Reconsidering Eero

Saarinen died young and very much out of critical favor, but the judgment of history seems to have turned for this long-neglected master.

Fate treated Eero Saarinen unkindly in many ways. He died of a brain tumor in 1961 at the age of 51, and never lived to see the completion of some of his most important works: the St. Louis Gateway Arch; Dulles International Airport, near Washington, D.C.; the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport and the CBS headquarters, in New York City. During his lifetime Saarinen was met with popular acclaim in the mainstream press—making the cover of Time magazine in 1956—but he was often criticized for lacking a signature style.

That seems to be changing: this spring a Yale symposium looked at the influence of Saarinen, a related team of Finnish and American academics are organizing a major traveling exhibition of his work, and historian and critic Jayne Merkel has just published the comprehensive new book Eero Saarinen (Phaidon). Recently I spoke to Merkel at her home in New York, where we discussed the life and legacy of an architect that history finally seems to be recognizing.

Paul Makovsky: Why come out with a book on Eero Saarinen now?
Jayne Merkel: Along with Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright, Saarinen was easily one of the most important American architects of the twentieth century. His work represents the time he lived and worked in. During the postwar period there was a great sense of optimism and a belief in technology making things better. The disillusionment with the Vietnam War created a loss of faith and doubt, so Saarinen’s work didn’t mean so much to people—they just didn’t get it.

PM: Prior to writing the book you went on an extensive tour of Saarinen’s buildings. Had you already developed an argument about his work at that point, or did it come later?
JM: It came gradually, and I’m still figuring it out. The question I started with was, Why was Eero’s work—so important during its time—forgotten? Part of it had to do with the changing times; part of it was because he wasn’t alive to complete some of his buildings. Post-Modernism was a reaction to technology, and largely a fear of it. There were people—some New Urbanists still do this—who argued that Modern buildings weren’t symbolic and concerned with context. Well, Saarinen’s buildings were symbolic and concerned with context. During the 1990s we got excited about technology again, and here was this man who had done high-tech-looking architecture many years before. Saarinen’s furniture has become stylish again because it embodies that sense of the future.

PM: Who did you interview?
JM: I started with Irwin Miller, a great client. I interviewed Saarinen’s former employees, such as Glen Paulsen, David Powrie, and Ralph Rapson. I interviewed Dan Kiley before he died, and spent an afternoon with Frank Stanton in Boston. My best interview was probably with Gene Festa, who brought Saarinen back to life in so many ways. Robert Venturi had a very poor experience working in Saarinen’s studio, where he designed a few things that were never used. It was a bad fit. I had many conversations with Shu Knoll [Florence Knoll Bassett], who really seemed to care that this book be written and that Eero be remembered.

PM: But Saarinen also had his detractors?
JM: Particularly the British, who hated his U.S. embassy in London because it wasn’t Wild West enough and they wanted something bolder. But that was a time when our government was saying, “We want to fit in!” Philip Johnson, who certainly didn’t try to help Saarinen, said things about him like, “He had all the good jobs” and “We all followed him”—but not when he was alive. Though Saarinen had this great start in life—because his father was a great teacher with all these connections—people were jealous of him. One of the things I was happiest to learn was that he just worked harder than everybody else.

PM: Saarinen’s process was interesting. Instead of coming up with one solution, he would try every possibility. He did that with the TWA terminal too, didn’t he?
JM: All the people in his office, except the secretary, were doing design. With the St. Louis Arch and London embassy projects, they would redo it again and again. Saarinen was this sort of Energizer Bunny. For the TWA terminal he came back and said to the client that he needed more time—and took an extra year! Most architects would have been fired. Saarinen’s gift was to inspire clients—not just convince them to build something good but make them into aficionados and cheerleaders for architecture. He pushed clients like Irwin Miller, and got them excited. At the same time Miller rejected eight or nine of Saarinen’s schemes, but he just kept coming back. Most architects today aren’t confident enough to do that, or they just move on to the next project. There are so many positive lessons here.

PM: And I think with Miller there was a sympathetic cause.
JM: Modernism was a cause. It wasn’t just about how it worked or how it functioned. All these corporations really went out of their way to get Saarinen, and they did what he asked them—and every single one of their buildings has been kept up exquisitely. His hockey rink is still in very good shape, and it has needed very little maintenance, unlike the buildings of Kahn and Rudolph. Saarinen’s buildings held up because of the way they were built, the level of technological finishing. He invented a new material or technology for almost every building he designed.

