August’s Architect of the Month: Eero Saarinen

An architect with ties to St. Louis whose work I have always admired is Finnish-American Eero Saarinen, who was known as a leader of the second-generation modernists. In 1947, he designed the magisterial Gateway Arch, built to commemorate the westward expansion of the US. A futuristic symbol, it rises above the cityscape of St. Louis and is a great example of how Eero constantly pushed aesthetic boundaries.

He was born in Kirkkonummi, Finland in 1910, to world-famous parents. His father was the architect Eliel Saarinen and his mother, Loja Gesellius, was a textile designer and sculptor. The family moved to the US in 1923, where they settled first in Evanston, Illinois, and then in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In 1929 Eero studied sculpture at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. From 1931 to 1934, he studied architecture at Yale University, where the curriculum was rooted in traditional theories. He won a fellowship that made it possible for him to travel Europe in 1934–35.

Eero joined his father’s practice in Bloomfield Hills in 1938. Together, they designed Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois, which influenced post-war school design. Eero went on to create sculptural forms that introduced visual drama to architecture.

For those bored by the austerity and uniformity of the boxy International Style of modern architecture, his work was different and exciting. His swooping, soaring curves gave his architecture a sense of taking flight.

Among his outstanding projects are the Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, the TWA Terminal at Kennedy International Airport, and the CBS headquarters in New York.

As a boy growing up and watching the Gateway Arch come to life, it had a mesmerizing effect on my imagination. Still today, I think it is one of the very best actualized architecture masterpieces in the world. My friend and premier global architect Daniel Libeskind told me he was so enthralled with the Arch that he took his wife Nina to visit it on their honeymoon in 1969 and again on their 40th anniversary.

What continues to inspire me about Eero’s designs was his love for exploration and experiment and his desire to move boldly toward the future. He died of a brain tumor in 1961 at the age of 51, and although his life was tragically cut short, he lives on through the structures that he created and the enormous impact he had on American architecture during the 1950s.

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