Eero Saarinen: Modern Architecture for the American Century

The achievements of a postwar generation that brought to professional design practice a vigorous sense of mission — at once artistic, cultural, and political — are more evident than ever. In an ongoing and occasional series, historians and critics offer new assessments of modern masters.

Eero Saarinen, c. 1958. [Aline Saarinen Collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.]

The Art of Corporate Image-Making

When Eero Saarinen died suddenly of a brain tumor on September 1, 1961, he had already become, at the age of only fifty-one, one of the most successful architects in the United States. The darling of corporate America, Saarinen had risen to great heights over the course of his short career (his father Eliel, with whom he had collaborated since the late 1930s, had died in 1950), filling a widespread yearning among American clients for a new kind of modern architecture that would combine the clean lines of the International Style with something of the “Americanness” and familiar imagery of Frank Lloyd Wright. During the late 1940s and ’50s Saarinen had been awarded high-budget commissions to design new corporate headquarters and campus-like research centers for many of the household names of American industry and manufacturing: General Motors (1948–56), TWA (1956–62), IBM (1957–61), Bell Telephone (1957–62), John Deere (19563), and CBS (1959–64), to name only a few. 1 He won plum government jobs as well, including the Jefferson Memorial in St. Louis in 1947 (for which he proposed a glistening “Gateway Arch” that would serve both as a monument and as a huge observation platform over the prairie), the American embassies in Oslo (1955–59) and London (1955–60), and the new jet-age Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. (1958–62). These projects put a very public stamp of approval on Saarinen’s distinctive approach to architecture, handing him the lion’s share of responsibility for creating a new American style for the postwar age. 2

On July 2, 1956, Saarinen’s portrait graced the cover of Time, accompanying a lead article titled “The Maturing Modern.” Declaring America the new leader in contemporary design, the magazine proclaimed, “In Paris, architectural students eagerly follow the new work of younger U.S. architects with all the fervor that Left Bank Jazz addicts reserve for Dizzy Gillespie and Satchmo Armstrong.” 3 Time believed that Eero Saarinen was leading the charge in this cutting-edge group, offering a combination of technical ingenuity and artistic vision with a rich sense of history. What’s more, Time suggested, the architect was confident about the merits of his own contribution: “When you do a job like this,” he noted enthusiastically about his work at the new General Motors Technical Center, “your mind goes back to Versailles, the Tivoli Gardens, San Marco, the way Italians used pavements. And you think ‘Boy! Let’s do that!’” The reporter from Time was clearly impressed: “Saarinen admits he has to ask himself ‘Is that creating a new architecture?’ And he replies ‘Isn’t it just bringing back things that have been lost to architecture? We must still create, but we would like to bring back some of the great awarenesses that existed in the past, expressed in our own forms and technology.’”4

For a generation of Americans who aspired to cultural respectability and hoped someday to match their material prosperity and technological know-how with real artistic accomplishments, Saarinen’s words were both reassuring and encouraging. If anyone was going to put U.S. architecture on the map, it would be Eero Saarinen, with his renowned father, his Ivy League education, his professorial pipe, and his Finnish accent. He seemed the perfect combination of European sophistication and American dynamism. …

General Motors Technical Center: Styling Building stairs. [Ezra Stoller © ESTO]

Three overarching themes emerge from a review of the hundreds of projects, built and unbuilt, that Saarinen produced over the eleven-year period of his architectural maturity. First, he was committed to the exploration of new building technologies and materials, and he searched constantly for ways to advance the art of architecture by producing innovative formal solutions that reflected scientific and chemical discoveries. Second, he treated every architectural commission as a separate artistic problem, and he sought to create an original, artistic expression of the functional complexities and cultural meanings of each one; this emphasis on communication (a priority for him that was equal to the need for formal discipline and quality in design) required Saarinen to delve into popular and commercial imagery with an openmindedness and enthusiasm that few, if any, elite modern designers could — or wanted to — match. Third, Saarinen clearly imagined his buildings as inhabited and animated spaces, and he thus focused on circulation, framing, and the sensual experiences of clients. He cared deeply about the spiritual and psychological effects of his architecture, and he wanted users of his buildings and furniture to look as good as they felt. In this respect, as in all of the above qualities, he seems to be the consummate American modernist, an architect who saw himself as a creator of glamorous, exciting buildings in which contemporary business transactions and the experiences of everyday life would become ever more brilliant and beautiful.

