Re-Thinking Saarinen: A New Eero

Originally posed June 4, 2009

Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) was the subject of a symposium Tuesday night at the Museum of the City of New York. The symposium was a benefit preview for the traveling exhibition, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, which is scheduled to come to New York later this year. If the benefit is any indication, the exhibition will indeed make it here, as well it should given that Saarinen’s works have been part of the fabric of the city for half a century. Still, nothing should be taken for granted, and anyone interested in supporting the Museum directly or with fundraising ideas should contact the Museum director, Susan Henshaw Jones.

Surprisingly, given his resume and pedigree, this is the first retrospective exhibition of Saarinen’s work. It is also the first scholarly study to make use of newly available archival materials.   Through the exhibition and its accompanying catalog, the participating curators and writers hope to contextualize and reassess the full range of Saarinen’s output, and to burnish Saarinen’s reputation, which had been tarnished by criticism and neglect.

Fittingly, Vincent Scully’s essay, “Rethinking Saarinen” was placed at the front of the catalog. Scully, an eminence grise among architectural historians, was among Saarinen’s harshest critics (this list included Reyner Banham and Manfredo Tafuri). At the time, Saarinen was deemed an apostate and even a liability, a deviant from the true path of modernism that seemed to lie, in America, with Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi.

Scully does not retract his criticism—he saw things how he saw them—but time has softened his views. With hindsight, Saarinen’s exuberant shell structures seem less a self-indulgent dead end than a precursor to the computer-aided free-form architecture of Calatrava, Hadid, and Gehry. More pointedly, Scully now views the TWA terminal as a mediating and comforting portal between two sets of traveling tin cans, and in general acknowledges that Saarinen was more directly concerned with human use and meaning than he realized.

Seen in this way, Saarinen appears less a romantic than a humanist, his flights of individual imagination and fancy tempered by aesthetic restraint and teamwork, his designs grounded in real physical and emotional needs. In his own writings, collected in a 1962 book by his wife, Aline, and again in the present catalog, Saarinen indeed showed a measured and balanced aesthetic sensibility. Inclined to conquer gravity and soar—to create non-static, dynamic space—when the program permitted, he yet was keenly aware of the possibility of going too far. “Technology,” he stated in 1957, “has made plastic form easily possible for us. But it is the esthetic reasons which are the driving forces behind its use…The choices really become sculptor’s choices. But we must be aware of going too far…Plastic form for its own sake, even when very virile, does not seem to come off.”

As the press release describes it, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future is a comprehensive project exploring the work of one of the most prolific, unorthodox, and controversial masters of 20th-century architecture. Jointly presented by the New York Design Center, the exhibition is scheduled to open November 10 at the Museum of the City of New York. For its New York run, the show will feature a number of expanded sections, notably involving the interiors of the CBS building and the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Mark your calendars, and please consider supporting the Museum in bringing this exhibition to the city.

Images from top: Cover of catalog, Yale University Press, 2006; Eero Saarinen, photo courtesy of; sketch of Ingalls Hockey Rink, Yale, circa 1953, courtesy of Eero Saarinen Collection, Yale University; patent drawing of Tulip chair, 1960, courtesy of Saarinen Collection, Yale University; Kresge Chapel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, courtesy of Ed Brodzinsky/Flickr; TWA Terminal, Kennedy Airport, circa 1962, photo by Balthazar Korab.