March 19 (Bloomberg) -- The Gateway Arch in St. Louis rises majestically in gleaming metal to a tapering summit 630 feet (192 meters) above the Mississippi River.
Ingratiating and confident, yet unbombastic, it is a monument for a less contentious, more egalitarian America.
Formally known as the National Expansion Memorial, the 1965 arch also sums up the career of its Finnish-born architect, Eero Saarinen. He was the quintessential designer for what Time Inc.’s Henry Luce dubbed “the American Century.”
The arch project helped Eero emerge from the shadow of his father, Eliel, who created the exquisite Cranbrook Academy near Detroit.
Yale University, home to two campus buildings by Eero, has now mounted a handsome retrospective, “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.”
He died young at 51 of complications from brain-tumor surgery in 1961, yet more than a dozen of his buildings are landmarks of the post-World War II era.
Saarinen created divinely sleek campuses for A-list corporate innovators -- IBM, Bell Telephone, Deere, and General Motors -- and swaddled these suburban redoubts in gorgeous landscaping. His black-granite tower for CBS looms over Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
Then there are the Tulip chairs for Knoll that are still ubiquitous.
In the catalog, curators Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and Donald Albrecht position him as a propagandist of U.S. industry: branding the nation’s technical prowess through displays of the newest materials, such as reflective glass fixed with neoprene gaskets. Albrecht and Pelkonen echo critic Reyner Banham, who regarded Saarinen as a corporate ad man, rather than a true architect dedicated to his own vision.
Saarinen never settled for one style, but he wasn’t putting a new wrapper on the same old box. He was reinventing the box.
I’ve walked his astonishing General Motors Technical Center -- 25 buildings, $100 million 1950s dollars (about $780 million today), finished in 1956. It stylishly integrated air conditioning, advanced lighting and emerging electronic-data services in a way that countless buildings would emulate.
The steely discipline of the corporate work had nothing in common with the lusciously womblike terminal he built for TWA at Kennedy airport -- a dizzy extravaganza that calls out for pillbox hats and pre-flight martinis.
The graceful drape of the Dulles airport roof was another bravura sculptural gesture, held up, it seemed, on barely more than sloping planes of glass.
So diverse is the work, that I’m not the only one who finds the “real” Saarinen elusive. He could be called an auteur: a singular genius who could collaborate. This proved fortuitous, as many of his major buildings had to be finished after his death by talented staffers like Kevin Roche and Cesar Pelli, who would go on to distinguished careers of their own.
The expressionistic Saarinen, not the cool modernist, built at Yale. The roof of the 1958 David S. Ingalls hockey rink rises in a great sine-wave curve then swoops down to turned-up eaves. Vilified at completion, Ingalls is rightly beloved now, and has been handsomely restored by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates LLC, Saarinen’s successor firm.
Yale also built one of Saarinen’s least-loved projects, the Morse and Stiles colleges, a modern take on the medieval Italian hill town. I find the picturesquely arranged towers and shadowy undulating walls almost convincing if I walk through with eyes squinted. Its massive slit-windowed walls are more Flintstones than Florence.
Thank Yale for spending $98.3 million to preserve this difficult legacy. Philadelphia architecture firm KieranTimberlake is restoring the buildings while remedying their many shortcomings with a largely invisible underground addition.
Age has been unkind even to Saarinen’s best. TWA is mothballed. The elegant Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, is abandoned. A competition is under way to create a less intimidating landscape around the St. Louis arch.
It would be the twilight of a once-lionized artist, except that these works -- and even mistakes like Morse and Stiles -- still grab us.
Saarinen didn’t just design, he inquired, which is rarely done in the research-free building industry. He asked how technology fits in buildings. He wondered how to serve the emergence of mass air travel. He tried to figure out how tradition could be honored in a contemporary way.
When you ask the tough questions, you sometimes get the wrong answers. Saarinen’s battered legacy is a badge of honor.
“Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future” is at the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale School of Architecture Gallery until May 2, 2010. Information: http://artgallery.yale.edu.
(James S. Russell is Bloomberg’s architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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