For Saarinen, the “family of forms,” as he called them, in which each building would be imagined, must be powerful enough to communicate the identity and meaning of the individual project; because each building, like each program or client, had its own special character, every commission called for its own distinctive architectural language. “Architecture must make a strong emotional impact on man,” Saarinen wrote. “I have come to the conviction that once one embarks on a concept for a building, this concept has to be exaggerated and overstated and repeated in every part of its interior so that wherever you are, inside or outside, the building sings with the same message.” 5

General Motors Technical Center: main display area of Styling Dome. [General Motors, LLC, GM Media Archives]

As is well known, the critical response to Saarinen’s work by his contemporaries was deeply divided, and a brief examination of this subject will help us to understand his significance for postwar modernism. Clients loved him and clamored for his services, while many in the field of architecture were at best cautiously positive — as in the case of the General Motors Technical Center, where the architect’s debt to the International Style was most clearly expressed — and at worst savagely hostile, especially when confronted by the later work, and with the expressionist TWA Building in particular. Many critics, uneasy with the new directions in which some American architects had taken modern design, especially when their work seemed driven by clients’ demands or pressure for popular acceptance, and confused about how to respond to such recent buildings as Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp (1955), with its expressionist curves and historical resonances, reacted to Saarinen’s architecture with anger, saving their most impassioned rhetoric to denounce his work. “The critics punished him often,” his widow, Aline, commented after his death, “and resented the way each building presented a different challenge.” 6 There were other forces at work as well: as Philip Johnson noted ironically in a lecture to Yale students in 1958, Saarinen had been named America’s leading architect by Holiday magazine, the glossy arts and culture publication, and he was, as Johnson explained, “the man … that we are all most jealous of, because he builds more than we do.” 7

Professional jealousies are only part of the story of Saarinen’s complex relationship with the modern movement. More significant are the fundamental differences that separate his theories from those of the Bauhaus architects or the International Style exemplars whose principles had been summarized by Hitchcock and Johnson in 1932. “Classic” architectural modernism was a product of radical artistic and social reform theories: it rested on the notion (perhaps exaggerated in American schools of architecture where the teachings of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe had been reduced to formulas) that industrial materials such as steel and glass and the techniques of mass production naturally lent themselves to the logic of functional design, yielding uniform, boxlike buildings with transparent curtain walls that remained neutral and timeless regardless of the specific character of the time, place, or program that they were called upon to serve. 8 The implications of these modernist principles were far-reaching and challenged many of traditional architecture’s assumptions, among them the authority of the past over the present; the intimate relationship between artistic fashion, material wealth, and class status; and, perhaps most important, the widely held notion that function was secondary to — or at the very most equal in importance with — stylistic and artistic expression.

In Saarinen’s view, modern architecture could be made to achieve a far wider range of expressive and spiritual goals than had been supposed in the early years of the modern movement, and it would do so through the reintroduction of customized design. Thus, as he noted in numerous articles and speeches, each project would be approached as a new beginning in which the particulars of time, site, context, audience, and materials were carefully studied until an original solution was discovered by the architect or artist. While this approach was clearly attractive to clients who readily recognized the metaphorical images and historical resonances that Saarinen brought to their projects, there can be no doubt that it also profoundly undermined many of modern architecture’s most cherished principles, notably the idea that functional design could obviate the inevitable obsolescence of changing fashions; in the view of many modernists, such unique design solutions were inherently time-limited and flawed. Clearly, although a number of architectural theorists had addressed themselves to the problem of “monumentality” and the expression of cultural values since the mid-1940s, many felt that Saarinen’s approach was simply not acceptable: his buildings were too mimetic (the forms he chose were often deemed to be too literal) or too closely tied to historical precedents, the inevitable result, it was felt, of the notion that each project demanded a unique, artistic solution that could be “read” and understood by a broad audience.

General Motors Technical Center, brochure cover. [Eero Saarinen Collection, Yale University Library]

Moreover, though modern architecture’s relationship to artistic fashion and bourgeois consumerism had always been complex and ambivalent — one thinks, for example, of the coexistence of “object types” and mass-produced houses with the modern palaces designed by Le Corbusier for American clients in the 1920s — these contradictions had flown more or less under the critical radar until the postwar period, when they were abruptly brought to the surface in the American buildings of men like Saarinen, Neutra, Johnson, and others. Were that not enough, Saarinen in particular celebrated this new American synthesis, grandly asserting that it was through such projects as his designs for General Motors and other institutional clients that modern architecture would finally achieve the status it deserved, comparable with the great works of the past. With the combined forces of cultural, spiritual, and technological progress all brought to bear on the problem, American architecture could, Saarinen predicted, someday assume its rightful place in history: it is only “logical,” he wrote, “to assume that, with the maturing of our civilization and the resulting respect for cultural, nonmaterialistic aims, spiritual values will flourish. They will catch up to the physical advances. Our architecture will then have the balance necessary for its flowering and some day will take an important place in history with the Greek, the Gothic, and the Renaissance.” 9 Such claims struck many as hubris, especially given their author’s apparent readiness to return to the outmoded values and social inequities that might well be the cost of such greatness.

Saarinen’s willingness to serve the needs of corporate America by creating a new language of popular architectural imagery was also viewed with deep suspicion. Since the publication of Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in 1939, and clearly much earlier, progressive architects and intellectuals had been wary of the manipulative power of popular imagery and its effect on mass culture; in the era of Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders (1957), which set out to unmask Madison Avenue’s stealth campaign of advertising, there was less and less room — in some quarters at least — for sympathy with American big business. 10 The Detroit-based automobile industry was first among the targets of progressive critics of American consumerism, and people like Harley Earl, the General Motors design director who invented the stylish (and functionally useless) Cadillac tail fin and the chrome “gorp” that weighed down enormous American cars in the 1950s, were regarded with contempt and suspicion. Wasn’t Detroit in the business of exploiting the consumer’s “fragile and unadmitted motives,” as one critic expressed it, through advertising and manipulation? Clearly General Motors, with its annual “model years” and planned obsolescence, bore much of the blame for this — and there was Eero Saarinen, cozying up to them and using his talents to glamorize their products. 11

