Son of pioneering Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen (August 20, 1910 – September 1, 1961) was not only born on the same day, but carried his father’s later rational Art Deco into a neofuturist internationalism, regularly using sweeping curves and abundant glass. Saarinen’s simple design motifs allowed him to be incredibly adaptable, turning his talent to furniture design with Charles Eames and producing radically different buildings for different clients. Despite his short career as a result of his young death, Saarinen gained incredible success and plaudits, winning some of the most sought-after commissions of the mid-twentieth century.
Saarinen was born in Finland and spent his childhood there before his father Eliel’s architecture work took the family to the United States. Eero followed in the family tradition, studying design under his father at Cranbrook Academy of Art before moving to study in Paris at the end of the 1920s and then the Yale School of Architecture, from which he graduated in 1934. Eero first attracted attention while working with his father, particularly for his furniture design with Charles Eames, and he continued to produce influential furniture designs throughout his career; the Tulip Chair which he designed for Knoll, for example, has become known as a classic piece of design, as have many other of his pieces in the late 1940s and early 50s. Architecturally, however, Saarinen had been quietly building up a name for himself while working with his father’s company, attracting international praise for Crow Island School (1940).
His first significant move out of his father’s shadow came in 1947 when, still working at Eliel’s practice, Eero entered his own design into the competition to design St Louis’ Gateway Arch and ultimately won the commission. Supposedly, when the competition organizers were informing the second-round candidates of their success, they mistakenly addressed their telegram to Eliel Saarinen—it wasn’t until three days later that they corrected their mistake, causing Eliel to graciously open another bottle of champagne to toast his son.
In 1950, working on the General Motors Technical Center with his father, Saarinen suddenly found himself sole architect after Eliel Saarinen’s death. Creating a rational steel and glass design different from anything designed by Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen rapidly found himself sought after by other major US corporations. Using this as a launching pad, Saarinen tirelessly fought for and won some of the 1950s’ most prestigious commissions, including the TWA Terminal, Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport, and the American Embassy in London.
Even when he did not directly contribute to a design, Eero Saarinen would still have a dramatic effect on the path of architecture in the 1950s: famously, it was Saarinen who retrieved Jørn Utzon‘s Sydney Opera House design from the pile of rejected competition entries.
Equally capable of creating a steel and glass cubist design as a sweeping futurist roof, Saarinen’s incredible versatility combined with his near ubiquity in the mid-twentieth century led to widespread acclaim, with the AIA awarding him their Gold Medal in 1962, a year after his death. However, it also led to a fierce academic reaction to his work, notably from Yale professor Vincent Scully who criticized his apparent lack of a signature style.
Saarinen died in 1961, aged just 51, during an operation to remove a brain tumor, leaving his then-partners Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo to complete many of his important works (including the St Louis Arch), and to go on to have very successful careers of their own. Despite his astonishing success during a short career, Saarinen’s influence was perhaps not fully recognized until recently, as the donation of Roche and Dinkeloo’s Saarinen archives to Yale in 2005 helped lead to a surge of interest in his designs in the past decade.
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