, Visionary, Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association (St. Louis, MO), 1998.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 7: 1961-1965, American Council of Learned Societies (New York, NY), 1981.
Doumato, Lamia, The Work of Eero Saarinen: A Selected Bibliography, Vance Bibliographies, 1980.
Hall, Edward, and Mildred Hall, The Fourth Dimension in Architecture, Sunstone Press (Santa Fe, NM), 1995.
Janz, Wesley R., Building Nations by Designing Buildings: Corporatism, Eero Saarinen, and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Center for Architecture and Urban Planning Research, School of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1995.
Kuhner, Robert A., Eero Saarinen, His Life and Work, Council of Planning Librarians, 1975.
Merkel, Jayne, Eero Saarinen, Phaidon Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Meyerowitz, Joel, St. Louis and the Arch, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1980.
Moon, George, American Versailles: Eero Saarinen and the General Motors Technical Center, George Moon, 1995.
O'Neal, William Bainter, Eero Saarinen: A Bibliography, American Association of Architectural Bibliographers, 1963.
Roman, Antonio, Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity, Princeton Architectural Press (Princeton, NJ), 2003.
Temko, Allan, Eero Saarinen, George Braziller (New York, NY), 1962.
American Institute of Architects Journal, November, 1981, "Eero Saarinen in Perspective."
Architectural Forum, July, 1960, Lawrence Lessing, "The Diversity of Eero Saarinen"; October, 1962, Walter McQuade, "Eero Saarinen, a Complete Architect," pp. 102-119.
Architectural Review, July, 2003, John Winter, "Risk Taker," p. 81.
Architecture, April, 1985, "Saarinen's GM Technical Center Receives AIA's 25-Year Award"; July, 2000, Peter Papademetriou, "Desperately Seeking Saarinen," p. 72; May, 2001, Alan G. Brake, "Saarinen's TWA Threatened," p. 46; December, 2001, Mark Lamster and Joseph Giovannini, "Will This Bird Fly?," p. 104; August, 2003, Elizabeth Donoff, review of Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity, p. 89.
Building Design, March 24, 2003, Lesley Jackson, "Pretty Vacant," p. 18; November 14, 2003, Mark Cousins, "Reach for the Sky," p. 20.
Horizon, July, 1960, Allan Temko, "Eero Saarinen: Something between Earth and Sky."
Interiors, March, 2001, "Eero-ly We Roll Along," p. 35.
Isis, March, 2001, Scott G. Knowles and Stuart W. Leslie, "Industrial Versailles," p. 1.
Vanity Fair, May, 2003, Matt Tyrnauer, "Golden Eero," p. 106.
Bluffton College, http://www.bliffton.edu/ (April, 2002), "Index to the Architecture of Eero Saarinen."
Gateway Arch, http://www.gatewayarch.com/ (July 26, 2005).
Great Buildings Online, http://www.greatbuildings.com/ (April 22, 2005), "Eero Saarinen."
Grove Art Online, http://www.graveart.com/ (April 22, 2005), Peter C. Papademetriou, "Eero Saarinen."
National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/ (April 22, 2005), Michael Caps, "Eero Saarinen—Architect with a Vision."
Architectural Forum, October, 1961, "Eero Saarinen, 1910-1961."
Newsweek, September 11, 1961.
New York Times, September 2, 1961.
Time, September 9, 1961.
Times (London, England), September 2, 1961.
(b. 20 August 1910 in Kirkkonummi, Finland; d. 1 September 1961 in Ann Arbor, Michigan), one of the foremost architects of his generation, who designed some of the most distinctive American buildings of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Saarinen emigrated from Finland to Evanston, Illinois, and then to Detroit in 1923, with his father, Eliel Saarinen, a well-known architect, his mother, Louise ("Loja") Gesellius, an artist, and his two sisters. He was educated in public schools in Michigan, but he and his sisters also helped their father with his designs. The whole family would become involved with designing furniture, fabrics, and wall coverings for their father's buildings. Saarinen began his career by separating himself from his father's influence, studying sculpture in Paris in 1929, before studying architecture at Yale University in 1931, graduating with honors with a B.F.A. in 1934. He received an M.A. from Yale in 1949. Saarinen began his professional career as an architect in Finland, where he designed the Helsinki Post Office (1934). He married Lily Swann and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1939. The couple had two children, but divorced in 1953. On 8 February 1953 Saarinen married Aline B. Louchheim; they had one son.
While in Europe, Saarinen came under the influence of leading modernist architects such as Erich Mendelsohn and Alvar Aalto. By the time he returned to the United States to work with his father in 1936, Saarinen had a well-developed sense of his own approach to architecture. He broke away from modernist influences, including his father's, to create designs that better represented the dynamic culture of the late 1950s and 1960s. Even in the years before World War II, Saarinen developed each building as a unique and self-contained project, designing for the immediate context, rather than architectural progression. This repeated breaking with the past pushed modernist architecture to its natural limits and beyond in buildings such as the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Headquarters in New York (1960–1964), and in Saarinen's masterpiece, the terminal building at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. (1958–1963).
