An Architectural Visionary Revisited

Posted April 30, 2008 at 5:27pm

D.C. residents who have long cursed the system of mobile lounges that shuttle passengers around Dulles International Airport can finally learn more about who’s to blame. An exhibit opening at the National Building Museum this weekend is dedicated to the controversial visionary behind some of America’s most important cultural and architectural landmarks, including Dulles Airport, the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the iconic Tulip chair.

“Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future” grants visitors a broad understanding of the architect’s creative insight, guiding them on a colorful tour of mid-20th-century architecture and design. The exhibit is mainly divided by project category — furniture, academic and corporate buildings, and airport terminals, for instance — and includes a 13-minute film with interviews of relatives and architects who knew Saarinen, adding a personal and emotional touch.

“Shaping the Future” also integrates the architect’s personal style in its layout and design. For example, visitors can sit on stools modeled after Saarinen’s famous Tulip design in front of one of the many other films scattered throughout the gallery.

Although the exhibit likely will be most interesting to architecture or modernist enthusiasts, others may be surprised at how much of Saarinen’s work they recognize. His 1950s furniture designs have become cultural symbols, and most of them are still in production today. The bird-like TWA terminal he designed at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York is still standing, though it has been closed since 2001; JetBlue plans to renovate it soon.

The clean, sweeping curves of Dulles airport’s design are typical of Saarinen’s mid-century modernist style, which was at the center of the second generation of modernist architects seeking to redefine American design after World War II and at the outset of Cold War.

Saarinen believed “the first generation of modern architects set up the ABCs of modern architecture,” exhibit curator Donald Albrecht said.

The second generation improved on the work of the first in “a fevered attempt to increase the vocabulary of modern architecture,” Albrecht said.

Saarinen transformed modern architecture with diverse works that explored new forms and building materials. Born in Finland into a successful family of artists and architects, Saarinen immigrated to the United States as a young boy. His early roots profoundly influenced him as he sought to define America’s national identity at home and abroad. His father, internationally renowned architect Eliel Saarinen, taught him to design holistically by considering the environment of his work.

Saarinen’s designs came at a critical time, as the United States was trying to recast its image abroad and express its power in different ways. And his corporate designs for IBM and General Motors sent a message of American prosperity.

“He presented power less by monument-building and more by business,” Albrecht said. “America is a country of choice, variety and boundless opportunity.”

The exhibit re-examines Saarinen’s work, which often has been sharply criticized as noncontextual. Some of his most controversial designs, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s cylindrical chapel and highly modern auditorium, appear to be out of place among their surroundings. But newly revealed architectural renderings at the exhibit explain that Saarinen intended for the buildings at MIT to be part of a larger architectural and landscape complex, which was never completed.

Dulles airport’s mobile lounges were also part of a much grander vision that never was fully executed, like so many of Saarinen’s plans. He designed Dulles at the height of the glamour age of air travel, anticipating the space craze that would dominate American architecture shortly after his death in 1961.

The airport — one of the most modern airports in the world at its 1962 opening and the first in the United States designed for commercial jets — fulfilled Washington’s need for a second airport and for trans-Atlantic travel. Although Saarinen died before the completion of the project, he proudly called it “the best thing I have ever done.”

Rather than a slow fleet of moon rovers that can make modern travelers feel as if they’re trapped on a “Star Wars” set, Saarinen had envisioned sleekly designed mobile lounges on which passengers could enjoy pre-flight cocktails. The lounges shielded travelers from unpleasant weather and noise experienced during long walks on the tarmac. Saarinen’s luxurious vision was never fully realized, however, and the lounges have since grown obsolete. (In fact, Dulles is one of the last airports in the country to use the system and Dulles plans to do away with it when renovations are complete.)

The designers of “Shaping the Future” do not try to hide the controversial aspects of Saarinen’s work. Instead, the exhibit commemorates both the achievements and failures of one of America’s most influential modern architects, leaving visitors to form their own impressions.

“Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future” will be at the first-floor galleries of the National Building Museum, which is located at 401 F St. NW. The exhibit opens to the public Saturday and will run through Aug. 23. Admission is free, and the museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.