Eero Saarinen: Biography, Works, Awards

Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American architect and industrial designer, is known for his mid-20th-century buildings and furniture designs. He was born in 1910 in Finland and immigrated to the U.S. in 1923; Saarinen’s early design exposure came through his father, Eliel Saarinen, a noted architect. He began his architectural journey at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, later joining his father’s firm and teaching at Cranbrook. Saarinen became a U.S. citizen in 1940 and closely collaborated with American designers like Charles and Ray Eames. Saarinen’s architecture represents a shift from mid-20th-century modernism to a more expressive form, not adhering to a single style but developing unique designs for each project. His accomplishment lies in expanding the aesthetic possibilities of modern architecture, introducing sculptural forms and expressive designs, as seen in the TWA terminal’s representation of flight. Saarinen’s work remains influential and widely used, indicating its lasting impact. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the TWA Flight Center are among Saarinen’s most iconic works. Saarinen’s contributions to architecture include expanding modernist vocabulary with expressive forms, pioneering thin-shell concrete construction, and influencing furniture design with creations like the Tulip chairs. Although not a controversial figure, Saarinen’s unique approach to each project deviated from strict modernist norms, earning him widespread acclaim. His designs symbolized mid-century American optimism. Among other legendary architects are Walter Gropius, David Adjaye, and Richard Rogers, each contributing distinctively to modern architecture. Gropius founded the Bauhaus school, Adjaye is known for culturally influenced designs, and Rogers for high-tech modernism. Saarinen designed various structures, including the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Dulles International Airport Terminal, TWA Flight Center, and the Womb Chair. These designs showcase his range from monumental public structures to intimate furniture pieces. Educated in sculpture in Paris and architecture at Yale, Saarinen’s studies laid the foundation for his innovative designs. He influenced designers like Charles Eames and Florence Knoll by teaching at Cranbrook. Students can learn from Saarinen’s commitment to unique, site-specific solutions, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the belief in architecture’s power to uplift. 

Who is Eero Saarinen?

Eero Saarinen was a renowned Finnish-American architect and industrial designer who created iconic buildings and furniture designs in the mid-20th century. He was born on Saturday, August 20, 1910, in Kirkkonummi, Grand Duchy of Finland, Russian Empire, located about 24km(15 miles) west of the capital city of Helsinki. His father was the acclaimed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950), and his mother was textile artist and sculptor Loja Saarinen (1879-1968). Eero immigrated with his family to the United States in 1923 when he was 13. They first lived briefly in Evanston, Illinois, before settling in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which is about 32km (20 miles) north of Detroit. Eero’s first recognition came at age 12 when he won first prize in a Swedish matchstick design competition. His architectural education began working under his father at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, which Eliel Saarinen had been commissioned to design the campus and buildings in the 1920s. In 1936, Eero returned to Michigan to work for his father’s firm and teach at Cranbrook. He also began designing his furniture, lamps, and other items for Cranbrook buildings. Eero Saarinen became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1940. He taught for over a decade at Cranbrook while practicing architecture with his father, bringing him into close creative contact with influential American designers like Charles and Ray Eames. 

What type of architecture is Eero Saarinen representing?

Eero Saarinen’s architecture represented a transition from the stark glass box modernism of the mid-20th century to a more sculptural and expressive form of modernism. He did not subscribe to any one architectural style but believed in developing an appropriate design for each project based on the context and needs of the client. This philosophy of “the style for the job” produced designs like the sweeping concrete forms of the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport and the simple brick buildings of the residential colleges at Yale. Common themes in Saarinen’s work include fluid, organic shapes, integrating architecture and landscape, structural innovation, and humanistic attention to how people experience and inhabit his buildings.

What is Eero Saarinen‘s great accomplishment?

Eero Saarinen’s most significant accomplishment was expanding the aesthetic possibilities of modern architecture while still respecting functional needs. At a time when strict glass box modernism dominated, Saarinen introduced more sculptural forms and expressive designs that communicated vital aspects of his projects, like the feeling of flight in the TWA terminal. He also pioneered structural innovations like thin-shell concrete construction and showed how modern architecture could be humane. The fact that so much of Saarinen’s work remains in use today with minimal alteration is a testament to his vision and lasting influence on architecture.

What is Eero Saarinen‘s most important work?

The most important work of Eero Saarinen is The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, a 630-foot tall stainless steel monument designed by Eero Saarinen that opened in 1965 as a memorial to the westward expansion of the United States. The TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City was also designed by Saarinen and opened in 1962 with a distinctive thin shell concrete roof; it closed in 2001, but the head house was preserved as part of a new hotel. Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, was constructed from 1949 to 1956 as a suburban campus for GM’s design and engineering operations, becoming an influential corporate headquarters model that conveyed economic power through modernist architecture. 

1. Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri

Gateway Arch is the most iconic work of Eero Saarinen’s career. It was constructed between 1963 and 1965. This 630-foot (192-meter) triangular-shaped arch is the tallest artificial monument in the United States. Built entirely out of stainless steel plates on the west bank of the Mississippi River, the arch soars upwards with a precisely curved shape that narrows gently as it climbs to its apex high above downtown St. Louis. As the nation’s “Gateway to the West,” where Lewis & Clark, early pioneers, and multitudes of immigrants once passed through on trips westward, the Gateway Arch memorably symbolizes this history. But equally importantly, Saarinen designed it as a remarkably slim, structural form that proves the possibilities of mid-20th century engineering and materials. The arch has become an internationally recognized emblem for St. Louis.  

2. TWA Flight Center Terminal

TWA Flight Center terminal at Kennedy Airport was constructed between 1956 and 1962 for Trans World Airlines’ hub in New York City. Saarinen conceived its magnificent concrete shell roofline to conjure the image of a soaring bird, with four cantilevered sections angling upwards as if ready to take flight. The building’s interior complements this, bathed in light admitted by broad glass exterior walls and populated by curvaceous sculptural shapes, including balcony railings that Saarinen compared to the navigation bridges of ocean liners. The TWA terminal crystallized air travel’s aura of luxury and adventure in the 1960s. Though currently closed, it remains beloved for its dramatic aviation-themed architecture.  

3. General Motors Technical Center 

General Motors Technical Center was established as a hugely influential model for the postwar American corporate campus. Constructed from 1949 to 1956 in suburban Warren, Michigan, its multiple low, rectangular glass office structures are interwoven with lush green spaces, smooth reflective pools, and bright open pavilions accented by steel frames and porcelain cladding. With cars prominently displayed in showroom-like lobbies amidst vast laboratory facilities purpose-built for automotive research and engineering, Saarinen conceived the GM center as an “Industrial Versailles” suited for the leading American carmaker. It signaled corporate capitalism’s economic dominance after World War II and became a globally recognized template conveying sleek, spacious, modern precision.

Eero saarinens gm technical center mid century modern marvel in warren michigan
Eero Saarinen’s GM Technical Center Mid-Century Modern Marvel in Warren, Michigan

How did Eero Saarinen contribute to architecture?

Eero Saarinen made several critical contributions to architecture in his relatively brief career. He expanded the modernist vocabulary with his expressive, sculptural forms while working within a functionalist framework. His willingness to develop unique solutions for each project liberated architecture from strict doctrinaire modernism without discarding the core principles of the movement. Saarinen also made significant technical contributions, pioneering thin shell concrete construction and helping advance the design of airports and other infrastructure. His furniture designs, like the Tulip chairs for Knoll, also had tremendous influence. 

Did Eero Saarinen change the architecture industry?

Yes, Eero Saarinen changed the architecture industry despite his untimely death at age 51. Saarinen paved the way for a more diverse, expressive architectural language that still influences prominent architects today like Frank Gehry. His structural innovations with concrete opened new doors for architectural form. He also changed how major infrastructure like airports could be designed for better human functionality. Saarinen showed how modernism could be humane and uplifting instead of cold and sterile. The popularity of his buildings made modern architecture more appealing to the general public as well. Even though each of his designs differed, they shared an elevated monumentality and sculptural power that expanded modernism’s aesthetic range. Saarinen left an indelible and influential mark on architecture in his short but brilliant career.

Was Eero Saarinen ever controversial in any way?

No, Eero Saarinen was not controversial during his lifetime. His willingness to develop a unique solution tailored to each architectural problem was certainly unorthodox compared to strict modernist doctrine. His work was well received by clients and the press from early in his career, ensuring a steady stream of prominent commissions up to his untimely death. Saarinen’s designs were often viewed as uplifting symbols of mid-century American optimism, as evidenced by the popularity of buildings like the Gateway Arch and Dulles Airport terminal. He avoided personal scandal or controversy in his private life as well. So, while his architecture was mold-breaking, Eero Saarinen was not a controversial figure during the peak of his career. His reputation as an essential American architect has only grown since his death.

Who are the most famous architects in modern history besides Eero Saarinen?

