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Now Saarinen the Son

Three Projects

A modern architect, following his distinguished father's profession, comes of age in his designs for our industrial era.


FIRST, the father, then the son. The architect Eliel Saarinen died in 1950 at the age of 76, so renowned that his native Finland gave him an official state funeral and he was mourned internationally. Eero Saarinen is today 42 and is already the most widely known and respected architect of his generation. He has been internationally praised for his design of the $100,000,000 General Motors Technical Center outside Detroit, the most important post-war industrial assignment in America; he has more large-scale projects on the drafting board than has any other small firm, and he has even designed a chair familiar enough to be caricatured by Al Capp in "L'il Abner." This month ground will be broken for his new auditorium at M. I. T., an advanced expression of modern technology, the plans of which have already jolted American architects into new ideas about construction.

The elder Saarinen made his contribution over a 50-year span. In Finland, he was one of the pioneers to break with neo-classic styles. His importance to America lay in his influential skyscraper design and, reflecting the handicraft civilization of his youth in Finland, his support of the arts-and-crafts movement. His architectural signature is a romantic affection for picturesqueness.

The son's contribution is in giving form or visual order to the industrial civilization to which he belongs, designing imaginatively and soundly within the new esthetics which the machine demands and allows. His buildings, which interlock form, honest functional solutions and structural clarity, became and expression of our way of life.

In Eero Saarinen's stark, workmanlike, glass-and-brick office here is a portrait of his father. The father is sitting with his hands folded complacently. There is a partly indulgent expression in his sharp eyes and a tilt to his head as jaunty as the bow-tie he customarily wore.
By contrast, the son-stocky, with a short neck and forward-slanting head-seems overly serious. Behind square, black reading glasses, his very pale blue eyes are intent and searching. Thoughtfully and deliberately, he taps, fill and lights an ever-present pipe, as if to forestall a hasty remark or an impulsive gesture. His speech, with its sing-song cadence and log vowels betraying his Finnish background, is slow and deliberate, too. Occasionally, a shy smile brightens his face or a dryly witty remark punctuates his conversation. At such times he seems almost touchingly surprised at his own levity. 

ALINE B. LOUCHHEIM is on the staff of The New York Times as associate art editor.

Considering that both Saarinens were born on Aug. 10, an astrologer would probably explain their differences by the fact that the stars had slightly shifted their relative positions in the thirty-seven-year interval but would insist that the constellations had determined their common profession. The astrologer would be mistaken. For it was Eliel, not Leo of the Zodiac, who shaped Eero's destiny.

From the moment the 3-year-old boy crawled under the drafting table in the ample studio-house in Hvittrask and started to draw, there was no doubt in the elder Saarinen's mind that his son would be an architect. The common pattern-especially in America-would have been to preserve one's individuality and independence by rebellious escape into another profession. "But," Eero says wonderingly, "except for a brief excursion into sculpture it never occurred to me to do anything but follow by father's footsteps." 

The Younger Saarinen- "He brings a personal expressiveness to functional integrity."

He was brought up with a vigorous competitive spirit. Eliel was an expert at winning competitions (his award in 1922 of the second prize for the Chicago Tribune Tower impelled the family's emigration to America). When the boy was 11, he was entered in his first competition: it was sponsored by a Swedish newspaper and required the contestant to write a story and illustrate it with pictures made of matches. Eero won with the tragic tale of a lady left alone when her two suitors burned themselves up. "My father helped me with the text," he remembers.

A RODINESQUE figure carved out of the purity of Ivory won Eero a first prize in a National Soap Sculpture competition when he was a student in a Michigan high school. And from 1931 to 1935, during his years at Yale School of Architecture, he won so many second awards in Beaux Arts competitions that he was called "Second Medal Saarinen." There were "firsts" to come: among them, in 1939, the Smithsonian Institution Art Gallery; in 1941, with Charles Eames, the Museum of Modern Art's Organic Furniture Design contest; in 1944, a California's Arts & Architecture small house competition. 

In 1948, for the first time, father and son submitted separately to the same competition-the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial project for St. Louis. When the telegram came announcing the award to "Saarinen," Eero and his wife helped in arranging the family champagne celebration of Eliel's victory. but the telegram had been intended for Eero. 

FROM 1945 until his father's death, they worked as partners. Side-stepping Eliel's huge shadow, Eero nevertheless worked within its periphery. Nurtured in adolescence on biographies of great men by Maurois and Ludwig, he accepted his father as a "great man." They lived and worked in the community surrounding the Cranbrook Academy of Arts near Detroit, of which Eliel was president from 1932 to 1947. Cranbrook is an expression of Eliel's philosophy in its emphasis on integration of arts and crafts and interest in city-planning. It's buildings, which he designed, are characteristic o =f his architecture in their intimate scale, small, self-contained spaces, their pretty ornament, "handmade" look and environment unity.
Eero neither rebelled nor rejected: he remained architecturally, as well as filially, deferential. With the exception of the Smithsonian Institution Art Gallery project for Washington, D.C., the primary influence in the father-son collaborations was Eliel's. "I often contributed technical solutions and plans," Eero says, "but only within the concept he created. A better name for architect is form-giver, and I worked within the form of my father."

SINCE his father's death he has been freed to follow his own direction. Now his big competition is with himself. It is as if in every project he feels an urgency to equal, in his own terms, his own somewhat exalted idea of his famous father and to live up to an image he has set for himself. 

He does not serve as his own jury. His respected colleagues-Mies van der Rohe, Charles Eames, Philip Johnson, William Wurster-and the ghosts of both the late Matthew Novinski and his father unwittingly perform that function. Because it is so centrally important for him to win this competition with himself, he approaches architecture with relentless dedication.
When he is in Bloomfield Hills, for instance, Saarinen works at the office until at least midnight. There is a brief dinner period during which he sees 10-year-old Eric (a small, slight version of himself, interested in mechanics and science), 8-year-old Susan (a pug-nosed, blonde edition of her vividly brunette mother) and the predominantly beagle dog who is also called Susan. "No, no confusion," Saaarinhen explains. "They look different to begin with and the dog makes less noise."

In the (Continued on Page 44)


MODEL FOR M.I.T.- An imaginative oasis in a crowded campus, where functional requirements were made to serve Saarinen's interest in pleasing, efficient structure and form. The soon-to-be built auditorium consists of a three-pointed shell concrete dome, 1/8 of a sphere with a 160-foot-span, supported

G.M. TECHNICAL CENTER-In the $100,000,000 General Motors industrial project in Warren, Mich., Saarinen has answered technological-engineering demands, but beyond this has made the buildings dramatically expressive of a harmonious relationship among man, sci-

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