PM: Give me some examples.
JM: At General Motors a neoprene gasket was developed for the windows. Saarinen also learned from his clients. At the IBM factory building they made a thinner wall panel (5/16 of an inch rather than the 21/2 inches used at GM), and at the John Deere headquarters, he experimented with Cor-Ten steel, which had been used for railroads but not architecture.

PM: And for the TWA terminal Saarinen used the little circular tiles that he could form sculpturally.
JM: The tiles and the mortar form the curves everywhere; square tiles wouldn’t work. In a way the TWA terminal is Saarinen’s pedestal chair turned into a building. He also started using reflective glass. He used it to reflect the landscape with the IBM Watson building, in Yorktown Heights, New York. Bell Labs—one of the first uses of fully mirrored glass—reflected the landscape and made the building disappear. At CBS Saarinen pioneered a structure where the building is supported on the core and the periphery, allowing for totally open-plan offices.

PM: Some people consider the GM Technical Center Saarinen’s best work. Is there one building that you consider his masterpiece?
JM: I certainly don’t think it’s GM because it’s at an automobile scale—and I’m a person, not a Chevrolet—though it looks fabulous in pictures. It’s between the John Deere headquarters, in Moline, Illinois, and the TWA terminal. And the hockey rink at Yale is quite wonderful. The North Christian Church, in Columbus, Indiana, is brilliant and original—and if you go to the Midwest, you’ll see hundreds of imitations—but it doesn’t move me the way the MIT chapel does.

PM: Some designers have said that working in Saarinen’s studio was a great experience. Niels Diffrient, who’s designed award-winning ergonomic chairs, and Balthazar Korab, who became a great photographer, both worked there.
JM: Gunnar Birkerts, Cesar Pelli, and Kevin Roche all worked in Saarinen’s studio, where there was this sense of mission. When the firm decided to move from Michigan to Connecticut, almost everybody went, which meant uprooting their families. This was an office where everyone worked ten- to twelve-hour days because they felt it was so important to finish Saarinen’s work. So most people worked at what was still Eero Saarinen and Associates, and by the time they finished the last projects the firm became Roche Dinkeloo.

PM: What did you learn from Saarinen by writing the book?
JM: Part of it is a confirmation that although people have extraordinary talent and opportunities it’s really about working harder than everyone else, about doing it again and again and again. There is much to be said for reinventing the rules of the game each time. Most famous architects have figured out something, like Mies did—or like Wright did three or four times in his long life. Saarinen’s approach was about program, and he started as if he’d never built anything before: “This is what the client needs. These are the institution’s physical constraints. This is what the site is. This is what the institution does.”

PM: What do you think about his work now, three years after touring his buildings?
JM: I realize how deep the variety of his building went, how it was about the place of the building on the land, getting the right functions and materials, and getting all the right people together so that Saarinen, his staff, and the engineers could—he was like a maestro—play together. Saarinen did research on every level, whether it was technological or sociological. It’s that very belabored and hardworking process of doing it over and over again.

PM: There’s also a very sad element to his life.
JM: Oh, it’s tragic. Here’s this man who’s had every opportunity, with extraordinary talent, and then gets a brain tumor at 51 years old.

PM: And the critical recognition isn’t there.
JM: He always assumed if you did good work and had talent, you’d have the recognition, which he didn’t get. I hope people read this book because he deserves this recognition and there are so many lessons to be learned.

PM: There are also some incredible moments in his life, such as when the Saarinens thought that Eliel won the St. Louis gateway Arch competition and it turned out Eero had won.
JM: Yes, the telegram came for “Mr. Saarinen” and when they got the letter it was actually addressed to Eero. So they had a toast all over again, because if you’re the father, you win either way.

PM: What did you uncover about Pipsan Saarinen?
JM: I think Eero’s talented sister, Pipsan, got shafted a bit. She married a businessman that her parents didn’t approve of and Eero often argued with. Eero wanted to do great buildings and this guy wanted to run a sensible firm and pay the bills. Eero’s mother, Loja, would say that Pipsan took her work too seriously, while Loja herself worked overtime. But they did favor Eero, and though his sister had a hard time, she did have a wonderful career, made wonderful furniture, and had a wonderful marriage. It’s not that it wasn’t a good life.

PM: Eero and Pipsan collaborated on some projects where she did the interiors.
JM: Yes, particularly when they were quite young, but her aesthetic was different than Eero’s. Shu Knoll and Eero were more on the same wavelength. Pipsan’s was different: glitzy but not as high-tech. Eero and Shu’s collaboration for the interiors at the GM Tech Center are among the best interiors, and it’s a mesh of their two talents. I love those chairs that Eero did, but also the other furniture that Shu did for the space. It was really a hand-in-glove collaboration.

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