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From left: Eero Saarinen's eclectic, structurally innovative buildings include the TWA terminal at Kennedy International Airport and the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich.; Saarinen and his famed 'Tulip' chair in 1957.
From left: Eero Saarinen's eclectic, structurally innovative buildings include the TWA terminal at Kennedy International Airport and the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich.; Saarinen and his famed "Tulip" chair in 1957. (Ezra Stoller/Esto; David Sailors/Corbis; Thomas A. Heinz/Corbis)

Saarinen rising

A much-maligned modernist finally gets his due

ARCHITECTURE WRITER Jayne Merkel is standing in the office of her Manhattan apartment, pointing to a short shelf of books, monographs, and magazines, maybe 20 items in all. "This," she says with a slight laugh, "is the accumulated library of posthumous work on Eero Saarinen." Merkel is writing a biography of the late Finnish-American architect, and her meager shelf illustrates just how hard a task it has been. "The research, for me, has been kind of a start-from-scratch process."

It's one of the great ironies of modern architecture. Since his death in 1961, Saarinen, the designer of such icons as the TWA terminal at Kennedy International Airport in New York and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, a man dubbed "the most famous young architect in America, perhaps in the world" by Architectural Forum in 1962, has been almost completely ignored -- even ostracized -- by critics and architectural historians.

Until recently, that is. Seemingly overnight, a veritable cottage industry of Saarinen scholarship has sprouted up. The first major monograph in four decades appeared last year, and Merkel's book is only one of several set to appear in the next two years. Last month, a team of Finnish and American academics launched a multi-pronged research project on Saarinen, which will include a traveling exhibit, a comprehensive catalog, and a symposium at Yale.&

quot;I'm surprised at the number of people coming into my office interested in writing on Saarinen or in doing exhibits," said Cesar Pelli, the former dean of the Yale School of Architecture who worked for Saarinen's office from 1954-64. "In the last two or three years, there has been an incredible river of interest in his work and personality."

And it's not just academics who are revisiting Saarinen. Even 10 years ago, for an architect to admit a debt to Saarinen was career suicide. Peter Papademetriou, a professor at the New Jersey School of Architecture who is also writing a Saarinen biography, said that in school he was "pretty much crucified for even looking at him." Today, however, architects like Santiago Calatrava (designer of the Olympic Stadium in Athens and the new transit terminal near Ground Zero) openly admit to his influence, while the expressive stylings of everyone from Frank Gehry to Rem Koolhaas show an undeniable debt. The TWA terminal, designated a city landmark in 1994, was recently at the center of a preservation battle (the preservationists won). The question then is why, after spending 40 years outside the architectural inner circle, has Saarinen become so popular?.

. . . .

Though short, Saarinen's career trajectory was the stuff of architecture legends. He was destined for the arts from birth -- his mother was an innovative weaver while his father, architect Eliel Saarinen, directed the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. After college he joined his father's firm, but didn't strike out on his own until his father's death in 1950, when he inherited the colossal General Motors Technical Center project in Warren, Mich.

A fierce and tireless competitor, Saarinen proceeded to win several of the following decade's most sought-after commissions: the TWA terminal, the Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., the US embassy in London, and the CBS headquarters in New York, among others. In 1953 The New York Times dubbed him "the most widely known and respected architect of his generation"; three years later he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. By the time his last buildings were completed, Saarinen had won virtually every major architecture award, including, posthumously, the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal, its highest honor.

The key to Saarinen's popularity, according to those who worked with him, was his complete (and, for the profession, unusual) lack of interest in developing a signature style. Rather than cultivate an identifiable "look," he built according to the needs of the client and the site, an approach that produced radically different, but equally pleasing, results. At the GM Center, he built a sleek campus inspired by the glass and steel cubes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; at the TWA terminal, he built a birdlike sculpture out of a complex series of concrete shells, meant to evoke the transition from ground to flight. "Each design was a statement unto itself, a particular, specific solution resolved by particular, specific means," writes Antonio Roman in his 2003 book, "Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity."

Though he employed a conventional modernist vernacular with the GM Center, most of Saarinen's buildings pressed beyond the modernist orthodoxy that was dominating -- and often stifling -- the architectural scene of the late 1950s. As many American cities can still attest, that scene was all about the cool glass-and-steel structures of the International Style, which had its apotheosis in Mies' and Philip Johnson's Seagram Building on New York's Park Avenue. But for a public growing weary of yet another metal box made of I-beams and a glass curtain wall, Saarinen's expressive forms were new and exciting. "He tried to make an architecture that would be much more usable, that would communicate more, that would respond more to what people needed and felt, and that made his buildings popular," said Pelli.

But Saarinen's use of varied styles was often derided by critics, academics, and other architects, who often dismissed him as eclectic, unprincipled, a dabbler. "Practically everything that could be seen going wrong in the work of students was blamed on his influence," wrote the critic Reyner Banham in 1962.

And if some found Saarinen insufficiently modernist, others took him to task for being too modernist, if not in form then in practice. As with so many fields in the mid-1960s, architecture underwent a radical revolt; modernism, said its young assailants, had become a debased prop for the establishment. And going by client lists, no one was more establishment than Saarinen.

