By Carol Carter
In a city that produced renowned architects Neel Reid, Philip Shutze and John Portman, it is fitting that the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) brought to Peachtree Street an exhibit of the works of Eero Saarinen, the architect who designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch and Dulles International Airport.
MODA sits directly across the street from the High Museum of Art, an architectural masterpiece designed by Richard Meier, and just around the corner from Ansley Park, where several architecturally important homes grace the streets.
It might be fun as you go about your daily life in Atlanta to test Saarinen’s six pillars of architecture against the city’s architecturally significant structures. The six are:
1. Respect for function
2. Structural integrity
3. Awareness of our time
4. Integration with the environment
5. Expression of meaning
6. Unity of design
Saying that he thought his design of Dulles was the best thing he could have done, Saarinen added, “Maybe it will even explain what I believe about architecture.”
At the MODA exhibit, gazing at wall-sized photographs of the exterior and interior of Dulles, you begin to grasp the meaning behind Saarinen’s six pillars and, perhaps, get a feel for what he did believe about architecture. You might see that the soaring exterior of the airport illustrates pillars No. 2, 5, 6 and 4. And it may occur to you that the highly functional interior of the airport with its many airline check-in desks and busy passengers, above all else, illustrates No. 1.
At the time Dulles was built the suspension bridge style roof of white concrete was the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, eliminating the need for columns. Its sweeping, curved overhang offered protection for the sun’s glare while still allowing expansive glass walls.
“We exaggerated and dramatized this outward slope. . . to give the colonnade a dynamic and soaring look as well as a stately and dignified one,” the architect said.
Of his trade, Saarinen observed, “In a way architecture is really placing something between earth and sky.”
Born in Kirkkonummi, Finland, in 1910, Saarinen is regarded today among the most prolific architects of the 20th century.
One of his works that is said to have wide influence even now was, oddly, never built. The Smithsonian Gallery of Art, a museum of modern art Saarinen designed for the National Mall in 1939, was to be the New Deal “working” museum for everyone. It became an icon of America’s modern movement and catapulted Saarinen, 29 at the time, in to the limelight as a beacon of modernism.
If you’ve ever been in the city of St. Louis, attended a St. Louis Cardinals’ home game or even gazed across the Mississippi River at St. Louis from Illinois, you have seen Saarinen’s Gateway Arch.
Both Saarinen and his architect father, Eliel, entered the 1947 competition for what was then called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Initially, when the winner was announced, everyone thought the prize had gone to the father. But, no, the 37-year-old son had won. Saarinen never saw the arch completed. It was constructed in October 1965, two years after his death. He died two weeks after his 51st birthday, not long after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.
His work ranged from the small – you’ll see his womb chair, his tulip chair, executive chair and grasshopper chair at the MODA exhibit – to the huge. Saarinen’s womb chair became an instant icon. It provides a large cup-like shell where you can curl up and pull your legs in. Ahhh.
While he was still in his teens, Saarinen designed 35 different pieces of furniture for the Kingswood School for Girls. In 1956, he was commissioned to create a terminal for Trans World Airlines at what is today JFK Airport in New York. At MODA, you’ll see the model of the TWA terminal. He designed two building for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a hockey rink for Yale University.
It’s no wonder that Eero Saarinen made the cover of TIME magazine on July 2, 1956.
Carol Carter, who writes for Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, is a founding staff member and former editor of Atlanta Business Chronicle. She served as editor of Atlanta Now magazine, ChopTalk magazine and others. Carol is the author of “JUNIOR DRAGSTER DREAMS: How Sam Found His Own Ride,” a children’s novel.