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Why Eero Saarinen’s ‘50s office was a breeding ground for modernist design

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Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi, Gunnar Birkerts, and even Balthazar Korab worked for the influential modern architect

Eero Saarinen, with his ever-present pipe, working with Kevin Roche at Saarinen and Associates in 1953.
Balthazar Korab/Library of Congress

Kevin Roche remembers his initial interview with Eero Saarinen in 1950. The young architect, having spent the last week drinking and partying in New York City, had been summoned by the famous Finnish-American designer for an 8 a.m. meeting in his room at the Plaza Hotel to talk about a potential job.

Saarinen, who was just getting up, began talking in his slow, deliberate voice at Roche, who had been up all night with his cousin and slowly drifted off into sleep. Saarinen evidently didn’t notice, continuing his discussion about architecture and design. As Roche told Dwell, he eventually woke up with a start as Saarinen said “well, come out to Michigan.” Roche would then borrow some cash, buy an overnight train ticket, and begin working for Saarinen the next day.

Roche had the luck to not only ace the interview, but become a designer, architect, and eventually key associate at one of the more exciting architecture offices of the 20th century. Eero Saarinen and Associates of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, would go on to design some of the most iconic buildings of postwar American architecture, including the TWA Terminal and St. Louis Arch.

During the firm’s short lifespan, from 1950, when Eero took over from his talented father and fellow architect, Eliel, to 1961, when Eero unexpectedly and tragically died during an operation, its work established Saarinen as a legend. What many may not know is how many other famous names passed through the suburban Detroit office.

Along with Kevin Roche, who would help take over the firm after Saarinen’s passing, an extensive list of important—and, in a reflection of the era’s lack of diversity, white and male—architects passed through the office, including John Dinkeloo, Gunnar Birkerts, Robert Venturi, Ralph Rapson, and Cesar Pelli. Even famous architectural photographer Balthazar Korab spent time at the office.

Staff photo behind the Saarinen and Associates office in 1953.
Balthazar Korab/Library of Congress

At a time when Saarinen’s large-scale work for corporate clients—including headquarters for GM and John Deere—helped create the “Industrial Versailles” model of corporate campuses, his organic forms becoming a modernist cornerstone, he was also influencing careers that would continue to shape the architectural discourse for decades to come. While not all would share similar styles—or even agree with Saarinen’s philosophy or approach—many said his view on communities (and use of models and relentless pursuit of new ideas) was an inspiration.

Saarinen would use models as a conversation focus in his office, according to design historian Donald Albrecht. While he would have the final word during those discussions, the dialogues he started still resonate today.

A relentless drive for perfection

When Roche first arrived at the Saarinen office in 1950, it was a small firm, with just 10 employees. That would soon change as the company dug into the mammoth GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, a now-landmarked corporate campus that would take nearly a decade of work to complete, and began expanding with a growing roster of corporate clients.

Roche also remembers seeing Eliel, Eero’s father, then 82, and wondering what the old man was doing around the office. The elder Saarinen, then a living legend who had designed the Cranbrook Campus, a breeding ground for modernist design, would lead the firm until his death in 1950. In many ways, his influence would loom large after his son took the reins.

According to a famous New York Times profile of Eero by Aline Louchheim—which not only built the architect’s public profile but precipitated Saarinen’s divorce and eventual marriage to the journalist—the company’s stark, workmanlike office contained a portrait of his father, with his hands folded complacently. It’s fitting the story was titled “Now Saarinen the Son.”

Eero Saarinen and Alan Tunstall at the office in Bloomfield Hills.
Balthazar Korab/Library of Congress

It’s no surprise Eero would revere his father, as he was both a role model, and boss, for decades. The Saarinen’s family’s design roots went deep. Eero, who was sketching blueprints under his father’s desk by the time he was 5, began working from a young age, helping to design some of the elements of the celebrated Cranbrook campus. His modern, streamlined sensibility clashed with his father, whose style was firmly rooted in the Arts & Crafts movement, and while they had very different ideas, Eero remained deferential when working for the family firm, yet was always competitive. The Saarinens competed against each other to design the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which would later be known as the St. Louis Arch, with the younger architect coming out ahead.

Eero had a chance to run his own firm, be his own man, and get out from under the father for whom he’d worked with and for on dozens of projects. But the younger Saarinen, considered by schoolmates at Cranbrook to lack the natural confidence of his father, would allay some of that self-concern with a relentless drive. The Times profile noted that he would often work until midnight, taking a dinner break to see his family before heading back to the office. Even during weekends, he would talk architecture famously sitting around to talk buildings over beer at a local restaurant. Saarinen supposedly walked into an empty office at 8 a.m., demanding to know where everybody was. He would later realize it was Christmas.