The most famous architects in modern history besides Eero Saarinen are Walter Gropius, David Adjaye, and Richard Rogers. First, Walter Gropius was a pioneering German architect and founder of the Bauhaus school. He studied at advanced institutions in Munich and worked under modern masters Peter Behrens and Mies van der Rohe before opening his iconic Bauhaus school in 1919, which molded many young avant-garde designers. Gropius’ Fagus Factory brought sleek, unadorned curtain walls to industrial buildings, while structures like his Bauhaus school building and New York’s Pan Am Tower shaped the international style. Gropius emigrated to teach at Harvard, and his writings like The New Architecture and the Bauhaus further spread modernism’s ethos. He received the AIA Gold Medal shortly before his death. Second, David Adjaye is a prominent British architect known for fusing modern design with cultural influences. Following studies at London’s Royal College of Art, his early houses drew praise, leading to commissions like Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Adjaye’s most acclaimed achievement is Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture – its tiered bronze corona references Yoruban art. At the same time, its ornamental lattice shell conveys oppression and uplift. Adjaye has shown architecture’s power to nuance global identities, earning awards like the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal. Lastly, Richard Rogers is an acclaimed Italian-British architect recognized for high-tech modernism fusing industrial and sublime. After architectural studies at Yale alongside Foster and Sainsbury, Rogers returned to England, where the Fun Palace Cultural Center and Lloyd’s Insurance Tower made waves for exposed steel/glass engineering and flexible spaces. He earned architecture’s highest honor – the 2007 Pritzker Prize.

What did Eero Saarinen mainly design?

These are designs Eero Saarinen did:

  • Jefferson National Expansion Memorial: Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is the iconic 630-foot (192-meter) monument in St. Louis, Missouri. It consists of a vast curved stainless steel arch built right on the bank of the Mississippi River. The arch curves upward in a smooth catenary shape, with the cross-sections formed by double-walled triangular pieces of stainless steel panels filled with concrete for stability. It symbolizes St. Louis’ history as the “Gateway to the West” for American explorers and settlers.
  • Dulles International Airport Terminal: The main terminal at this airport in Chantilly, Virginia, features a dramatic, swooping roof suspended from massive concrete columns, angling upward over the building almost like a giant wing. The top has a steel structure with concrete panels but appears to float ethereally over the spacious glass-walled interior ticketing area. The terminal evokes a sense of flight.
  • TWA Flight Center, JFK Airport: TWA Flight Center is a former terminal featuring a thin-shell concrete structure crafted into four individual curved shells that join together in an uplifted shape inspired by bird wings. The building interior complements this, with curving concrete forms throughout and ticketing counters built like navigation bridges on a jetliner. It expressed the romanticism and excitement of 1960s air travel.
  • Womb Chair: Womb Chair is Saarinen’s iconic lounge chair design with a sculpted, enveloping exterior crafted from molded fiberglass resembling a cocoon or womb. The exterior shell sits in a steel rod base, allowing the chair to rock or swivel gently. It is padded with foam cushions and fabric upholstery on the interior for a comfortable seat.
  • Miller House: Miller House is a modernist Columbus, Indiana, home with glass walls opening out onto nature, with an open floor plan anchored by a partially sunken central living room. The living room’s circular “conversation pit” with cushions creates an inward-focused communal space while the transparency of the glass walls blurs boundaries between interior and exterior.

Where did Eero Saarinen study?

Eero Saarinen studied sculpture at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière while living in Paris, France, from 1929 to 1930. He then studied architecture at the Yale School of Architecture, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1934. Saarinen won a traveling fellowship upon graduation, spending a year traveling in Europe and North Africa. He later returned to the architectural department at Yale, receiving a Master of Arts degree in 1949.

Did Eero Saarinen have any famous teachers or students?

Yes, teaching at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan alongside his father, Eliel, Eero Saarinen interacted with and taught many students and associates who had hugely successful careers themselves. These included Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll, Kevin Roche, and Robert Venturi. Many young architects, like Kevin Roche and Cesar Pelli, worked under Eero at his firm, Eero Saarinen and Associates. So, while he had no formal pupils, his mentorship profoundly shaped some of the top design talents of the postwar decades.

How can students learn from Eero Saarinen’s work?

Students interested in architecture can learn much from studying Eero Saarinen’s work. His willingness to develop unique, site-specific solutions for each problem can inspire architects to avoid repeating stale formulae and meet every new challenge creatively. Saarinen’s integration of architecture with other arts like sculpture, textile design, and landscape architecture also provides a model for interdisciplinary learning and collaboration across creative fields. His structural innovations likewise offer important technical lessons that are still applicable today. Saarinen’s belief in architecture’s power to uplift and inspire meaning for people remains highly relevant to ongoing debates about the social value of design. For many reasons, Saarinen’s buildings reward close study by future architecture students even decades later.

1 thought on “Eero Saarinen: Biography, Works, Awards”

  1. Saarinen was ahead of his time, I was fortunate to visit the TWA terminal in the early 70s now a hotel and Dulles airport. Definitely both designs are unique in their forms and function. No computers at the time and no generated computer programs, just imagine if he lived during those times definitely the architectural world would have been elevated to a different level.

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