In Search of Excellence

A trip to Columbus, Indiana, reveals the architectural genius of Eero Saarinen.

Columbus, Indiana, was in bloom when we arrived in April, as we looked toward “Defining Architectural Design Excellence in a Measuring Society.” We were mostly a team of well-known architects; I, as a non-architect, represented the public voice. The conference, organized by the AIA Committee on Design, served as a planning session for a pre–AIA National Convention workshop.

The small Indiana town was a great place to talk about architectural excellence in the premeasuring era, the less hyper time that relied on intuition in a way that our current obsession with metrics doesn’t allow. Starting in 1942, with the First Christian Church by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, and continuing with decades of building, Columbus became a showcase for modern architecture in North America. Walking in this bucolic place conjured up the reasons that we—who live in big bombastic cities—were drawn here. Whether we were crossing the traditional main street, with its old-fashioned ice cream parlor, or ambling through tree-lined neighborhoods, we encountered buildings by Gunnar Birkerts, I. M. Pei, and Robert Venturi, the stars that now populate our modernist and postmodernist firmament.

Design excellence, as I saw it in Columbus, was exemplified by Eero Saarinen’s three buildings. In them, I observed the architect’s unique ability to be style-agnostic, his fruitful collaborations with allied professions, his sensitivity to site, climate, and people, and his recognized knack for material innovation. The Miller House and Garden (1957) shows how a well-chosen interior designer such as Alexander Girard can personalize a home. The house’s landscape architect, Dan Kiley, also worked with Saarinen on the Irwin Union Bank (1954) and the North Christian Church (1964), creating shaded paths and providing peaceful moments for connecting with nature.

Unlike so many of his generation and those who followed him, Saarinen was not caught up in the stylistic dogma of the International Style. The church leans toward Wrightian Arts and Crafts forms, the house is reminiscent of the Mediterranean modern, and the bank nods toward the Miesian modern.

Observing these different expressions in close proximity, I thought about how the tastemakers who once ran the world of architecture confused excellence with conforming to a prescribed style. And here, I understood how uncomfortable they must have been with Saarinen’s eclecticism. This confirmed my long-held suspicion of why he was ignored for decades after his death at an early age.

The definition we were seeking during those early spring days in Columbus came from the town’s best-known citizen, who was Saarinen’s client for both the house and the bank. “Great architecture is a triple achievement,” the industrialist J. Irwin Miller once said. “It is solving a concrete problem. It is the free expression of the architect himself. And it is an inspired and intuitive expression of the client.”

Miller also said that “mediocrity is expensive.” As it turns out, excellence in architecture and design makes good economic sense, in addition to appealing to our senses and expressing our aspirations.

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