But as the office grew, and moved into a low-slung, modern space in the suburbs in 1953, that drive, and penchant towards self-questioning, would help create an influential body of work. In addition to the Times profile, Saarinen would get the cover treatment from Time magazine in 1956, cementing his celebrity status. Big-name architects and designers would drop in the office at all times, especially former Cranbrook classmate Charles Eames, who would frequently offer Eero feedback, as well as Alexander Girard.

Eero Saarinen studies a scale model of the Trans World Airlines Terminal.
UIG via Getty Images

A hallmark of the firm was models. The office would be “crowded with the discarded skeletons of explorations and experiments,” as Saarinen would test out sometimes dozens of concepts and ideas, seeking the perfect solution to a design challenge. Unlike many firms that used models to sell ideas to clients, Saarinen used them to sell ideas to himself. He sought the best solution and the winning design; Charles Eames once wrote that he was “the most natural architectural competitor that ever lived.”

“Showing him ideas in three dimensions was the way to get him involved, to sway him,” Roche told Metropolis. “The basic ideas, of course, were his.”

The models were often informed by extensive research, according to the Metropolis piece. Eames said that the great works of Saarinen’s brief career just showed how we was willing to put more time into clarifying and solving the unique problems of each project than anybody else had thought of doing. Cesar Pelli remembers doing a footprint study when designing the Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, at Yale University, plastering black-and-white images up on walls around the office. Roche says that when preparing to create the soaring TWA Terminal, they studied the pragmatic aspects of airports, taking out stopwatches to time how long it took planes to taxi, or measure wait times at the ticket counter.

“Eero went around with a stopwatch, measuring everything,” recalls Roche. “‘This took four seconds more than last time.’ Of course, I was just waiting for the goddamn plane to take off so I could get a martini.”

Blurring the line between work and play

For all the iteration and debate—the type of prototyping that forms a hallmark of today’s design thinking—Saarinen was in control. He considered architecture a “personal service,” and liked to see plans through, overseeing the work of his expanding team. The Time cover story said he’d work through 170 feet of tracing paper in a day, testing and trying out new concepts and shapes. Roche remembers working on early versions of the David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale University, famous for the long, curving ceiling that earned it the nickname “the Whale.” Roche, who didn’t like the arch, created several alternative proposals. Saarinen just tossed them out.

“We knew Eero as a bull, he would bully things through,” says Birkerts. “We were dying on the drafting board.”

It could be a terrible grind, but Birkerts, and many other alumni, said that it taught him dedication, devotion, and to never put things off to the next day.

Despite his reputation for hard-charging, focused work, Saarinen adopted a work hard, play hard philosophy. According to Korab, despite working continuously, the office was incredibly fun. With so many employees cycling in and out—he says those with new kids needed to depart for better-paying jobs at larger firms, such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which then boasted 700-plus employees—there were send-off parties continuously. Staff would serve martinis in a crystal searchlight roughly three feet wide.

“They used to refer to the office as Eero’s all-night drive-in because it never stopped working,” Korab told Metropolis.

During warm days, recalls Niels Diffrient, the office suffered from a lack of air conditioning, The solution was filling a massive washtub with a chuck of ice and lemonade, and sometimes, a few bottles of gin.

The legacy of the Saarinen office

Not everyone was enamored with Eero’s ways. Robert Venturi, the famous postmodern theorist, felt like he learned a lot during his ‘50s stint in Bloomfield Hills, but was a little snobbish about Saarinen’s eclecticism and chameleonic ability to adapt different styles to different projects.

Perhaps the office, like Saarinen himself, was better understood posthumously. When Saarinen passed away unexpectedly in 1961, the company was in the midst of relocating to Hamden, Connecticut. Dinkeloo and Roche—who found out about his boss’s passing in the middle of a client meeting in New York—would spend the next few years finishing 10 ongoing projects, including works that would eventually become Saarinen signatures, including the John Deere Campus, the TWA Terminal, and the Arch.

When Saarinen and Associates officially became Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates in 1965, Eero’s outstanding book of work was formally closed. But the influence of Saarinen’s office was only beginning to be felt. Alumni would go on to win Pritzker Prizes and help shape ideas of modernism and post-modernism, whether it was the proliferation of glitzy corporate campuses (Roche), angular late modernism (Birkerts), office towers across the globe (Pelli) or the theoretical foundations of postmodernism (Venturi). Connecting the stylistic dots isn’t as clear cut a process, but based on the descriptions of the company, and its founder’s vision, the inspiration that came from being part of a brief but influential office seems clear.

“We agreed philosophically,” Roche said of his former boss. “I think it’s the responsibility of architecture to support and create communities. And if architects thought of it that way, which they don’t, but if they did, it would be quite a different world.”

As Saarinen himself wrote in Architectural Record the November before he died, “the architect must emerge from his self-made cocoon and expand his vision into the next larger thing.”