The A+D Museum is flourishing as a hub of activity, raising public awareness of architecture and design. Its current exhibition, Eero Saarinen: a Reputation for Innovation, is on display through January 3rd, and it provides a good introduction to the varied work of this American master. Here are the classic achievements—the St Louis Arch, the TWA Terminal at JFK and Dulles Airport in Virginia—all completed after his premature death in 1961 at age 51. How many more masterpieces might there have been if he had lived as long as his father, the Finnish master Eliel Saarinen? Here, too, are examples of the furniture Eero created for Knoll: the Grasshopper and Womb chairs, and the Tulip chairs and tables that banished what he called “the slum of legs.” A revelation of the A+D show is the 1939 competition-winning design for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art, which was intended to complement, in its architecture and emphasis on contemporary work, John Russell Pope’s National Gallery of Art, then under construction on the north side of the Washington Mall. It’s an accomplished work for a 29-year-old, who was beginning to emerge from the long shadow of his father.
Entries in Eero Saarinen (2)
American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture
by Alice T. Friedman
(Yale University Press, $65)
A brilliant study of post-war American architecture comes in frivolous disguise. The cover illustration is a Slim Aarons tableau of the idle rich: models impersonating trophy wives in playsuits, sipping champagne around a turquoise pool. Neutra’s Kaufmann house is relegated to the far corner. But this image, along with the sleek jet that upstages Saarinen’s TWA terminal on the back cover, illustrates Friedman’s thesis: that modernism won brief popular acceptance in the US through its association with escapism, consumerism, and image-making.
In Europe, modernism had a social conscience and put down deep roots; in the US, Philip Johnson christened it International Style, stripped it of its socialist baggage, and sugar-coated it for the masses. This is a tale of optimism and opportunism; of talented architects like Eero Saarinen, Morris Lapidus, and even Frank Lloyd Wright indulging public fantasies in the decade of the 1950s. It was an era of big corporations and splashy public projects; the rejection of austerity in a supremely confident and prosperous America. As Friedman observes, that decade now seems as remote as the Jazz Age or the Gilded 1890s, and it deserves her thoughtful re-evaluation. The images of sleek buildings and seductive advertising are reason enough to browse this book, but you should buy it for its provocative, compelling text.