For the English writer Reyner Banham, this association could at least in part explain the critical virulence that accompanied Saarinen’s rise in the profession. At Saarinen’s General Motors, Banham explained after the architect’s death, “the world saw a commercial building-complex of quite unprecedented quality: a section of design-punditry, sensing that the whole scheme was in some way a personal shrine for the master-stylist Harley Earl, drew meaningful distinctions between the ‘true’ machine aesthetic of the buildings and the ‘immoral’ styling of the vehicles conceived inside them.” Banham asserted — albeit without for a second softening his focus on the supposed taint of commercialism — that Saarinen’s efforts were far more praiseworthy than they had been made out to be: “Like a good advertising agency,” he wrote, “Eero really serviced his clients, and in finding for them that ‘unique solution,’ he did fairly painlessly and without short-calling anybody’s cultural standards, exactly what David Ogilvy had to knock himself out to do in advertising — he bestowed status, improved the image.” 12

GM Folks, November 1955. [General Motors LLC, GM Media Archives]

Such accommodations and the threat to modern movement principles that they represented inspired a deeply negative response among many of the profession’s most prominent figures. … In 1969, Vincent Scully called Saarinen’s modernist credentials into question by impugning not only his talents but also his motives. According to Scully, it was Saarinen’s “hollow exhibitionism” and his habit of seeking a “uniquely, even feverishly, expressive container for each and every program” that really tipped the scales. The result was a “supremely American combination” of slickness and superficial “packaging” intended to catch the unsophisticated eye of corporate America; for Scully, as for many others, this had little in common with well-designed, high-quality modern architecture. The differences, Scully explained, “must be regarded as between a building thought through all the way and a PR package with a few calculated ‘features’ for everyone. … The ingredients are always obvious, and they have remained the clients’ delight: (a) one whammo shape, justified by (b) one whammo functional innovation … and by (c) one whammo structural exhibition which is always threatening, visually at least, to come apart at the seams.” 13

Such responses to Saarinen’s work suggest that his buildings merit renewed historical interest and a fresh examination, especially in light of recent studies of American consumer culture and its relationship to the Cold War. Though the critics tied themselves in knots trying to denounce his architecture, his ambitions and ideals fit squarely with the goals of many of his contemporaries: many Americans no doubt agreed with Henry Luce, publisher of Life magazine, that the twentieth century was truly the “American Century,” and that the country was the “intellectual, scientific, and artistic capital of the world”; many shared the view that each of its citizens had responsibility to strive not only for freedom at home and abroad, but also for “excellence and world leadership.” 14 For corporate America and for many in the universities, this was especially true: with business expanding and new markets opening up, these clients were comfortable not only with Saarinen’s unapologetic ambition but also with his view that modernism’s next great phase had now been placed in their own American hands. They welcomed him into their boardrooms and executive dining rooms, and they listened attentively to his presentations, placing enormous resources of money, labor, and time at his disposal. 15 He was the go-to modernist of the postwar building boom, and he invented a versatile new style to meet their needs.

General Motors Technical Center

Saarinen’s first foray into this uncharted architectural territory, the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, was a dazzling demonstration of what a glamorous American modernism could be. 16 The program called for the creation of a campus-like complex in which new ideas could be developed and tested, with new office suites, design studios, conference rooms, libraries, laboratories, test tracks, restaurants, and lounges available for some five thousand engineers, scientists, and designers. Many of the early renderings by Hugh Ferriss, who worked with Eliel and his son on the first phase of the project in 1945, showed the complex in night views, with bold, streamlined shapes and clusters of shadowy, muscular figures backlit by the glow of light that emanates from the enormous windows. Although the project would ultimately lose much of this robust (and rather dated) Moderne imagery as it evolved in the 1950s, it would remain unrepentantly stylish and theatrical, using choreographed circulation routes and vistas to highlight both the company’s automotive products and the modern American technology that made it all possible. …

When the complex opened to the public, Life magazine ran an article describing it as the “Versailles of Industry.” The phrase was picked up by a number of journalists, perhaps as a result of suggestions by the publicity department. 17 Whatever the source, the catchphrase vividly communicated the company’s aristocratic self-image, and it underlined the message that, in democratic America, even company executives, and certainly the buyers of luxury GM cars, could live, work, and feel like royalty. One writer even went so far as to remark that the huge columnar exhaust vents of the Dynamometer Building were “as monumental as the stone pylons in Egyptian hypostyle halls of 1300 BC.” 18 Such comparisons were no doubt pleasing to both architect and client: although the GMTC was intended as a place in which “Today Meets Tomorrow,” and the company as a whole kept its focus firmly on creating both the products and the profits of the future, it was also significant that the architecture of the complex could hold its own with the great traditions of the past. 19 . ..

