The architect Eero Saarinen was often knocked for being the equivalent of a talented P.R. man. And on the surface at least, few architects did more to glamorize postwar corporate America. General Motors, I.B.M., CBS — all eventually came knocking at his door. His architecture offered them the veneer of a supremely confident, progressive America, with all the roughness smoothed away. It made it easier to forget about those Soviet warheads and mushroom clouds.
The curves and glossy surfaces are as seductive as ever in “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future,” which opened at the Museum of the City of New York on Tuesday. But the story it tells is more conflicted.
Organized by Donald Albrecht, the museum’s curator of architecture and design, the show carefully peels back some of the gloss to reveal the anxieties and contradictions buried underneath. As Saarinen tinkers with his symbolic language, he also mines deeper architectural veins. Eventually even the hardened skeptic is forced to accept that his buildings can be both sophisticated works of propaganda and gorgeous — and humane — architectural creations.
The show begins by establishing Saarinen’s cosmopolitan credentials: a cultivated childhood in Finland with forward-thinking artistic parents; classical training as a sculptor in Paris; a stint in the office of the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes; the early partnership in suburban Detroit with his father, Eliel, a Modernist who had emigrated to America in 1923.
The younger Saarinen came to prominence just as the United States was emerging as a superpower and searching for ways to express its newfound economic prosperity. He was part of a generation of architects that sought to propel Modernism from the margins into the mainstream, making it acceptable to ordinary Americans.
Some of his early projects demonstrate the depth of that challenge. A model of a 1939 design for the proposed Smithsonian Gallery of Art in Washington, a composition of low marble forms arranged along a reflecting pool, oozes civic confidence. But the project was rejected by the public: Congress refused to finance it, with opponents contending that it was too modern and clashed with John Russell Pope’s neo-Classical National Gallery of Art, which had just opened across the Mall.
By the time you enter the next gallery, and the 1950s, corporate America had come to realize that architecture could serve as a valuable public relations tool, and the work of Saarinen and his Modernist allies had become part of popular culture. There’s a picture of Saarinen on the cover of Time magazine and a spread in Vogue (written by his fashionable wife, Aline). In another room an advertisement shows a rosy-cheeked Santa sitting in a form-fitting Saarinen chair with a bottle of Coke — a benign picture of the McCarthy era. Such images reinforce Saarinen’s image as a propagandist for establishment America. And many of his commissions — the corporate headquarters and suburban office parks — reinforced the sweeping shifts that reflected the dark side of the postwar era: the racial tensions and white flight, the excesses of the consumer culture, the suburban isolation.
Yet Saarinen cannot simply be dismissed as a capitalist cheerleader. His designs, which became increasingly flamboyant over the years, were an effort to tap into the technical innovation and visual freedom he found in American industrial design as well as an early break with the doctrine that form follows function. The crisp glass facades of his General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich., the first of a series of suburban office parks he completed in the 1950s, were held in place with an aluminum frame and neoprene seals that came straight from windshield design. And although Mies van der Rohe could have designed the taut facades of the I.B.M. Manufacturing and Training Facility in Rochester, Minn., he would have probably abhorred the sparkling blue panels of the exterior.
Similarly, the contoured forms of the furniture he created for the office of General Motors’ chief designer, Harley Earl (shown here in a dreamy composition of sinuous lines that hints at the expressionism of his later work) resemble streamlined car dashboards.
That freedom eventually found its greatest expression in buildings that concerned mobility, like New York’s TWA Terminal and the Dulles International Airport Terminal. The TWA Terminal, in particular, was seen as a betrayal of the belief that form should express structure. To the Modernist mind, its winglike concrete roof, supported by an invisible steel frame, was structurally dishonest. But its curved forms were a perfect metaphor for the American ideal of a mobile society.
When doubt surfaced, it tended to be about what symbolic form this emergent America should take. In the final section of the show we see Saarinen working through a gamut of possible designs for the American Embassy Chancery in London. The work ranged from classically modern to neo-fascist, sensual concave facades to rigid boxes. All of them struggle to fit into the context of the neighborhood. But it is as if Saarinen could not put his finger on a fixed image that America should portray to the world.
The endless searching momentarily pierces the armor of self-confidence and hints at what gave the best architecture of this period its depth: a sense that all was not as it appeared on the surface, that there were more troubled waters — political, social, psychological — bubbling somewhere underneath.
The difference between Saarinen’s era and our own is that we no longer want to appear so naïve. The most serious architects today have not solved the contradictions at the core of Saarinen’s work; they prefer to open them up to public scrutiny.