Eero Saarinen is a Finnish-born American architect who was one of the leaders in a trend toward exploration and experiment in American architectural design during the 1950s. He was born in 1910 in Finland and emigrated to the U.S. in 1923. The architect started his career with an apprenticeship and partnership with his father—prolific Art Deco architect Eliel Saarinen—and went on to become one of the most important designers of the 20th century. Working mainly in the U.S., he created dramatically different structures at each turn in his career, immersing himself in various genres and concepts, making bold choices and executing them with confidence. Thus his oeuvre lacks a signature touch, save perhaps the unifying characteristic of refinement of form. Saarinen’s works are not only architectural treasures but also symbols—they capture an era of technology, of futurism, and of optimism.
HIGHLIGHT: EERO SAARINEN
Kleinhans Music Hall, 1940, Buffalo, New York
This music hall was a father-son collaboration for the Saarinens, executed with local architects F. J. and W. A. Kidd. The building is designed as if it were the body of a string instrument, complete with excellent acoustics, and the façade resembles a parquet floor.
MIT Chapel, 1955, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Commissioned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this chapel by Saarinen has no windows, only a perfectly circular skylight directly above the altar. A metal sculpture dangles from the window, reflecting intense light into the otherwise enclosed brick cylinder. The chapel, designed to serve all faiths, is an intensely focused and celebratory worship space.
Milwaukee County War Memorial Center, 1957, Milwaukee
Resembling an unearthed Brutalist bunker, the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center looks out over Lake Michigan. The structure illustrates an extreme end of Saarinen’s broad, expressive architectural range.
David S. Ingalls Rink, 1958, New Haven, Connecticut
Home to Yale Hockey, the Ingalls rink is most recognizable by its huge curved roof. Skaters zip about under what looks like the skeleton of a majestic whale, mysterious and rotund. The building is complete with what could be a harpoon protruding just above the main entrance.
Bell Labs Holmdel Complex, 1962, Holmdel, New Jersey
A massive corporate research facility, this project for Bell Telephone had Saarinen thinking of light and reflection. Bell Labs Holmdel Complex, a majestic glass box appearing mirage-like amid the New Jersey countryside, was one of the architect’s last projects before he died in 1961. Constructed between 1959 and 1962, it represents a remarkably prescient model for the way many modern offices and educational facilities are now being constructed, with their specific emphasis on stimulating collaboration and fostering encounters between different departments. The monolithic glass structure’s ideal location between two ponds gives it the appearance of a UFO landed on water.
TWA Flight Center, 1962, New York
This JFK terminal was one of several Saarinen projects completed after his death in 1961. This opus magnum took the shape of a compact bird, embodying a ’60s sense of fantasy and science fiction (it would not be out of place as a Southern California Googie pit stop). Requiring, however, a touch more class, the terminal was built to meet the needs of an emerging jet-set elite. Even its most utilitarian parts—the arrivals and departures board, the ticket counter, the waiting area—were designed to emulate the luxurious bridge of a spaceship.
Washington Dulles International Airport, 1962, Dulles, Virginia
A modernist take on a dreamlike classical colonnade, Washington Dulles International Airport is, for many, the gateway to Washington, D.C.. Saarinen not only accomplished an elegant and dramatic silhouette in this massive public project, but also developed a new layout that influenced the way future airports were designed. From drop-off to takeoff, Saarinen’s work at Dulles helped to inform decades of air travel ritual.
Gateway Arch, 1965, St. Louis
Today the Gateway Arch is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the U.S. Saarinen perfected the exact dimensions of this tapered and flattened catenary to create an iconic form. Built on the banks of the Mississippi River, at the starting point of the Lewis and Clark expeditions, the arch stands as a monument for the nation’s westward expansion.