Oldsmobile Rocket advertisement, 1956. [General Motors LLC, GM Media Archives]

The driving force behind these innovations was the legendary Harley Earl, vice president of the corporation since 1940, who had singlehandedly invented the Styling Section in the 1920s and in so doing had created a place at General Motors for design development that would propel the company to enormous profitability. 20 It was Earl who hired the Saarinens in 1945, and he remained a key member of the client committee throughout design and construction. 21 Born in 1893, Earl had begun his career as a designer in his father’s coach-making business in Los Angeles; he later specialized in custom bodywork, designing cars for Hollywood movie stars. In 1927 he was recruited by General Motors and moved to Detroit, where he founded the Art and Color Section (renamed the Styling Section in the 1930s), introducing a number of design innovations intended to appeal to popular taste by combining sensuous curving forms with new automotive technologies. The “dream cars” that Earl worked on over the course of his career, including the 1928 LaSalle and the 1937 Buick Y-Job, were legendary: they were long, shiny, fast, and sexy, and they brought the feeling of custom design, European sophistication, and luxury to the American consumer. …

Earl made General Motors into a company that understood the mysterious role that cars played in the American psyche not only as an object of desire, but as a key to freedom and a sense of well-being. He “wanted to design a car,” he said, “so that every time you get in it, it’s a relief — you have a little vacation for awhile.” 22 Under Earl’s leadership, General Motors offered its customers new colors, new upholstery styles, shinier chrome, and even “new styling features” like tail fins, which, “though far removed from utility,” as [GM president Alfred] Sloan put it, “seemed demonstrably effective in capturing public taste.” 23 Earl’s ideas about the complex ways that design communicated meaning, expressed emotions, and stimulated desire were clearly reflected in the architecture of the GMTC, just as Earl’s own powerful personality established the theme for the office that Saarinen created for him: like a Playboy pad filled with “gorgeous gadgets” and smooth, sensuous surfaces, it was a command post and an entertainment center that Earl oversaw from behind his custom-built cherry desk. His private dining room, visited by a reporter from Interiors in 1957, had a “sort of night club expectancy and intimacy” about it; with its black, dark blue, and silver color scheme and its table-side controls used to manipulate music, draperies, lighting, and even to summon the “waitresses,” it was a fantasy world befitting the man at the center of General Motors’ Industrial Versailles. 24

TWA Terminal, Idlewild (now Kennedy) Airport 1962. [Ezra Stoller © ESTO]


In the design of Saarinen’s TWA terminal at Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) in New York, which opened in May 1962, eight months after his death, the architect once again explored new technologies and building materials with the goal of creating expressive artistic forms and spaces. 25 Here, after almost ten years of successful experience as an independent professional, and with far greater latitude for experimenting with his father’s creative legacy, Saarinen was free to produce an innovative building that was as controversial as it was original. With its swooping concrete curves, outspread wings, and beaklike prow, the terminal immediately reminded many observers of a bird in flight; though most critics clearly admired the engineering and design skill that stood behind such a project — to say nothing of the teamwork that was needed for such a complex project on the cutting edge of the emerging science of mass aviation travel — the consequences of constructing such a readily identifiable metaphor were, in some quarters at least, predictably severe. 26 Indeed, the unusual building, which had been under development for some five years before it was completed and thus became known to both popular and professional audiences, emerged as something of a lightning rod for contemporary tensions, only some of which had to do with architecture.

As at General Motors, the challenge for Saarinen at TWA had been to discover an appropriate formal language for the new building, a language that, in his view, would emerge from the confluence of technology, building materials, and expressive artistry. 27 As he explained in a lecture in January 1959, the “challenge was to create a building that was distinctive and memorable … in which architecture itself would express the drama and excitement of travel. Thus we wanted the architecture to reveal the terminal not as a static, enclosed place, but as a place of movement and transition.” … In sum, he wanted “to catch the excitement of the trip,” as Architectural Forum reported in 1962. 28

Drawing on a body of engineering knowledge related to the construction of thin shell concrete structures — as well as on a handful of precedents that included both Matthew Nowicki’s remarkable Livestock Judging Pavilion in North Carolina, 1952, and his own Kresge Auditorium at mit of 1956, as well as Pier Luigi Nervi’s Turin Exhibition Building (1949) and his Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome (1957) — Saarinen and his team experimented with a variety of shapes, testing them in models and mockups both for their structural integrity and their expressive potential. 29 He seems also to have drawn from his experience at General Motors, adapting the famous “gull wing” silhouette of the rear and tail fins of the 1959 Chevy Impala to his present task. The result was a building that was far more ambitious and memorable than contemporary examples such as Hellmuth, Yamasaki and Leinweber’s Lambert St. Louis Airport Building of 1951–61, to which it was often compared, or the other airline terminals at Idlewild then under construction.