Except for a brief period of wartime service as a government adviser in the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C., between 1942 and 1945, Saarinen worked in the family firm (which became Eero Saarinen and Associates in 1950) for most of his adult life. He won many prizes in his early career, including the Smithsonian competition in 1939, and, collaborating with his friend Charles Eames, two first prizes in the Organic Design Competition for furniture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City in 1940. Winning the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial competition in 1948, however, established his name, and heralded a new direction for American architecture. His grand arch, built in stainless steel between 1961 and 1966 at Saint Louis, Missouri, is both a monument to Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States, and a symbolic gateway to the future. At 630 feet, the arch is the tallest memorial in the United States.
All of Saarinen's important buildings were constructed after World War II, and his greatest work was not completed until after his death in 1961. He created designs for the campuses of Yale University and Harvard University in the 1950s, and the twenty-five buildings of the General Motors Technical Center at Warren, Michigan, all of which are suggestive of his background in sculpture. Other projects he began in the late 1950s include: the U.S. Embassy at Grosvenor Square, London (1955-1960), the Trans World Airlines (TWA) terminal at Kennedy Airport, New York (1956–1962), the Terminal Building at Dulles International Airport, Washington, D.C. (1958–1963), the John Deere and Company Administration Building at Moline, Illinois (1957–1963), and the CBS Headquarters in New York City (1960–1964). These buildings made regular appearances in the press, in movies, and on television shows, and they came to represent the nation's dynamic, modern attitudes and beliefs. In effect, Saarinen helped design the landscape of 1960s America.
Both Saarinen and his work are enigmatic. He skipped from one architectural influence to another, and few of his designs are of the sort that could be developed by others. Yet his visionary approach was far from haphazard or unplanned. Although the Dulles terminal building is cluttered in comparison with the airy TWA terminal, Saarinen carefully considered the process of moving people through the building and onto the planes, eventually settling on an innovative "mobile lounge" system. The exterior of the Dulles terminal garnered Saarinen the most praise. Its vast suspended roof with its high front and swooping downward curve give the impression of flight, and makes it arguably the most distinctive airport building in the world. Saarinen avoided designing skyscrapers until 1960, possibly because he shared his father's dislike of them, but when he finally did so, it was with characteristic flair. The CBS Headquarters building is considered to be one of the most architecturally distinctive skyscrapers in the United States.
It was not only in the appearance of his designs that Saarinen broke new ground. He pioneered many building techniques that would offer new possibilities for architects in the 1960s and after. Perhaps the most important of these is the "shell" technique, in which the outer shell of a building is constructed independently of its internal structures. Although it became one of the most common building techniques of the 1960s, the first shell construction in the United States was Saarinen's Kresge Auditorium and Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1953–1956).
In 1961 Saarinen was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he died following brain surgery at Ann Arbor. Often criticized by other architects as a showman, Saarinen is considered by many to have died before completing his best work. His influence on the architecture of the 1960s and after is profound. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1960, and posthumously awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 1962, the profession's highest honor.
Some of Saarinen's personal papers are kept in the Manuscripts and Archives Department at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Books about his life and work are Allan Temko, Eero Saarinen (1962), and Rupert Spade, Eero Saarinen (1971). Further biographical information is in Muriel Emmanuel, Contemporary Architects (1980); Robert C. Judson, Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision (1983); and Dennis Sharp, ed., The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture (1991). An article about Saarinen is in Architecture and Urbanism (Apr. 1984). Obituaries are in the New York Times and (London) Times (both 2 Sept. 1961), Time (8 Sept. 1961), Newsweek (11 Sept. 1961), and Architectural Design (Dec. 1961).
For MIT he had experimented with massive brick walls at the circular chapel (1952–6), and at Concordia Senior College, Fort Wayne, IN, he also designed the chapel, this time with a pointed roof (1953–8). At the David S. Ingalls Ice Hockey Rink, Yale University, New Haven, CT (1953–9), he spanned the length of the building with a great central arch carrying the curved roof-structure. This was followed by the TWA Terminal Building at Kennedy International Airport, NYC (1956–62), with its huge sail-like vaulted roofs rising from dynamically shaped piers, expressive of wings and flight. The Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown, NY (1957–61), also exploited curves, to be used again at Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, VA, near Washington, DC (1958–63).
With the Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges, Yale University (1958–62), the composition is stepped on plan and vertical section, and he used a fragmented, layered geometry for the treatment of the façades of the US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London (1955–60—built in collaboration with Yorke, Rosenberg, & Mardall). He also collaborated with Kiley on several projects. His practice was continued by Roche and Dinkeloo after his death.
Gaidos (ed.) (1972);
A. Saarinen (ed.) (1968);
Jane Turner (1996)