Artist of the year

There's an installation at the entryway to the new Cranbrook exhibition. Through an oculus-shaped window, an old black-and-white film clip plays, showing a hand printing with architectural precision the name Eero Saarinen. Then, with confidence and flair, the name is signed again, very quickly, backward.

Saarinen supposedly could do this with both right and left hands. He could also draw an architectural plan with one hand, while sketching with the other. A shocking, seemingly unnatural feat, it's an apt metaphor for reconciling the two sides of Saarinen: the traditional and the flamboyant.

Finally, the modestly heralded life and artistic achievements of this wizard of midcentury design and architecture is honored in a full-scale exhibition. Originating in Helsinki, Finland, the North American premiere is at Cranbrook Art Museum, Saarinen's first stop in America.

In that same Saarinen biopic, a revealing photo shows him curled up in his famed, midcentury modern "Womb Chair." The image registers the complexity of — as architecture historian Vincent Scully called him — the most famous unknown architect of the century. Usually thought to be a driven workaholic — he's almost always photographed working — he looks vulnerable, almost fey, dressed in a natty suit and sporting a pipe, his legs effeminately curled up in the chair. Prophetically, he looks sadly out at the camera.

A brain tumor killed Saarinen in 1961. He was 51. During his career he participated in designing a new global identity for America. While such starchitects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were committed to singular visions based on tyrannical aesthetics and philosophical agendas about how things should be built, Saarinen solved each new commission with the emancipated eye of an artist.

The list of his accomplishments is startling. In the 320-acre General Motors Tech Center in Warren, he designed the corporate counterpart to the Palace of Versailles. In the St. Louis arch, a technological marvel, he employed the simplest of forms to construct a breathtaking monument to the gateway of early frontier exploration. At Washington D.C.'s Dulles airport and the TWA Terminal at New York's Kennedy International airport, he built mind-bending forms to celebrate the new phenomenon of domestic jet flight. In many corporate headquarters he delivered designs that served not just as buildings, but identities. Beside these and many other challenging buildings, he made furniture that's still today produced and coveted as masterpieces of modern design.

It's difficult to negotiate the path and ultimate destination of Saarinen's amazingly productive professional life, but more than any other architect of this century we must call him first and foremost an artist. In fact, Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center, once said Saarinen was always a sculptor about to become an architect.

Eero Saarinen was born in Kirkkonummi, Finland, in 1910, the son of Eliel and Loja Saarinen. His father, Eliel, was a renowned Finnish architect of the classical Romantic tradition and Loja was an accomplished textile artist. He grew up in the austerely beautiful Northern landscape, spending his childhood under his father's drawing board, hanging around such eminent artists as Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. This is a pretty heavy legacy to carry, but no matter what project he worked on, Saarinen's work is never far from the arabesque lines of his Finnish forests.

Early in Cranbrook's exhibit is a charcoal drawing of a male nude and a watercolor of his mother Loja. Drawn when he was about 10 years old, they are clearly accomplished works, but more importantly, each shows a desire to solve an artistic problem within the constraints of the selected medium, a strategy he used the rest of his life.

In general, the intro section of this exhibit shows Eero Saarinen is a prodigy, testing and mastering every creative challenge, winning many artistic competitions along the way.

From his Finnish childhood to his 1924 arrival in the United States — where he joined his father at George Booth's Cranbrook estate in building the Art Academy — and until Eliel died in 1950, Eero's life was an apprenticeship for a decade of intense work.

After a year of studying sculpture at the Academie de la Grande Chaumier in Paris, he worked in his dad's Cranbrook studio. He collaborated with modernist furniture designer Charles Eames, who became his lifelong friend (Saarinen named his son Eames) and learned skills related to architecture from metal working to engineering. Upon graduating the Yale School of Architecture in 1934, the 24-year-old was a working architect collaborating with his father.

Art museums usually bring real things to you, whether it's a painting or a sculpture. Hence, architectural exhibitions are generally dull affairs. One can't match walking through the actual design/building. But this exhibit's an exception. Aside from Saarinen's own drawings and designs, we see letters to friends, outrageous "to-do lists," doodles, documentary photos of two generations of marvelously gifted artists and their peers. There are a couple short films including "Monument to the Dream" about the building of the Gateway Arch, and a host of recent digital animation studies of his geometrical drawings that he did on paper, without the aid of computers.

But Saarinen's scale models are next best to the real deal. Each model shows the sculptural inventiveness and technological vision he used to create a new order of architecture. Without him, Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid and other post-digital architects inspired by his extraordinary geometric experimentation wouldn't be so accomplished.

One treat of the Saarinen symposium, held the weekend of the December opening, was a tour through the General Motors Tech Center in Warren. Protected by security guards, the industrial research center is the ultimate gated community and, unless you've got a friend on the inside, is generally not open to the public. Situated around a 25-acre reflecting pool, the still futuristic-looking, Jetsons-like landscape is all open space. This isn't an urban setting for walking from research facility to administration office, but an exurbia space designed with cars in mind. Space seems unlimited. It's open and clean and promises All-American security and strength.

The Tech Center's clean vertical and horizontal lines, punctuated with rectangles of luscious colored brick, could be a giant Mondrian painting. And the buildings are usually associated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's rigid, minimal International Style, but inside, they are anything but Miesian.

Flourishes of rich fabric, exuberant color, elegant furniture (even some Mies furniture) and amazing interior spaces abound — including three monumental staircases, each with their own exotic wood, stone and chrome steel presence. Sculptural forms abound: The great white dome centers a series of 25 elegantly arranged buildings latticed with aluminum frames and green window glass. Graceful willow trees punctuate the landscape and a towering, 132-foot-high, stainless steel water tower sits vigil over it all.

This is the America that Saarinen presented to the world. Even more than the Tech Center, Saarinen's final projects were celebrations of liberated sculptural form executed with new postwar technology, most of which he did not live to see completed. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center's horrific destruction and the sea changes America has seen since midcentury, one wonders if Saarinen would've viewed the collapse as emblematic and what he would've prescribed for our future now.

Cesar Pelli, a Saarinen colleague and a great architect himself, said, "Saarinen, unlike other modernist architects, never acted as if he were in the possession of the truth — architecture for him was work, hard work to get the answers to a given question."

Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future runs through March 30, 2008. Photographing Saarinen, the photos of Richard Knight opens Jan. 25, William Massie: An American House 08 opens March 8. At Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 877-462-7262.

Glen Mannisto is an art critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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