November 1, 2008
A Lesson from Eero: Make Your Office A Creative Cauldron
Why the long-gone Saarinen office is now more important than ever
What if the American workplace were less about processing information and more about thinking, exploring new ideas, and finding groundbreaking solutions? What if employers challenged their workers to think more like designers? What if intensive, research-based design became the norm rather than the rare exception in architectural practices across the world? In fact, what if research and exploration were at the top of every business plan? No, these questions are not idle musings; they’re an urgent call for change. As the 20th century’s economic and business models crumble all around us, innovation, based on solid research and smart analysis, must become the mantra of the 21st century.
These thoughts had been buzzing in my head for some time now. Then, as I read over this issue, the two workplace stories (“Leaves of Glass,”and “Team Eero”) gave me more food for thought. In the first, you see how modern architecture—in service to the corporate bottom line and tied to efficiency at all costs—has worked to shrink-wrap us in comfort and conformity. It’s a sad and lonely world, as the photographer Michael Wolf has found, and it’s hard to imagine how innovation and creativity could flourish in the midst of so much blandness and utility.
There was nothing sad and lonely about the Saarinen office, however, where utility was essential but blandness was outlawed. This creative cauldron forged the careers of our most productive architects and designers, who added memorable buildings to America’s heartland and designed my favorite chairs and tables, which look as fresh today as they did more than 50 years ago. These were people who lived and breathed design; their talents were fully realized and constantly challenged. Inspired by Saarinen, their intrepid leader, they never tired of searching for novel ways to build, new materials, and better performance. Their technical and artistic skills were honed there. They worked hard, as Cesar Pelli recalled in 2005 at a Yale symposium, but they “worked with a purpose.” Though he said the town of Bloomfield Hills was “an intellectual desert,” Pelli called his time in the Saarinen office (from 1954 to 1961) “wonderful years to be young.”
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Ask yourself this: Is your office a place where it’s wonderful to be young? How are you helping the new generation of architects become catalysts for an environmentally sensitive, socially concerned design ethic? Are you providing, as Pelli said Saarinen did, “a whole new learning adventure” with each project? And how can you make sure that research, practiced perhaps less fanatically than by the young men in Saarinen’s office, is an essential part of your practice?