Eliel and Eero Saarinen: The Sweeping Influence of Architecture's Greatest Father-Son Duo

St Louis Gateway Arch. Image © Flickr user jeffnps licensed under CC BY 2.0

It is rare for a father and son to share the same birthday. Even rarer is it for such a duo to work in the same profession; rarer still for them both to achieve international success in their respective careers. This, however, is the story of Eliel and Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architects whose combined portfolio tells of the development of modernist architectural thought in the United States. From Eliel’s Art Nouveau-inspired Finnish buildings and modernist urban planning to Eero’s International Style offices and neo-futurist structures, the father-son duo produced a matchless body of work culminating in two individual AIA Gold Medals.

Eliel and Eero Saarinen: The Sweeping Influence of Architecture's Greatest Father-Son Duo - More Images+ 17

© Revontuli licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Both left “profound influences upon the cities where they did their work”, but this influence is not isolated to the context of their work. The students that would pass through the Cranbrook Academy, where Eliel was president from 1932-1948, would go on to change the face of design; the architects who drew inspiration from the approach promoted by Eero continue to shape our built environment today. Looking at their historical and cultural roots influences, we can discover how their architecture inspired design both globally and in their homeland of Finland - and who in the pantheon of architects has built upon the legacy they left behind.

Eliel Saarinen, born in Finland 1873, was arguably the northern nation’s “most noted early modernist architect” and worked at the forefront of the Finnish offshoot of National Romanticism. This movement “expressed progressive social and political ideals, through reformed domestic architecture” and contributed to several international styles. Like many Finnish architects, Eliel’s work is extremely tactile and organic, inspired by the Nordic landscape and culture in which he grew up. However, his design for the Finnish pavilion at the 1900 World's Fair suggested something new was forming under the surface. The forward-thinking blending of the time's styles in the pavilion sat well outside the time’s critical thought.

The two Saarinens shared this characteristic; a tireless pursuit of progression and innovation within architecture despite the stylistic chasms between their work. Much of which was nurtured at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

Eliel moved his family to the United States in 1923, following his second place selection in the widely-publicized Chicago Tribune Building competition in 1922 (the competition was won by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood.) They settled first in Evanston, Illinois, where the Eliel oversaw work on a proposal for the development of the Chicago lakefront. In 1924, the moved to Michigan, where Eliel was eventually asked to design the campus for what the "Cranbrook Educational Community," a place envisioned as the American answer to the Bauhaus.

© Madcoverboy licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Eliel was appointed president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1932, and it was here that Eero spent the majority of his formative years. Here, a young Eero would befriend several students and professors, notably including Ray Keiser, Florence Knoll, Charles + Ray Eames and Matthew Nowicki - the latter three, along with his father, he would cite as the four most influential designers in his career. These ideological influences and collaborations lead to his interest in a “post-war architecture [that] would engage the mutual dependence of function and form.”

© Ezra Stoller via Flikr user gabyu licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Following Eliel’s death in 1950, Eero founded his own practice and began to produce work outside of his father’s influence. At the start, it could be said that Eero was influenced more than he was influencing. Inspired by the work of Mies van der Rohe, and utilising the themes of the Internationalist Style, Eero would produce some of the movement's most pure and ideal pieces of architecture. The GM Technical Center is a notable example, with its rational, lightweight glass and steel design creating a workplace for America's modern age.

Our architecture is too humble. It should be prouder, more aggressive, much richer and larger than we see today.
- Eero Saarinen

But Eero's mind was in the future far before his dalliance with the International Style. His winning entry for the Gateway Arch competition was an early indication of his interest in other ideas and concepts. His design, a steel-clad, concrete, triangular sectioned, 192m arch, exhibited a deep abstraction of the organic qualities of Finnish architecture, merging the modernist ideas of the moment with its technological capabilities.

© nycarchitecture.com
© Cameron Blaylock

His design of TWA Terminal and Flight Center and the David S. Ingalls Skating Rink show the same organic forms, making use of catenary curves and tensile concrete masses in a Neo-Futuristic style. His architecture seemed to capture the spirit of mid-century America, and skyrocketed the designer to a position of increased influence within the larger architectural world. As part of the panel for the Sydney Opera House, Eero famously campaigned for Jorn Utzon’s expressive design (which itself exhibited several of Saarinen's hallmark design qualities.)

His premature death in 1961 left the majority of his work to be completed by his associates John Dinkeloo and Kevin Roche - both of whom would go on to have extremely successful (indeed, Pritzker recognized) careers in their own right. As his associates, Roche and Dinkeloo are the designers most obviously influenced by Eero’s work; both exhibited the unique solutions and expressive experimentation nurtured by Eero.

He was an incredible person, truly extraordinary. He was a real architect in the sense that he cared about people’s involvement. He cared about why we do this, how our work relates to the rest of the community. He wasn’t obsessed with the idea of modern architecture, per se. He was obsessed with the idea of architecture that fulfilled a purpose.
- Kevin Roche

© Zaha Hadid Architects / MIR

However, the influence of Eero’s designs echoes far further than just with his associates. Zaha Hadid is the most famous proponent of the Neo-Futurism, a style which Saarinen propelled into the popular architectural discourse. When the fluid expanses of Hadid’s interiors are shown alongside those of Saarinen, there emerges a clear visual (if not theoretical) relationship.

© Hufton + Crow

Santiago Calatrava is another key member of the recent Neo-Futurist renaissance. In his distinctive combinations of organic form and structural technology, Calatrava creates jaw-dropping buildings that exhibit the independence of form and function, transporting Eero’s ideologies into the present day.

There is little doubt that Eero's work will remain internationally famous for years to come, but it is Eliel’s work that will cherished in their shared homeland. But that does not mean Eero's work and ideas had no influence in Finland; glimpses of his influence can be seen in some Finnish architecture today.

Courtesy of ALA Architects

The Central Library Oodi by Helsinki-based ALA Architects shows organic curves and expansive interiors similar to those designed by Eero, producing a "powerful and iconic temporary design" that promotes "freedom of speech and democracy". The office's Kilden project also has a striking facade, whose flowing oak-clad form "creates a surface separating real world from the illusional", using a "careful analytical design process" to make a purposeful space.

© Marc Goodwin

West Terminal 2 by PES-Architects also appears to draw upon many of the characteristics of Saarinen's work, especially in regard to the TWA Flight Center. The pure, white form exhibits the structure from the exterior, and the additional large glazed facade demonstrates a Nordic interpretation of international Neo-Futurism.

The influence of Eliel and Eero Saarinen has been, in some ways, cyclical; their Nordic cultural heritage provided a national inspiration for generations of Finnish designers, while their migration to America and embrace of international design movements brought their ideas to the world. That their work continues to be relevant - both on its own and as an influence for the designers of today - suggests a familial genius uncommonly found anywhere, let alone in the forests of Finland.

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Cite: Tom Dobbins. "Eliel and Eero Saarinen: The Sweeping Influence of Architecture's Greatest Father-Son Duo" 20 Aug 2018. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/900398/eliel-and-eero-saarinen-the-sweeping-influence-of-architectures-greatest-father-son-duo> ISSN 0719-8884

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