TWA Terminal, Idlewild Airport. [Ezra Stoller © ESTO]

Bold and dramatic, the TWA terminal offered travelers a vivid experience, one in which ordinary people were given the opportunity not simply to arrive and depart in style but also to process and promenade, to sit, stand, dine, and observe one another in spaces of a ceremonial quality previously reserved for only the privileged few. This generosity was greeted with enthusiasm by many observers: comparing the curving staircases to those at Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, for example, critic Edgar Kaufmann exhorted his readers to “forget the bird” and focus instead on the “magnificence which belongs to the average man; here, Kaufmann noted, the “full artistry of space-modeling” had been achieved, transmuting the “ordinary complex of travel facilities into a festival of ordered movements and exhilarating vistas.” 30

An extraordinary series of photographs taken by Charles Eames when the terminal first opened captures both the dynamic energy of Saarinen’s spaces and the myriad ways in which the architecture of the terminal transformed everyday activities into glamorous spectacles. Just as the curving, swooping forms of the building seemed to realign themselves in response to the ebb and flow of airplane and human traffic, so also the lighting — both natural and artificial — appeared to be not simply passive but interactive, as in a theatrical production in which the scenic effects are calculated to highlight the narrative storyline of the drama. …

Standing on balconies and landings, or relaxing in the enormous, sunken lounge — complete with a red-leather banquette that fronted on an enormous picture window, as if one were in some fantasy version of a modern living room — or peering through the futuristic ovoid portals that marked the transitions from one space to the next, visitors to TWA thus came to recognize that the experience of air travel in the modern era would not be simply functional but also ceremonial, social, and psychologically affecting. At once awe-inspiring and intimate — indeed, the “conversation pit” at TWA was a scaled-up version of the ones that Saarinen had built in such domestic settings as the Emma Hartman Noyes dormitory at Vassar College and at the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana — TWA represented the culmination of Saarinen’s search for an expressive modern architecture that would capture both the institutional and the individual imagination. 31

TWA Terminal at Idlewild Airport, 1962. [Charles Eames. Eero Saarinen Collection, Yale University Library]

Although he did not live to see his creation in use, the architect was a frequent presence on the construction site and reacted with excitement as his building took shape. His comments about its monumental forms are especially revealing: “TWA is beginning to look marvelous,” he wrote to his wife just before his death. “If anything happened, and they had to stop work right now and leave it in this state, I think it would make a beautiful ruin, like the Baths of Caracalla.” 32 These historical resonances were clearly important for the building’s success, but so too were the public’s less erudite responses, and Saarinen was philosophical about those, too: “To some people it looked like a bird in flight,” he explained, “but this was really coincidental … the last thing we ever thought about.” “Nevertheless,” he noted, “that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have the right to see it that way or to explain it to laymen in those terms.” 33 Such statements no doubt endeared him to clients, who were impressed by his artistry and sophistication but happy to discover that he was a man they could talk to without embarrassment.

To most professional observers, however, this sort of image-making amounted to a calculated manipulation of a public already softened up by the depredations of corporate advertising, a process more akin to designing a logo than a work of serious architecture. Among many responses in this vein, the analysis offered by architect and critic Alan Colquhoun is the most analytical and substantial: for him, Saarinen’s expressionist modernism not only represented an unacceptable collusion between modern architecture and the machine of commerce, it was also fundamentally out of touch with the real challenges facing contemporary culture. The TWA building was designed in the “language of admass, intended only to stand out from its neighbors,” he explained in 1962, noting that “when every building is merely an advertisement for itself, one is presented with a vast public display of architectural onanism.” 34 As Colquhoun made clear, his principal objection was to Saarinen’s use of an “unsubtle kind of expressionism,” as he called it, in which “the needs of monumentality are served, but this monumentality is divorced from human function and becomes merely rhetorical”; the result was a building devoid of any sense of scale — “like the monster forests of a child’s nightmare, where a toadstool may be twenty feet high or like the dematerialized and unearthly forms of an expressionist film set.” 35 Moreover, the novelty of this new architecture was, in Colquhoun’s view, merely a deceptive trick of surface embellishment: as he explained, “Violent sucking and squeezing motions are suggested at points of human entry and exit,” yet the “main body … is expressed in a static Beaux-Arts symmetry.” Clearly this sort of “styling,” as he termed it, had “no bearing on the real environmental problems which face architecture today.”

As had been the case with his General Motors Technical Center, the very fact of Saarinen’s willingness to put his considerable talents into the service of big business was cause enough for some critics to defame his work. Moreover, there was an army of experts and armchair sociologists who believed that the commercial success of companies like TWA, with its package tours and Madison Avenue clichés, was simply the first step in the decline of American civilization, representing a false democracy that would ultimately undermine the very experiences that sophisticated travelers enjoyed. In an essay entitled “From Traveler to Tourist: The Lost Art of Travel,” for example, historian Daniel Boorstin spoke out vehemently against mass tourism, noting that with the “democratization” and “commodification” of foreign travel the experience had become “diluted, contrived, prefabricated” to the point of being unrecognizable. 36 In scores of books and films, wealthy American tourists — especially those on organized group tours and supervised visits — were portrayed as “ugly Americans,” insensitive consumers who were devoid of genuine interest in culture, ignorant of local customs, and disrespectful to the people they encountered. 37

TWA Terminal, Idlewild Airport. [Eero Saarinen Collection, Yale University Library]

For many Americans, self-conscious about their recent prosperity (especially in the face of lingering shortages in Europe) and sensitive about their own relative lack of sophistication or education, criticisms like Boorstin’s carried a sting that made people uneasy about the image that American business and its architecture conveyed to the world at large. 38 Although Saarinen may also have had his concerns about these issues as a private citizen, as a professional architect he fully accepted that his job was to serve his clients by celebrating their products, inspiring through his artistry the same feelings of excitement and desire that good advertising images aroused in American consumers. …

