Saarinen's Style

A look back at Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future

Posted by Terri Nappier, WUSTL Magazine August 24, 2009

Peter MacKeith discusses Eero Saarinen's work on "Living St. Louis"

This article appears in the Summer 2009 edition of Washington University in St. Louis Magazine

At 630 feet, the Gateway Arch holds its place as the tallest monument in the United States. Displaying some 900 tons of stainless steel on its exterior, it shines for all those in the city to see. Spanning another 630 feet at the base, it sits as a symbol of this country’s westward expansion. Hosting a million visitors a year, it lives as a beacon to the world.

Peter MacKeith, an associate dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and associate professor of architecture, gazes daily upon this stunning monument from the windows of his downtown loft. He considers its significance to the city, region, country, and to architecture itself. In fact, the Gateway Arch was one of the lures that brought MacKeith to St. Louis. That and, of course, Washington University. For MacKeith, who spent 10 years in Finland, working in both architectural education and professional practice, and an educational career beforehand studying Finnish architecture, living close to the monument by famed Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen is a gift.

Not only does he enjoy a view of one of the most compelling architectural displays in modern history, but MacKeith also recently reveled in playing host to the exhibit honoring the life and prolific career of its designer.

Saarinen, who won the design competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in 1947–48, did not live to see the Arch built. He died at the age of 51 in 1961, and construction didn’t start until February 1963. The Arch finally was completed in October 1965.

To some, it seems to have taken a comparable amount of time to create a retrospective of Saarinen's work. "When I came to St. Louis after this 10 years in Finland, I was aware that there were ongoing efforts to try to bring into being a retrospective of Saarinen’s work, and yet it hadn’t fully coalesced," MacKeith says. "I attended a number of meetings in 1999 and early 2000 to make sure that St. Louis had a place at the table, even before venues had been identified."

The culmination of many years of work by countless individuals around the world is Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. The exhibit, running January 30 through April 27, 2009, at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, as with the Arch, was worth the wait.

“One notable aspect of the exhibition is the combination of photographs and original drawings mixed with models, furniture, and details,” MacKeith says. “All of that in combination gives a real three-dimensional character and brings such an exhibition to life.”

Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future examines Saarinen’s life and work in multiple areas. The first area, with labels such as “making modern mainstream” and “Eero Saarinen and Associates,” examines his youth, early work, and family, especially the influence of his architect father, Eliel Saarinen. The elder Saarinen was a famed Finnish architect in his own right and the first director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, outside Detroit. Cranbrook is where the younger Saarinen learned his craft. He met, and over time collaborated with, many famous artists, architects, and designers, such as Charles and Ray Eames.

The next area, “envisioning modern life” and “furnishing the 20th century,” offers displays of Saarinen’s furniture and housing design. Housing was not a major part of his portfolio, but his impact on furniture design was significant, especially his famed tulip chair.

The “forging community” space presents Saarinen’s work for universities; especially intriguing is the model of the David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink, or what is affectionately called “the Yale whale.” This area also includes Saarinen’s work on the Kresge Chapel and Kresge Auditorium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The exhibit also explores Saarinen’s influence on business with a section labeled “creating corporate style.” Showcasing his impact on corporate America are photos and drawings of his headquarters for General Motors Technical Center in Detroit and for John Deere & Company Administrative Center in Peoria, Illinois, among others. The collection also illustrates Saarinen’s impact on American transportation, or “shaping an American identity,” with models of his modern designs for the Trans World Airlines Terminal (now John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York) and Dulles International Airport Terminal in Chantilly, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C.

The pinnacle of the exhibit is the space devoted solely to the Gateway Arch. This area makes it clear—with drawings, models, photos, and videos—that the Arch catapulted the architect’s prominence and his significance to modern architecture.

Washington University is one of only nine international sites to host the Saarinen exhibit and, according to MacKeith, doing so elevated the Sam Fox School’s identity. “Here is a school with a museum capable of hosting an exhibition of international reputation,” he says, “and one that carries a greater message of the value of design and architecture to us all.” (The exhibit opens next at the Museum of the City of New York in November 2009.)

Hosting the exhibit also reaffirmed the close ties Washington University shares with Finland. Leading Finnish architects serving as visiting professors have taught University architecture students for some 60 years. Therefore, when the exhibition opened on January 30, a number of Finnish diplomats and dignitaries (including Ritva Jolkkonen, the consul general of Finland in New York, and Matti Häkkänen, former ambassador of Finland and second cousin to Saarinen) attended the opening weekend. Honoring the occasion, the University flew the Finnish flag, a gift from the Finnish Consulate General in New York, from the top of Brookings Hall.

Another important aspect of hosting the exhibition was its educational value to students and faculty. “We could say Saarinen’s work parallels the mission of the Sam Fox School,” MacKeith says. “Saarinen was the embodiment of someone who worked collaboratively, who worked with new materials, who worked with new technologies—who worked in design, in architecture, and art.”

Embracing a collaborative spirit during the spring semester, students and faculty worked on and studied the exhibit; they built courses around it; and they created other related programs and events. One in particular stands out: On the Riverfront: St. Louis and the Gateway Arch, running January 30 through April 27 in Steinberg Hall Architecture Gallery. The exhibition, co-curated by MacKeith; Eric Mumford, associate professor of architecture; and Don Koster, visiting assistant professor of architecture, showcased the 1947–48 Jefferson National Expansion Memorial competition in more detail. In concert, the Sam Fox School hosted a daylong symposium of landscape architects, urban designers, historians, and critics to discuss the future of the riverfront.

“This allowed us to talk about the Arch not just as an object, but as a work of landscape design,” MacKeith says, “and it allowed us to talk about the riverfront and its history, and then to provide a setting for a more informed discussion on what should happen next.”

According to MacKeith, the timing of the exhibits could not have been better, because many in the city are concerned about the future of the area. “Again, we’d like to think that having the exhibitions here helped inform the discussions, which is exactly what a University should be doing in its community,” he concludes.

Terri Nappier is the editor of this magazine