The traveling exhibition Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation, at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum through January 3, provides a persuasive case for reevaluating the work of this Finnish American master. Key Saarinen projects are displayed on hanging panels that combine drawings, photographs, and succinct texts. It’s a relief to encounter such an enlightening, unpretentious show. The exhibition could have used more models to go with the videos and sampling of the furniture Saarinen created for Knoll, including the Grasshopper and Womb chairs, and the Tulip chairs and tables that banished what he called “the slum of legs.”
Saarinen was an inventive genius, but World War II delayed his career as an architect and then he died relatively young at age 51, in 1961. During his decade of running an independent practice following his father’s death in 1950, Saarinen was incredibly productive, creating landmarks in several categories, including memorials, airports, embassies, colleges, sports halls, and corporate buildings. Plus he designed furniture. Business and government took full advantage of his talent, but his critics were often dismissive. He was a round peg in an era of square holes, veering from sharp angularity to sensuous curves, and shifting style with every job.
Today, that originality would be applauded, but modernist orthodoxy prevailed through the 1950s, and Saarinen was deemed frivolous, even irrelevant. Critics pounced on his few missteps (the ponderous U.S. Embassy in London, the clumsy medievalism of Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges at Yale University). His finest achievements—the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the TWA Terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, and Washington Dulles Airport’s main terminal in Virginia—were all completed after his death.
A revelation of the A+D show is the 1939 competition-winning design for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art, intended to complement, in its architecture and contemporary focus, John Russell Pope’s National Gallery of Art, then under construction on the north side of the Washington Mall. The 29-year-old architect, who had collaborated with his father, Eliel, on a series of smaller and unrealized projects, served as a lead designer for the first time.
But like his father’s second-place entry in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition, this work proved too radical for the client’s taste. For the hallowed ground of the nation’s capital, only a certain form of classicism seemed to be politically acceptable (a preference still evident in more recent controversies over the World War II Memorial and Frank Gehry’s design for an Eisenhower memorial).
Saarinen’s greatest work may be inside Dulles, an international travel hub, but it lies 30 miles outside the capital.
Saarinen grew up at Cranbrook Academy, which his father built and directed. There he forged a lasting friendship with Charles Eames, collaborating with him on many projects, including the 1940 Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Home Furnishings competition.
During World War II, the younger Saarinen won acclaim for his design work with the Office of Strategic Services. He later worked with Charles Eames and his wife Ray on Case Study House #9, whose first occupant was sponsor John Entenza. They also made a short film explaining the mobile lounges of Dulles Airport, helping to win approval for this novel system.
The exhibit leaves one to wonder what Saarinen—like Louis Kahn or any great architect who dies at the height of his creative powers—might have achieved had he lived a few decades more.