St. Louis Gateway Arch, by Eero Saarinen

photo by: Library of Congress, HAER MO,96-SALU,78

December 15, 2016

PBS Documentary Highlights Midcentury Modernist Eero Saarinen

The sculptural Tulip chair, the soaring Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the elegant swoop of Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. Each of these Midcentury Modern icons sprang from the imagination of the visionary Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, whose life and work are chronicled in Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future, premiering December 27 on PBS as part of the American Masters series.

The film features Saarinen’s son Eric, a Hollywood cinematographer, as both the director of photography and an on-camera presence at his father’s buildings. Much of the music is by Moby, and Blythe Danner and Finnish actor Peter Franzén supply voiceovers. We interviewed director Peter Rosen to learn more; excerpts from our conversation are below.

Miller House and Garden, Columbus, Indiana, architecture by Eero Saarinen

photo by: Eric Saarinen, ASC / Peter Rosen Productions

Saarinen worked with landscape architect Dan Kiley and interior designer Alexander Girard on the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana. His Tulip chairs appear in the house's dining room.

What made you decide on Eero Saarinen as your subject?

I had gotten my undergraduate architecture degree at Cornell, and I’d always remained very interested in architecture. We did two films about I.M. Pei in the 1990s, and then we made a film in 2006 for the United Nations’ 60th anniversary, about the architects who came from all over the world to design the U.N. headquarters in New York. So I tried to stay in touch with architecture as much as I could.

The [idea for this] film actually came to me from a fellow who became our associate producer, and who had worked in Saarinen’s office for two or three years on Dulles International Airport. I frankly didn’t know that much about Saarinen. He wasn’t one of those architects whose work we studied in architecture school.

Has that changed at all?

I think there’s a renewed interest in Saarinen, because of the renewed interest in Midcentury Modern design. But there wasn’t a lot to go on when we started making this film. There was Jayne Merkel’s book Eero Saarinen and an exhibit called Shaping the Future that became a book. Some new things have come out on Saarinen in the last few years.

Obviously, he is somebody whom you could recognize as a major name. Almost no other architect would have this variety, in which every building is a different solution to a different problem. With Saarinen, it’s just an intriguing project because every one of these buildings is so different.

How did Eric Saarinen, one of Eero’s two sons, become involved?

Initially, he really didn’t want to have too much to do with this project. I first called him up because I thought he would be the ideal director of photography for this film, since it would be about his father. For a year he kept turning me down.

We finally convinced him to become a part of it, and now he’s pleased with the results. He did an amazing job with the photography—it’s like a virtual-reality experience in the buildings.

It’s interesting how the film delves into the role of Aline Saarinen, Eero’s second wife, in promoting his work.

The more we looked into it, the more important Aline became in the story. She did so much for him in terms of getting him recognized by major corporate clients.

[She also saw] much of his work through after he died in 1961, because much of it was still under construction at the time. A lot of supervision is required to make sure builders and clients stick with architects’ intentions. She really did become instrumental in that.

Architect Eero Saarinen with a model of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis

photo by: Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library

Eero Saarinen with a model of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Eero Saarinen died suddenly at age 51. How was he able to get so much work done in a relatively short career?

It’s a really interesting question, because I don’t know if anybody knows what’s behind that kind of surge in creativity. From 1948, when the Arch was designed, to the time he died in 1961, that’s when he did the ten to twelve major buildings in our film, [and several other buildings] that were equally important. And this was in the days before computers, which speed things up quite a bit. Some people think Saarinen had a premonition of an early death and felt he had to get as much done as he could while he was around.

Many people know Saarinen more for his furniture designs, such as the Tulip chair, the Womb chair, and the Saarinen tables. What makes these pieces so enduring?

You know, when I told people I was working on a film about Eero Saarinen, nine out of ten times they only knew the name from the furniture. The architect Rafael Vinoly told us (in a scene we didn’t end up using) that generally architects are very bad furniture designers, and vice versa. He thought Saarinen was a rare exception, where architectural design and furniture design were all one thing in his mind.

If you have [enough money], you can go out and buy a Saarinen chair, but you can’t [just] live in or work in or commission a Saarinen building. So I think the furniture is a very important part of the legacy of Saarinen.

John Deere World Headquarters, Moline, Illinois, designed by Eero Saarinen

photo by: Eric Saarinen, ASC / Peter Rosen Productions

The John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, Illinois.

Do you have a favorite Saarinen building?

When we interviewed the architecture critic Paul Goldberger for the film, I asked him what his favorite building was and he said the Deere & Company headquarters in Moline, Illinois. And the more I thought about it, the more I tend to agree with that.

It’s not one of these flashy, organic, curved buildings that you’d expect from Saarinen, but it’s just this beautiful place to be. You almost have to be there to understand it, because the pictures look not too different from any other glass and steel office building. The setting, the beauty of nature, the feeling of being in that building is something you don’t forget. So if you twisted my arm, it would probably be John Deere.

It’s hard to realize that these buildings are all 50 to 60 years old. At the time they were built, they were completely innovative and new. And the people who work in them still love coming in to work in them. That’s the real test of time. People appreciate so much that they are part of a Saarinen building, even in these huge office buildings or airport terminals. That’s unusual.

Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future premieres Dec. 27 at 8 p.m. on PBS.

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Meghan Drueding is the managing editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee table books about architecture and design.


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