On the 100th year after his birth, and nearly 50 years after his death, Eero Saarinen ARC ’34 is coming back to life.
Today, the School of Architecture and the Yale University Art Gallery will open the first ever retrospective exhibition of Saarinen’s work, titled “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.” The exhibition, which has traveled through seven other cities including Brussels, Belgium and New York, will make its last stop at Yale with an exclusive “Saarinen and Yale” section, embellished with materials from the Saarinen Archives at Yale.
The retrospective marks the climax of resurgent interest in the golden boy of ’50s corporate architecture. Last year, Yale renovated Saarinen’s David S. Ingalls Rink and began its two-year project to update and expand his Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges. Five years prior, in 2005, the School of Architecture held a symposium on the architect, celebrating the extensive Saarinen archives donated in 2002 to the University by architect Kevin Roche, who worked with Saarinen.
“For many years, [Saarinen] was forgotten — nobody was paying attention to him,” Roche said. “We were very excited when Dean Stern regenerated interest; it’s very long overdue.”
School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 said Yale has always had a high regard for what Saarinen did for the campus.
“It’s extremely gratifying that the symposium and the exhibition have rekindled interest in this great architect’s career,” Stern said.
On display are a handful of models from Saarinen’s most famous designs, three of Saarinen’s Tulip chairs — the thin-stemmed white staples of ’50s living rooms — as well as photographs and plans from his various construction projects, displayed on bright orange and yellow panels that hearken back to ’50s kitsch.
“He was sort of eclectic with his style,” said architect Robert Venturi, who worked with Saarinen in the early ’50s. “He dwelled in many styles, which made me suspicious. He didn’t have one kind of vocabulary.”
The white model of the voluptuous Ingalls Rink is juxtaposed with plans of the irregularly angled Morse and Stiles Colleges. At another corner of the gallery the rectangular outline of the IBM corporate campus contrasts with the parabolic St. Louis Gateway Arch. It is hard to imagine that the same hands drew the sketches for all.
Roche said this inconsistency between Saarinen’s buildings was the primary criticism of the architect’s legacy. Looking back on his work after his death, critics dismissed him, saying he was still developing his style, Roche said.
But today, his diverse portfolio has become representative of contemporary architecture. Marked by a move away from the universality touted by Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus School, Roche said architecture today has moved toward Saarinen’s unique approach of finding individual solutions for each building site.
“For Eero, every particular problem had a particular answer.” Roche said. “This is what we do now in architecture.”
But finding each solution was a constant challenge that plagued Saarinen, said former School of Architecture Dean Cesar Pelli, who worked with Saarinen. Pelli said there was rarely a moment when Saarinen did not have a pen and paper handy, and a sketch in his mind.
“I traveled a great deal with him and whether it was a plane or driving, he was always obsessed with a project at hand,” Pelli said.
He added that Saarinen had a very distinct personality: He was intent on work, and he expected the same of his employees.
There were few days when the firm was closed. Holidays, including both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, were spent in the office, working on drafts and sketching designs. Pelli said the routine was to work from the morning until dinner time, when the employees would return home to eat. But once the meal was over, the architects would reconvene at the office to work into the night.
That’s why many regarded Saarinen and his firm to be the most efficient in the business, Pelli said, adding that he modeled his office, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, after Saarinen’s work ethic.
Not only was Saarinen perpetually working, but he was also an extraordinary multi-tasker.
In the Saarinen archives, there are several letters written on graphite paper with copies on regular sheets. Archivist Laura Tatum explained that this was because Saarinen was ambidextrous and would often copy with his left hand in mirror image — like Leonardo da Vinci — the letter he was writing with his right so that he could keep a copy of the materials for himself.
Saarinen’s secretaries thus developed habits of carrying around mirrors, which they would use to read private notes or memos that Saarinen would jot out to them.
By the ’60s, Saarinen’s hard work had secured his firm a number of high-profile commissions, including the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Morse and Stiles Colleges, the CBS Building in New York and the TWA terminal of John F. Kennedy International Airport, Roche said. But in 1961, as the designs for these projects were beginning to take shape, and Saarinen was planning to move for his firm from Detroit to New Haven, he passed away on an operating room table. A week before the move, he checked into a hospital for a quick fix for his headaches, Pelli said, but doctors discovered Saarinen had a brain tumor that needed to be operated on immediately.
“We were all totally shocked,” Pelli said. “I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe that he just passed away like that.”
The sudden death curtailed the growth of Saarinen’s booming firm.
“He was greeted as a rising star,” Roche said. “His name was already on the horizon.”
While the office had only 10 employees when Roche signed on, it had grown to approximately 100 by the time of Saarinen’s death.
For five years after, the firm continued under the leadership of Kevin Roche. In 1966, after Saarinen’s last commision — the CBS Building — was completed, Roche retitled the firm after himself and his partner, John Dinkeloo. Roche then went on to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1982, designing structures that he said were strongly influenced by Saarinen’s aesthetic vision.
“I still use his chair, the one he sat in in Bloomfield Hills,” Roche said, referring to an early model of Saarinen’s Tulip chair.
But perhaps Saarinen’s greatest contribution to architecture was his ability to collect some of the brightest minds in the same office, Venturi said. Venturi, another Pritzker Prize-winner, said while he didn’t feel “at home” at Saarinen’s firm, Saarinen certainly had a knack for finding the best.
The exhibition will be on display until May 2. Saarinen’s daughter Susan Saarinen will speak at the Yale University Art Gallery today at 11 a.m.
Correction: Feb. 22, 2010
The article “Exhibit showcases Saarinen” misstated the location of the three Tulip chairs on display. The chairs are located in the Yale University Art Gallery, not the Yale School of Architecture.