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January 26, 2010
by Linda G. Miller

Event: Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future — AIANY Member Night
Location: Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), 01.11.10
Speaker/Tour Guide: Donald Albrecht — Curator of Architecture and Design, MCNY; Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA — Exhibition Designer
Organizer: AIANY; MCNY
Sponsor: Benjamin Moore

“‘Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future’ at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) is remarkable because the impact of the work on NYC and its environs leaps off the walls,” said AIANY Executive Director Rick Bell, FAIA, at a special after-hours tour of the exhibition for AIANY members led by its curator, Donald Albrecht and exhibition designer, Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA.

Called the “Architect of the American Century,” Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) was widely acknowledged as a leader of the second generation of Modernists who rose to prominence after World War II. “With Saarinen, it was all about ‘the search’ — the search for new ideas, the search for new building types,” according to Albrecht. “Saarinen said that architects of his generation had to go beyond the measly ABC’s of the first generation of Modernists, and his search was to add letters to the alphabet.”

Much of Saarinen’s most recognizable work — TWA Terminal at JFK, Dulles Airport, Vivian Beaumont Theater, F.B. Morse and Ezra Stiles College at Yale, CBS Headquarters (aka Blackrock), John Deere Headquarters, IBM Watson Research Labs, the Gateway National Arch, and Bell Labs — were completed after he died. As Saarinen was reaching the peak of his fame,” observed Stanley Stark, FAIA, “the consensus in support of strict, rigorous modernism was beginning to fracture. Architects like Paul Rudolph, John Johansen, and Philip Johnson, tiring of a style they found to be increasingly sterile and limiting, began to peel off in other directions and were soon to be followed by a new generation of post-war architects who turned their backs on the Bauhaus style with the same abruptness that an earlier generation had spurned the Beaux Arts. But Saarinen seemed to be among the first who embarked upon a new style or stylistic synthesis.”

According to Joseph, the exhibition is like a kit-of-parts, and her team created the environment for the parts in the museum. The core exhibition has been traveling in Europe and the U.S since 2006, and features sketches, working drawings, models, photographs, furnishings, films, and other ephemera from the architect’s career from the 1930s through the early 1960s. One feature distinct to the New York exhibition is the room-within-a-room for Saarinen’s residential projects — most notably, the Miller House in Columbus, IN. Due to its expansive budget, the project allowed Saarinen to work on a grand scale and collaborate with landscape architects and interior designers. While standing in the “room.” Joseph admitted her favorite Saarinen work is the Miller House and commented, “Saarinen reinforced that you have to think about things from concept to detail. It’s so obvious in his work. He wasn’t afraid to work with an interior designer. He wanted to invent something new for each project, whether it was a material or a thickness, to find that one thing everything else can work around.”

“Looking at the fantastic photos of TWA when it was newly open indicates not only what we have lost from daily use, but the expectation that we will soon see aviation-related activity — real activity — return to that wonderful space and see its cocoon-like hibernation spring forth, newly transformed,” concluded Bell. When the exhibition closes on 01.31.10, it will travel to Yale University from 02.19-05.02.10.

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