Saarinen’s Context and Influence

In February 1959 the TWA Building was featured in a small but influential exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled “Four New Buildings: Architecture and Imagery”; though still on the boards, the project was singled out for its innovative approach and placed alongside Utzon’s designs for the new Sydney Opera House, Wallace K. Harrison’s First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, Connecticut, and the church of Notre Dame de Royan by Guillaume Gillet. 39 For Ada Louise Huxtable, reviewing the show in the New York Times, the buildings suggested a new regime of “rich, strange fare, quite unlike the austere architectural diet to which the Museum has accustomed us.” 40 Praising the use of dramatic, expressive shapes that she found “unfamiliar yet strongly evocative … sail-like, bird-like, and cathedral-like,” Huxtable remarked that the new work represented the “first meaningful addition to the limited vocabulary of the established modern style.” Nevertheless, she recommended extreme caution for anyone hoping to follow in these footsteps, lest their efforts at image-making fail to rise above the sort of thing one might find on any commercial strip: “Unfortunately these flights of architectural fantasy can range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and for every dream there is a nightmare,” she explained. “Their effects are too easily and superficially imitated … and parodies of the new forms have already appeared as cheap road-side shacks, ice-cream stands and jerry-built motels. In the hands of less able men, or at the mercy of publicity-minded clients, poetry becomes prose, art becomes advertising, and genius inspires gimmicks.”

Indeed, as one scans the landscape of postwar modernism in search of a context in which to place a work like Saarinen’s TWA Building, a range of affinities suggest themselves, from high-art experiments like Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House (1950–60), with its rough-surfaced, biomorphic bulk, to Le Corbusier’s elegant, attenuated Philips pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958, to the thin concrete arches of Googie coffee shops and resort hotels in Southern California and Las Vegas by commercial architects like Wayne McAllister and his followers. 41 A project like the Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport, erected by Luckman and Pereira with Paul Williams as project architect in 1962, sits squarely at the center of this spectrum of building types and responses, dramatic and memorable, with both a high degree of artistic ambition and an equal desire to create a salable image. 42

TWA Terminal building at Idlewild Airport, New York, 1962. Lobby and sunken lounge. [Eero Saarinen Collection, Yale University Library]

Over the course of his almost unimaginably productive and short career, and in the production of hundreds of projects in a wide variety of styles and materials, there is no doubt that Saarinen could misstep and even falter badly in his quest for originality and a meaningful language of form: in projects like Stiles and Morse colleges at Yale, with their underscaled Neogothic towers set in a picturesque village landscape, or in the A-frame teepees of Concordia College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he seems to strain awkwardly for an image that never emerges in convincing fashion. This was clearly the case with some of the institutional projects, such as the posthumous CBS headquarters in New York (1960–65) and the U.S. Chancellery Building in London (1955–60), the latter of which, with its “gilt pie-frill round the cornice,” “gold anodized fins,” and “acres of marble so pure it looks plastic,” inspired Reyner Banham to despair that modern architecture in the United States had “lost its dedicated muscularity and began to go Neo-Monumental in one direction, Ballet School in the other.” 43 As the historian Robert Furneaux Jordon memorably described it, the embassy “exported prestige in the form of glamour” — and this was certainly not meant as a compliment. 44

From the early 1960s until the current revival of popular appreciation and scholarly interest in Saarinen’s architecture, his reputation, and the fate of many of his most significant projects, hung in the balance with little hope of recognition or respect. In the immediate aftermath, only Banham, the sharp-eyed observer who had been among his most persistent critics throughout the years, ventured a guess at the meaning of his ambivalent status, wondering aloud whether the bitter criticism that had greeted his proposals didn’t “reveal a streak of spitefulness” in his detractors: “He died the darling of organization America, capable of bringing architecture’s artful aid to any company image he could believe in,” Banham explained; this had obviously been enough to put him in bad repute with progressive and intellectual observers. 45 His glamorous American modernism, his accommodations of capitalism and its goals, his wife Aline and her commitment to “public relations” — to say nothing of his uncanny success at winning competitions — all of these were held against him. Was that really “the trouble with Eero?” as Banham had asked in an article with that title. The answer for Banham, as for many present-day observers, was surely no. The “trouble with Eero,” Banham concluded, is “he’s such a damned good architect.” 46 With the passage of nearly a half-century since his death, and the brilliant restoration of many of his most extraordinary buildings, it is now clear that most observers, if not yet all, are inclined to agree.

About the Series: Modern Masters

In an ongoing and occasional series, historians and critics assess the vigorous achievements of a generation of modernist practitioners.

Editors' Note

Excerpted from American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, by Alice T. Friedman. Reproduced by permission of the author and Yale University Press.

