Eliel and Eero Saarinen

Eliel (1873-1950) and Eero (1910-1961) Saarinen, father and son, were Finnish-American architects and industrial designers. Eliel had a profound interest in the total idea of the city. Eero developed new structural techniques for his eclectic works.

Eliel Saarinen was one of a small band of architects who rejected the architectural styles of the 19th century, stating, "Architecture has gone astray; something has to be done about it; now is the time to do things." His designs show a continuous progression, and all bear his unmistakable stamp. Eero Saarinen borrowed from a wide range of sources; he lacked the unifying philosophy of design which can be discerned in his father's architecture. Eero defined architecture as a "fine art" and the architect as a "form giver."

Eliel Saarinen

Eliel was born in Rantasalmi on Aug. 20, 1873. He studied painting and architecture at the University and the Polytechnic Institute of Helsinki, respectively, and in 1896, a year before graduating, he entered into partnership with two other institute graduates, Herman Gesellius, brother of Eliel's wife-to-be, Loja, and Armas Lindgren.

Finnish architecture at the turn of the century reflected national romanticism verging upon Art Nouveau. Eliel's design for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with its bulging tower and Art Nouveau decorations, reflects this trend. The flowing line of Art Nouveau was replaced in Eliel's own home at Hvittrask (1902) by a more geometricized decor.

That Eliel was influenced by the later English architects of the Arts and Crafts movement there can be no doubt. His own house bespeaks the idioms, which lingered in his work until the 1920s. The handmade bricks and tiles, bay windows with leaded lights, lead rainwater pipes, wrought-iron decoration, and hand-carved woodwork and furniture are the trademarks of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The American Arts and Crafts developments, especially Henry Hobson Richardson's "Romanesque revival" and its outgrowth in the functionalism of Louis Sullivan, had also reached the Scandinavian countries. In 1904 Eliel won the competition for the Central Railroad Station, Helsinki (built 1910-1914). The building is antitraditional, with spacious interiors and monumental proportions, similar in character to the smaller buildings of Richardson and Sullivan.

In 1922 Eliel won the second prize in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition. His design, with a strong vertical emphasis and the upper portion set back, had the monumentality of a classical Mayan pyramid. That year he moved to the United States. He taught for a short while at the University of Michigan and then was invited to Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where he built the Cranbrook Academy of Art (1926-1943) in the Arts and Crafts tradition. He also headed the department of architecture and city planning there.

Eliel's later works, executed in collaboration with his son, include the Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo (1938-1940), the Tabernacle Church of Christ, Columbus, Ind. (1940-1942), the Christ Lutheran Church, Minneapolis (1949), and the projected Smithsonian Art Gallery, Washington (1939). All have a simple monumental dignity, with unadorned wall surfaces and a spacious light openness.

Eliel was always interested in city planning, and he became planning consultant to Budapest and to Estonia. He submitted an entry in the Canberra, Australia, competition and projected plans for Helsinki and other Finnish cities. Although his projects stressed organic informality, they usually included the mannerist and baroque motif of a long axis, terminated by a round point incorporating a monumental structure. Eliel abhorred skyscraper construction as the basis for increasing the value of the land, and he felt that low-cost housing was poorly constructed and thus expensive to maintain. He demanded social research, adequate and appropriate means and methods, and an architecture created to enhance the total environment.

Eliel's books, The City: Its Growth, Its Decay, Its Future (1943) and Search for Form (1948), as well as his "Proposal for Rebuilding Blighted Areas" and "Outline for a Legislative Program to Rebuild Our Cities," prepared for discussions at Cranbrook in 1942, contained concepts far ahead of their time. He died at Bloomfield Hills on July 1, 1950.

Eero Saarinen

Eero was born in Kirkkonummi on Aug. 20, 1910. He studied sculpture in Paris (1930-1931) and architecture at Yale, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1934. He worked for, and in collaboration with, his father from 1936 to 1950. The leadership of Eliel seems to have been dominant. "As his partner," said Eero, "I often contributed technical solutions and plans, but only within the concept he created."

The two Saarinens designed the group of 25 buildings that make up the General Motors Technical Center, Warren, Mich. (1945-1956). Independently, in 1948, Eero won the competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis (built 1962-1965). The memorial is a stainless-steel arch in the shape of an inverted weighted catenary curve. Eero designed the Kresge Auditorium and Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge (1953-1956); the auditorium was the first major shell construction in the United States.

In Eero's Trans World Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport, N.Y. (1956-1962), the flow of space is dynamic. The quality of space is lost in the Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Va. (1958-1962), where internal clutter negates the expression. The exterior of Dulles, however, has the splendor and grandeur of Versailles. At this airport Eero was attempting to solve the complex problem of passenger movement and access to aircraft by means of a mobile lounge system. His Morse and Stiles colleges at Yale University, New Haven, Conn. (1958-1962), are successfully integrated with the older buildings of the campus. Stylistically, the two colleges are dominated by the current trends.

Eero also designed the so-called womb chair (1948) and free-flowing plastic pedestal furniture (1958) capable of being mass-produced. He died in Bloomfield Hills on Sept. 1, 1961.

Further Reading on Eliel and Eero Saarinen

Albert Christ-Janer, Eliel Saarinen (1948); Alan Temko, Eero Saarinen (1962); and Aline B. Saarinen, ed., Eero Saarinen on His Work (1962), are well-illustrated, comprehensive discussions of the total contribution to architecture of the two Saarinens.

Additional Biography Sources

Christ-Janer, Albert, Eliel Saarinen: Finnish-American architect and educator, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.