Closing: Eero Saarinen – Shaping the Future

For those in the Washington, D.C. area who have not seen it yet, I highly recommend the National Building Museum’s retrospective Eero Saarinen – Shaping the Future. The Museum will hold its final exhibition day for the show this Saturday, August 23rd, before the show moves on to Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, and New Haven over the next year. Saarinen’s work helped define both the American cityscape and the American interior during the all-too-brief period of his activity, and continues to shape how we live and think about buildings today.

About a year ago I formed a pub quiz team with three friends, which met weekly at a bar-restaurant in Adams Morgan. This particular pub quiz was, according to some participants who had played other pub quizzes around town, rather more difficult than most. For every question about Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse, there would be three questions asking about very obscure points of history, science, the arts, etc.

One part of the pub quiz was a single question worth multiple points, in which the quizmaster would give a clue. The players would then have the chance to answer the question based on that single clue. If the players got the answer right, they received ten points. If they got the answer wrong, they would lose 5 points. If they did not know the answer they could wait for the second clue. If on the second clue they guessed correctly, they could get eight points; if on the third, six, and so on. A wrong answer would always result in a loss of five points.

So the first evening we played, this multi-clued question began “This great Finnish-American architect…” I immediately snatched the answer pad from one of my friends and wrote down “Eero Saarinen” without listening to the rest of the clue, and turned in the answer. It turned out I was correct. And let’s face it: while there are many Finns in America, and many more Finnish-Americans, there can be only one, great Finnish-American architect.

Eero Saarinen had a profound impact on the national consciousness in some of his most famous structures: the Gateway Arch in St. Louis; Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.; the TWA terminal at JFK, among others. In addition to his civic and corporate commissions, he also collaborated on interiors with the modernist furniture designer Charles Eames, and came up with his own iconic designs such as the famous pedestal “tulip chair”, still carried by Knoll, its original manufacturer. His influence had a significant influence on other architects as well, and his love of swooping, but simple, design and the colour white probably had something to do with the design of my own parish of St. Stephen’s.

One of the particular joys of this show was the very careful selection of large-scale photographs, since the visitor cannot be taken to the sites being celebrated in the exhibition. This was particularly useful in examining a number of the collegiate chapels and Protestant churches designed by Saarinen, and comparing the variations among them. Their strangely Scandinavian-medieval, yet modern qualities almost make them look like elements from a film set of Ingmar Bergman: dark, heavy and crowded in places, but always filled at their core with a shower of bright light.

In addition, there are several interesting “might have beens” in the show. Saarinen’s design for the National Gallery of Art actually won first place, but was never built. In retrospect, this was a very good thing, since from walking around the model it seems the building was too blank a canvas and could just as easily have been produced, on a smaller scale, as a motel. However, the real pity is that Saarinen’s design for a festival theatre at William & Mary was never built. The elevation provided in the show is exceedingly elegant, featuring a curved central building with a long porte-cochere, embracing a reflecting pool. It puts the viewer in mind of a more gracious, somewhat art-deco version of the Kennedy Center.

Again, the last day of the show is Saturday, August 23rd, and it is HIGHLY recommended.

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One thought on “Closing: Eero Saarinen – Shaping the Future

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