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Monday, February 20, 2012

Eliel and Eero Saarinen

Finnish Pavilion, Paris Exposition,
1900, Eliel Saarinen
In very many endeavors in life, it's not uncommon for fathers and sons to work together. It's a tradition dating back hundreds of years, though we're most usually aware of it when we see the "...and son" painted on the side of a truck as a business name. Painters brought their sons into the business, also musicians, writers, and today moviemakers, actors, sometimes even whole families get involved as in the case of the Fondas, Barrymores, Baldwins, and Bridges. It was also the case with a Finnish father and son who were both outstanding architects--Eliel and Eero Saarinen.

The father, Eliel, was born 1873 in Rantasalmi, Finland. His father was a minister. Early on he had in mind to be a painter. Growing up only a short distance from St. Petersburg, Russia, he spent many hours studying the paintings of the Hermitage, especially those of Rembrandt. But in his mid-twenties, Eliel gave up becoming a mediocre painter for a profession in which he felt he could make more of an impact. Just a few years later, in 1900, he did, with his design for the Finnish pavilion at the Paris Exposition. While not seeming too radical in appearance, he broke with the Beaux-arts tradition of decorating everything that didn't move with motifs from the past. A year later, he made an even bigger impact with his Helsinki railroad station. In the early 1920s, his influential second place finish in the Chicago Tribune tower composition gave him the money ($20,000) and the confidence to move his wife, daughter, and thirteen-year-old son, Eero, to Chicago where he worked with a group of designers, architects, and engineers in an early attempt at urban renewal in downtown Chicago. The plans were too far ahead of their time. They were never implemented.

Photo by Revontuli
Helsinki Railroad Station, 1901 Eliel Saarinen
TWA Terminal, JFK International Airport,
New York, 1962, Eero Saarinen
However, lured away from Chicago to suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, the elder Saarinen did make a considerable impact with his designs for the Cranbrook Academy which included a boys school, a nearby girls school (Kingswood), and an art institute where he taught. It was there he began to work with his son, who later graduated not from Cranbrook, but Yale. The younger Saarinen's grand entry into the field of architecture came with his winning design for St. Louis's Gateway Arch in 1948.  Though it would be another 16 years before it was built, his majestic, stainless steel monument led to commissions for corporate headquarters buildings from GM, John Deere, Bell Telephone, and his Yale alma mater. These in turn led to his most celebrated structures, the birdlike TWA Terminal at JFK International Airport, and the even more spectacular Dulles International Airport Terminal outside Washington. In each case, there is exhibited an independence in his work from prevailing International Style glass boxes. They are dramatic, functional, often quite sculptural, and inevitably beautiful. Like his father, he detoured from the expected, prevailing styles, to the daring. Unlike his father, he evolved designs in no way evoking the past, and a style never etched in stone, yet always uniquely recognizable as his own.
Photo by Joe Ravi
Washington's Dulles International Airport Terminal, 1962, Eero Saarinen

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