Film captures genius of Detroit-based architect Eero Saarinen


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Detroit architectural history fans will be spoiled this month as PBS-TV airs the documentary “Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future” as part of its acclaimed American Masters series.

Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) died tragically young of a brain tumor, but in the twelve years before his death he designed an amazing series of iconic projects, including the General Motors Technical Center in Warren and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, outside Dulles Airport from Washington, DC, and the falling bird– –like the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York.

Like his mid-century colleagues Minoru Yamasaki and Edward Durell Stone, Saarinen saw his work, ridiculed by the high priests of the glass box modernism, as too flashy, too emotional, as a mere advertisement for corporate clients. Today’s viewers, however, are more responsive to the beauty and precision of the locations that Saarinen carefully crafted in his Bloomfield Hills studio.


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The film shows Saarinen’s son Eric Saarinen, a filmmaker who shot the film for director Peter Rosen. The younger Saarinen’s relationship with his father’s legacy was complicated because Eero left his family to marry his second wife, who was better at supporting his work.

“When it ended, I really didn’t get a degree with him,” Eric Saarinen told me in a phone conversation. “He kind of booted us out of the house when I was 12 and my sister was 10 and my mother was still in love with him. … Basically, I hated my father and wanted nothing to do with him and avoided him and his work . “

The exterior of Dulles Airport, one of the Washington, DC airports, is seen in 2004 in Herndon, Virginia.

After local architect Robert Ziegelman persuaded the late philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman to fund the film, Eric stepped in as a guide and cameraman and re-learned his father’s genius.

Ziegelman himself worked for the architect for three years around 1960 and found him a warm, dedicated mentor, almost the father figure Eric was missing after Eero left the family. Looking back on the architectural work today, Ziegelman Ziegleman said they stand as outstanding examples of architectural art.

“I was amazed at how well they held up 50 years later,” he said. “The designs are current, there is nothing that looks clichéd.”ed or trite. And I think it was a lesson on what good design can be, just classic stuff. “

Eero Saarinen came to America with his famous father Eliel from their native Finland. Eliel was commissioned to design the Cranbrook Educational Community campus in Bloomfield Hills. Eero Saarinen designed some of the furniture at Cranbook, but struggled under his father’s fame until he embraced the Gateway Arch and GM Tech Center projects.

A number of top-class projects followed, which were inspired by the organic forms of nature and embodied the forward thrust of the Post– –War american life. Projects, including the Dulles Airport and TWA Terminal projects, captured the spirit of the jet age. The brightly enamelled panels and “floating” stairs in the GM Tech Center captured the vibrancy of an automotive industry racing into the future.

The placement of the last link in Gateway Arch, 1965, St. Louis, MO.  A general view of St. Louis is in the background.

Each was different from the next, possibly due to Eliel’s advice to Eero not to “copy anyone, including yourself, never do the same thing twice,” Eric said. “Never repeat yourself. If you are, you fall into style. He taught him not to fall into style.”

The work turned out to be nothing if not brave. “Our architecture is too modest,” Eero once said. “It should be prouder, more aggressive, much richer and bigger than we see today.”

The unique designs didn’t come easily. Eero was known in the architecture world for building dozens of models of a single project to test how each iteration would look and work. His father Eliel had been more instinctive. Some joked that the company made money working father and son under Eliel and lost money under Eero.

Filming his father’s work enabled Eric Saarinen to achieve the closure that he was denied in his childhood. “I was starting to realize how good it was,” Eric told me. “He was obviously very motivated and nothing would stop him.”

The General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan was an important accomplishment by architect Eero Saarinen.

The result was brilliant work that is brilliantly captured Capture in the movie. If you like Detroit architecture don’t miss it.

The film “Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future” will have its premiere Have a premiere nationwide at 8 p.m. TuesdayDecember 27th at 8 p.m. on PBS (see local listings) as part of the American Masters franchise. It will be available on DVD from January.uary 3, 2017 from PBS Distribution.

Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.


Dusty Kennedy