More than anything, it was Saarinen's great misfortune to come into the crosshairs of Yale's Vincent Scully, the outspoken dean of American architectural historians. In courses, symposia, and conversations, Scully hammered home the idea that Saarinen's varied style wasn't just bad architecture but was evidence of the imminent decline of modernism itself. Saarinen's Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale, completed in 1958, had "embodied a good deal that was wrong with American architecture in the 1950s: exhibitionism, structural pretension, self-defeating arrogance," Scully wrote in his 1969 book "American Architecture and Urbanism." He likened the mobile lounges at Dulles Airport -- a Saarinen innovation -- to "Afrika Korps troop carriers," and he declared that Saarinen's later works were "cruelly inhuman and trivial, as if they had been designed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

Not surprisingly, then, after his untimely death at just 51, Saarinen was quickly sidelined as a major architect. Though many of his individual buildings continued to be praised, he left behind no definitive style, and more importantly no body of written work that could elucidate his architectural philosophy. "He was not a guru or theoretician whom students studied or chose to follow as devoted disciples. Nor did his work serve as a template or model for our studio projects," said Roger Lewis, an architecture professor at Maryland who studied at MIT in the 1960s, not long after Saarinen completed the university's Kresge Auditorium and Kresge Chapel, his only Boston-area buildings. "My recollection is that we did discuss his work, considering it romantic, aesthetically expressive, metaphoric and, in its formal diversity, unpredictable, which is why it never served as a paradigm."

Had he lived longer, perhaps Saarinen would have been able to counter some of his critics; as it happened, he died before his major works -- TWA, Dulles, the Gateway Arch, the CBS Headquarters Building in New York -- were even completed. But by then the order that had prevailed over architecture in the 1950s had fallen apart; in its place came a dizzying array of schools -- pop architecture, neo-brutalism, contextualism -- which in turn gave way to postmodernism. By the late 1970s, Saarinen was little more than a relic.

Tom Wolfe relates a telling anecdote regarding Saarinen's fate in his 1982 book "From Bauhaus to Our House." After writing a piece that complimented Saarinen, he was approached by an estimable architecture writer. "I enjoyed your piece," the writer tells Wolfe, "But I have to tell you that you are only hurting your own cause if you use Saarinen as an example. People just won't take you seriously. I mean, Saarinen. . .."

. . . .

Times have changed. Last month several hundred people crammed into a UN Headquarters auditorium to witness the inauguration of "Eero Saarinen: Realizing American Utopia." Funded by a pair of Getty Foundation grants, the project -- largely a joint effort between Yale academics and researchers at the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki -- will produce a comprehensive catalog of his work, a major traveling exhibit, an online gallery, and an effort to archive the thousands of documents and drawings from Saarinen's career that were recently given to Yale by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates, the New Haven-based successor to Saarinen's firm. Next spring, Yale will host the first major Saarinen symposium since his death -- with Vincent Scully as the keynote speaker.

The project is having a ripple effect through the academy, said Sarah Williams Goldhagen, a lecturer in architectural history at Harvard. "There's this opportunity for scholarship on Saarinen that there hadn't been before," she said. "You have a number of doctoral students hungry for topics, and Saarinen is perfect grazing territory."

Some, such as his former colleague Kevin Roche, say this explosion of all things Saarinen is merely the result of academics and critics looking for unexplored territory. "These things are cyclical," he said. "They depend a little on emerging critics looking for a niche."

Robert Venturi, the architect and theorist, who worked for Saarinen in the early 1950s, explains the return of modernism as the "your grandmother's wedding gown" phenomenon. "You look at your mother's wedding dress and you think it's ugly. But then you look at your grandmother's and it's beautiful."

But others see something bigger. In the wake of postmodernism, there is a sort of ideological vacuum in which architects are free to experiment with a variety of forms -- and in this light Saarinen's heterodoxy provides a natural model. "We are in a period that appreciates and rewards the individual search," said Pelli, "and not so interested in architects conforming to one ideology or school. And that was the greatest criticism of Saarinen."

At the same time, Saarinen's lack of pretension and commitment to his client's needs, some say, provides a refreshing antidote to the cult of the "starchitect" many say is poisoning the profession. "I find that many architects are expressing themselves and not what the problem is," said Gunnar Birkerts, who worked with Saarinen from 1951 to 1955. Saarinen, on the other hand, is "the closest to what we would like to come back to. He was expressive, but in an appropriate way. He was able to work with symbolism and he had an understanding of materials. He was inventive in terms of technology and materials. He has everything an architect should have in his baggage to create buildings."

Of course, there's also the simple fact that modernist design is chic again, and nothing bespeaks the jet-set optimism of the era better than Saarinen. His curvy and inviting "Womb" and "Tulip" chairs have been popping up in high-end showrooms and in pop culture (the "Tulip" chair was featured in "Men in Black"). And under a tentative agreement reached earlier this month, the newly landmarked TWA terminal, which played a central role in Steven Spielberg's 2003 film "Catch Me If You Can," will be used for ticketing by JetBlue after sitting empty for the last three years.

In the end, an offhand comment Saarinen made late in life may explain his resurgence best. "The practice of architecture," he said, "has to be measured in elephant time." The same, it seems, could be said when it comes to the appreciation of Saarinen himself.

Clay Risen, an assistant editor at The New Republic, writes frequently about architecture. 

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