How architect Eero Saarinen shaped Americaby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
Starting this weekend, two major art institutions in Minnesota will showcase the work of an architectural visionary. Experts say Eero Saarinen's buildings, airports, memorials and furnishings reflect the height of ingenuity and innovation of post-war America. The Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts have teamed up to present, among other things, the architect's impact in Minnesota.
Minneapolis, Minn. — At Christ Church Lutheran in south Minneapolis, a genteel courtyard and a sculpted water fountain separate the work of two architectural giants.
Eliel Saarinen's chapel sits on one side, a deceptively simple sharply rectangular brick sanctuary built in the late 40s. An adjoining bell tower rises like a huge brick pillar into the sky.
On the other side is the church's 1962 addition, with floor-to-ceiling windows separated by brick columns which provide a view of the chapel.
The addition was designed by Saarinen's son Eero, who is the subject of a new exhibition at the Walker and the MIA. The MIA's design curator Jennifer Komar Olivarez said with Christ Lutheran, the father/son team re-envisioned church design.
"It was seen as a landmark," Oiivarez said. "The simplicity, and the manipulation of space and light and acoustics really resonated. And then this form becomes influential. You start to see these rectangular vertical towers in other architects' work in the decades to come."
Eero Saarinen built on his father's legacy and eventually surpassed him in fame. But, he was also a somewhat controversial figure who emphasized the importance of being timely in architecture, as opposed to timeless.
Some critics dismissed his structures and designs for veering too far outside traditional modernist dogma. Saarinen died young, at 51, and was unable to defend himself.
Komar Oiivarez said the exhibit, "Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future," is an attempt to reframe his work.
"Now, 50 years after, we're able to kind of go back and look at Eero and really appreciate all the ways that he pushed architecture in new directions," Oiivarez said.
And they were many.
Saarinen was the first architect to use self-rusting steel in his buildings, a material still in vogue today. He was the first to use mirrored glass, and he pioneered the use of large scale, but very thin, concrete and steel shells in construction.
Walker curator Andrew Blauvelt said the shells gave such landmark Saarinen designs as the TWA Terminal at JFK airport their dramatic curvature and futuristic look.
"That kind of language you see today in architecture, especially the younger architects, have come to this formal vocabulary through the computer," he said. "Eero was doing this in the 1950s, coming at it from a sculptural sensibility."
Don't forget Saarinen's pedestal furniture, the one-legged chairs and tables that became symbols of '50s modernism. Saarinen invented them to "clear up the slum of legs" in traditional chair design.
"He also innovated the sunken living room, the conversation pit, which becomes a kind of lifestyle cliche in the '70s, but he did this in the '50s," Blauvelt said.
And then, asks Komar Olivarez, what about one of the most iconic structures on the American landscape?
"What American doesn't know about The Arch?" she said.
The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is easily Saarinen's crowning achievement. When he submitted his design in a 1947 competition, Saarinen beat out several other prominent architects, including his father Eliel, and his friend Ralph Rapson.
Komar Olivarez said The Arch typifies Saarinen's experimental sensibility and fearlessness.
"He was looking for his own solution," she said. "And it just goes to show how individual he was with that particular type of structure, this monument."
"Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future," is the first exhibition copresented by the Walker and the MIA since 1972. Officials with both museums said it made sense to join forces given their mutual interest in the architect.
Saarinen's church, residence, academic and corporate campus designs, including his celebrated IBM plant in Rochester, will be featured at the Walker.
The MIA will concentrate on his airport, embassy and memorial designs, with a special section devoted to the Arch. Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis will offer tours during the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 4.
The Walker's Andrew Blauvelt said Saarinen was the signature architect of an America at the pinnacle of its power and influence during the 1950s and '60s.
"It's the cleanest and clearest expression of that, and not in egomaniacal way," he said. "It's an expression of that in a very optimistic way, which is something that seems to have disappeared."
Blauvelt said it took a real can-do spirit and leap of faith to build a 630-foot stainless steel arch. He thinks that American exuberance and confidence is missing today.
- All Things Considered, 09/12/2008, 5:52 p.m.