  1. For an overview of Saarinen’s career, see Jayne Merkel, Eero Saarinen (New York: Phaidon, 2005); and Peter Papademetriou, “Coming of Age: Eero Saarinen and Modern Architecture,” Perspecta 21 (1984): 116–43. The development of Saarinen’s corporate aesthetic is charted by Nancy A. Miller, “Eero Saarinen on the Frontier of the Future: Building Corporate Image in the American Suburban Landscape,” Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1999. The definitive study of Saarinen, and the most comprehensive catalogue of his work, is Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and Donald Albrecht, eds., Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
  2. For Saarinen’s clients, see Donald Albrecht, “The Clients and Their Architect,” in Pelkonen and Albrecht, Saarinen, 45–55. For the Jefferson Memorial Arch, see Hélène Lipstadt, “The Gateway Arch: Designing American’s First Modern Monument,” in Pelkonen and Albrecht, Saarinen, 222–29.
  3. Time, July 2, 1956, 50–57.
  4. Ibid., 52.
  5. Aline Saarinen, ed., Eero Saarinen: On His Work. A Selection of Buildings Dating from 1947 to 1964 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 10. For the notion of architecture as a “family of forms,” see Saarinen, On His Work, 60.
  6. Aline Saarinen, “Eero Saarinen, Architect,” undated ms. (1960s), Aline Saarinen Professional Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., Box 5, Folders 6, 8.
  7. Philip Johnson, “Retreat from the International Style to the Present Scene” (lecture at Yale, May 1958), in Philip Johnson: Writings, foreword by Vincent Scully, introduction by Peter Eisenman, commentary by Robert A. M. Stern (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 84–97 (quote on 95).
  8. See, for example, Walter Gropius, The New Architecture and the Bauhaus (London: Faber and Faber, 1935) and The Scope of Total Architecture (New York: Harper, 1955).
  9. Ibid., 114.
  10. Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (New York: D. McKay, 1957). For a further exploration of these fears and their effect on modern design, see Kathleen James-Chakraborty, “The Drama of Illumination: Visions of Community from Wilhelmine to Nazi Germany,” in Richard Etlin, ed., Art, Culture, and Media Under the Third Reich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 181–201.
  11. Eric Larrabee, “Autos and Americans: The Great Love Affair,” Industrial Design 2, no. 5 (October 1955): 34–63.
  12. Reyner Banham, “Fear of Eero’s Mana,” Arts Magazine 36 (February 1962): 70–73 (quotes on 73).
  13. Vincent J. Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism (New York: Praeger, 1969), 186, 194, 196.
  14. Henry R. Luce, “The American Century,” Life, February 17, 1941, 61–65.
  15. In a letter written by Harley Earl to Walter McQuade, editor of Architectural Forum, after Eero’s death, he noted that the Saarinens “seemed to grasp what we were driving at and fill in the loop holes and the odd places we couldn’t put our hand on or complete.” Eero Saarinen Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, Series IV, Box 57, n.d.
  16. For the history of this project, see Merkel, Saarinen, 69–81; and Rosamond Fletcher, “The General Motors Technical Center,” in Pelkonen and Albrecht, Saarinen, 230–35.
  17. Life, May 21, 1956, 96–97, 102–7. See also ‘GM’s Industrial Versailles,” Architectural Forum, May 1956, 122–27. The phrase “campus-like” was often used in GM’s publicity literature: see GM Public Relations Department, Where Today Meets Tomorrow: General Motors Technical Center (Detroit: GM Publications, 1956).
  18. “General Motors Technical Center,” Architectural Forum, November 1951, 111–23 (quote on 112).
  19. As Charles F. Kettering, inventor of many of General Motors’ most forward-looking technologies was fond of saying, “All of us should be interested in the future because that is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives.” Quoted by Harlow Curtice, president of GM, in the introduction to Where Today Meets Tomorrow, n.p.
  20. Alfred P. Sloan, My Years with General Motors, ed. John Macdonald and Catharine Stevens (1963; New York: Doubleday, 1990), chap. 15. Earl’s work at the Styling Section was first described by Jane Fiske Mitarachi, “Harley Earl and His Product: The Styling Section,” Industrial Design 5, no. 5 (October 1955): 50–60. See also Stephen Bayley, Harley Earl and the Dream Machine (New York: Knopf, 1983); and David Gartman, “Harley Earl and the Art Color Section: The Birth of Styling at General Motors,” Design Issues 10, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 3–26. The best overview of Earl’s career and car designs is
  21. Sloan, My Years, 263.
  22. Ibid., 278.
  23. Ibid., 441, 273, 278.
  24. “What’s Good Enough for General Motors: Interiors of the Styling Building in GM’s Technical Center,” Interiors, January 1957, 80–89.
  25. The project was first published in 1957: “Saarinen Designs Terminal for TWA,” Progressive Architecture 38 (December 1957): 66–67. For the history of the project, see Susanna Santala, “Airports: Building for the Jet Age,” and Isenstadt, “Theater of Form,” both in Pelkonen and Albrecht, Saarinen, 300–307, 98–115.
  26. On airports and the history of the airlines, see John Zukowsky, ed., Building for Air Travel: Architecture and Design for Commercial Aviation (Munich: Prestel, 1996); Hugh Pearman, Airports: A Century of Architecture (New York: Abrams, 2004); Keith Lovegrove, Airline: Identity, Design and Culture (New York: teNeues, 2000).
  27. For a further exploration of this issue in Saarinen’s work, see Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, “The Search for [communicative] Form,” in Pelkonen and Albrecht, Saarinen, 82–97.
  28. “I Want to Catch the Excitement of the Trip,” Architectural Forum, July 1962, 72–79.
  29. Nowicki was a Polish-American architect admired by Saarinen. In a letter to his future wife, Aline, who was then at work on her New York Times article about him, Saarinen listed Nowicki, along with his father, Mies, and Charles Eames, among others, as the principal influences on his work (AAA, Eero Saarinen Aline Louchheim, n.d. [April 1953?]; Box 2, Folder 26). Working as an assistant to Le Corbusier, Nowicki died in a plane crash on his way to Chandigarh in 1951; his papers are held in the archives of North Carolina State University, Raleigh. See Lewis Mumford, “The Life, the Teaching, and the Architecture of Matthew Nowicki,” Architectural Record, June 1954, 139–49. Series continues with parts 3–4 in July, August, and September issues.
  30. Edgar Kaufmann, “Inside Eero Saarinen’s TWA Building,” Interiors 121, no. 12 (July 1962): 86–93 (quotes on 87, 92).
  31. Karen van Lengen and Lisa Reilly, Vassar College, an Architectural Tour (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004).
  32. From a letter dated April 17, 1961, quoted in Saarinen, On His Work, 60.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Alan Colquhoun, “TWA Terminal Building, Idlewild, New York,” Architectural Design 32, no. 10 (October 1962): 465. For a more recent and balanced analysis of the building in its historical context, see “Pax Americana: Architecture in America, 1945–65,” in Alan Colquhoun, Modern Architecture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), chap. 11.
  35. Colquhoun, “TWA Terminal Building,” 465.
  36. Daniel J. Boorstin, “From Traveler to Tourist: The Lost Art of Travel,” in The Image: Or What Happened to the American Dream (New York: Athenaeum, 1962), 79.
  37. See William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958); a film starring Marlon Brando was produced in 1962. On this subject, see also Christopher Endy, Cold War Holidays: American Tourism in France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). The proliferation of Hilton hotels in foreign locations is discussed in Annabel Jane Wharton, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
  38. Eric Larrabee, “After Abundance What?” Horizon 2, no. 6 (July 1960): 65–72.
  39. “Four New Buildings: Architecture and Imagery,” Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art 26, no. 2 (1959).
  40. Ada Louise Huxtable, “Four Model Buildings Under Museum Review: Experimental Styles in Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art,” New York Times, February 15, 1959, 17.
  41. For further information on these projects, see Frederick Kiesler et al., Endless House (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2003); Le Poème électronique de Le Corbusier (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1958); Marc Treib, Space Calculated in Seconds: The Philips Pavilion, Le Corbusier, Edgar Varese (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996); and Alan Hess, Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture (San Francisco: Chronicle, 1986).
  42. For Paul Williams, see Karen E. Hudson, Paul R. Williams: A Legacy of Style (New York: Rizzoli, 2000); for William Pereira, see James Steele, ed., William Pereira (Los Angeles: University of Southern California/Guild Architectural Press, 2003).
  43. Reyner Banham, “Monument with Frills,” New Statesman 60, no. 10 (December 1960): 918. For the history of the building in the context of government patronage, see Jane C. Loeffler, The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 197–209.
  44. Peter Smithson et al., “Controversial Building in London,” Architectural Forum, March 1961, 80–85.
  45. “The Trouble with Eero,” New Statesman 64, no. 23 (November 1962): 745–46.
  46. Ibid., 746.
Alice T. Friedman, “Eero Saarinen: Modern Architecture for the American Century,” Places Journal, June 2010. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • jonathan

