Eero Saarinen - Architect With a Vision
By Michael A. Capps
In 1922, at the age of 12, Eero Saarinen took first place in a matchstick design contest. It was the first of many competitions he would win in his life, and foreshadowed his remarkable career as an architect. Born in Finland in 1910, Eero Saarinen was the son of Eliel Saarinen, a noted and respected architect. His mother, Loja Saarinen, was a gifted sculptor, weaver, photographer, and architectural model maker. Eero grew up in a household where drawing and painting were taken very seriously, and a devotion to quality and professionalism were instilled in him at an early age. He was taught that each object should be designed in its "next largest context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, environment in a city plan."
In 1923 the Saarinens immigrated to the United States and settled in Michigan, north of Detroit, where Eliel administered the Cranbrook Institute of Architecture and Design. Between 1930 and 1934, Eero studied at the Yale School of Architecture. After a two-year fellowship in Europe, he returned to Cranbrook in 1936 to become an instructor of design and his father's partner in the architectural firm. It was during this period that he began to build a reputation as an architect who refused to be restrained by any preconceived ideas.
After working with his father on a number of projects, Eero Saarinen had a chance to express his own philosophy when he entered the 1947 architectural competition for Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. This was his first opportunity to establish himself as an independent architect, and he set out to design a monument not only to Thomas Jefferson and the nation, but also to the modern age. For him, "The major concern ...was to create a monument which would have lasting significance and would be a landmark of our time... Neither an obelisk nor a rectangular box nor a dome seemed right on this site or for this purpose. But here, at the edge of the Mississippi River, a great arch did seem right."
He carefully studied the site and its surroundings to ensure that the design encompassed the whole environment. His opinion was that, "...all parts of an architectural composition must be parts of the same form-world." The Arch was to rise majestically from a small forest set on the edge of the great river. Saarinen considered it to be perfect in its form and its symbolism.
The Arch was Saarinen's first great triumph, but there would be many more. Projects such as the General Motors Technical Center near Detroit, the TWA Terminal in New York City, and the Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. brought him acclaim and established him as one of the most successful and creative architects of his time.
As his designs show, Eero Saarinen was a man of vision. He died of a brain tumor in 1961 at the age of 51, and is buried in Michigan. Though his life was tragically cut short, his vision lives on through the structures that he created. The Gateway Arch marked the beginning of his career just as the "Gateway to the West" marked the beginning of a new life for countless pioneers. In both cases the desire was to move boldly toward the future. The Arch is ultimately a monument to all those with a vision; Thomas Jefferson, the American pioneers, and Eero Saarinen.
Last updated: April 10, 2015