If last week’s groundbreaking at the TWA Flight Center has you super excited to see it become a hotel, you may want to tune into PBS on Tuesday, December 27, at 8 p.m., for Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future. The hour-long documentary about the Flight Center’s visionary designer is the latest in the American Masters series, which previously turned its lens on Saarinen’s early collaborator, Charles Eames. If none of that gets you excited, well then: Moby did the music?
If the name Eero Saarinen isn’t ringing a bell despite its Finnish suaveness, you probably know him by another name: Ikea. The furniture company is one of many that have knocked off Saarinen’s “tulip,” or “pedestal” tables and chairs, which Airbnb hosts are all but contractually obligated to put somewhere in their apartments. I recently walked by Bowery gallery The Hole and saw that they had put out on the curb what appeared to be one of the tables that Saarinen designed for Knoll in 1956. I was about to drop to my knees and call up a Man With a Van to haul it home for me, but then I remembered: Oh, yeah, I can probably get this for five cents at Ikea.
As iconic as Saarinen’s tulip and “womb” chairs are, he, like Eames, wasn’t simply a furniture maker. The PBS doc focuses more on his quest to create buildings that were, in his own words, “prouder, more aggressive, much richer and larger than we see today.” That quest started with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. In 1947, Saarinen was chosen as the arch’s architect (arch-itect?) after beating out his father, Eliel, in a design competition– when a telegram informed them that “E. Saarinen” was the winner, there was considerable confusion among the E. Saarinens.
When Eliel died in 1950, his son inherited the mantle, in part thanks to a 1953 profile by New York Times art critic Aline B. Louchheim, who would go on to become Eero’s second wife. In the piece, she commended Eero for “giving form or visual order to the industrial civilization which he belongs, designing imaginatively and soundly within the new esthetics which the machine demands and allows.”
The documentary shares some of the letters that Saarinen and Louchheim exchanged, which were ripe with hot-and-heavy architectural metaphors: “The more one digs the foundations, the more and more one finds the solidest of granite for you and I to build a life together upon,” Saarinen wrote, adding, “I know this is not a good sentence.” (Hey, he couldn’t be a genius in everything).
Like his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, Saarinen was obsessed with work at the expense of his family, but like Wright’s son, who was featured in a previous installment of American Masters, Saarinen’s son Eric was willing to forgive him. “How can you not forgive somebody for being a genius?” asks Eric, whose father died when he was 19. (Fun fact: Saarinen’s other son was named Eames.)
As director of photography, Eric plays a crucial role in the documentary. We follow along as he snaps photos of his father’s great spaces: The TWA Flight Center, the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan; the John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, Illinois; the hexagonal North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana. Unfortunately, we only get a glimpse of the nearby Miller House. It was one of the few private residences Saarinen designed, and it was a stunner.
We do, however, get to see Eric’s first visit to Ingalls Rink at Yale, a building that he describes as “wildly organic.” It’s known on campus as the Yale Whale, because, just as the TWA Flight Center resembles a horseshoe crab, the rink resembles a beached whale. Saarinen experimented with a similar design at Washington Dulles International Airport, which he described as “a huge hammock suspended between concrete trees.”
Sadly, Saarinen’s career spanned just a couple of decades. When he died during a brain-tumor operation in 1961, projects like Dulles, TWA, and the Gateway Arch were still in the throes of construction. Kevin Roche, one of the partners who completed CBS headquarters and other projects, is interviewed in the film along with other architects such as Robert AM Sterne.
One has to wonder why Saarinen chose to undergo a surgery that, according to his son, had a 1 in 10,000 chance of success. The answer can probably be found in the artist’s own words: “Experimentation can present great dangers, but there would be greater danger if we didn’t try to explore at all.”