    06.23.2010 at 02:22

    great article. a revelation that such petty criticism existed then as it does now.

  • Doug C.

    06.24.2010 at 11:13

    Great writing on a complex subject. What seems amazing is that none of the critics at the time recognized that Saarinen utilized much of that corporate money to produce art; while it served their purposes it also luckily allowed dazzling and intriguing assemblages that would not have happened any other way. It occurs to me that a similar alignment is happening in Japan now, where it seems normal to commission a house design from architects who would be considered radical in the United States. Perhaps a reflection of a loss of an American vision of the future that the dominant commissioned style in the US seems to be a modified twenties long island shingle style house.

  • Alexandra Lange

    06.24.2010 at 13:36

    One figure missing from the discussion here (though likely in Alice Friedman's book) is Marcel Breuer, who bridges the generation and nationality gap between the "classic" modernists, of the Bauhaus and elsewhere, and American students like Johnson, Rudolph, Noyes--all of whom he taught at Harvard, and all of whom worked happily for corporations like IBM alongside Saarinen.

    Breuer was one of the first architects to embark on a multi-building corporate architecture project after the war, for Torrington (later Toren) Manufacturing, based in CT, which also used Lester Beall for their extensive identity work. He built Pirelli's iconic, and possibly gimmicky, tower in New Haven.

    A propos of Beall, it also seems important to note how often Saarinen worked alongside graphic designers in creating a new image for some old American companies. Most of his clients were remaking all parts of their visual identities at once, with the architecture at the leading edge of the free publicity.