Eero Saarinen in Minneapolis: The future is now


Opening Saturday at the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. The sprawling tribute to the Finnish-born American architect marks the first time since 1972 that Minnesota’s two premier art museums have collaborated on the presentation of a single exhibit. “It won’t be another 36 years before it happens again,” promised Walker director Olga Viso, standing beside MIA director Kaywin Feldman at a Thursday morning preview of the exhibit.

Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, an exhibit jointly presented in Minneapolis by the Walker Art Center (1750 Hennepin Ave.) and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (2400 3rd Ave. S.) from September 13, 2008 to January 4, 2009. Exhibit admission at both sites free with gallery admission ($10 at the Walker, free at the MIA).

Saarinen (1910-1961) was remarkably prolific despite his unfortunately abbreviated life. “At age 51,” said Walker curator Andrew Blauvelt at the preview, “most architects are just getting started.” The exhibit, which spans three galleries between the two museums, touches on a number of Saarinen’s most important projects—among them St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, the TWA terminal at New York’s JFK airport, the General Motors Technical Center corporate campus in Warren, Michigan, and Minneapolis’s Christ Church Lutheran.

Walking through the exhibit, Blauvelt noted that Saarinen refused to hew to any one trademark style. Though certain design elements recurred across Saarinen’s work—for example, undulating brick walls figure in both Christ Church Lutheran and MIT’s Kresge Chapel—he never adopted a single signature element like Frank Gehry’s shining steel (seen locally on the Weisman Art Museum). Whereas Gehry has been criticized for dropping the same billowing silver forms wherever he’s paid to do so, Saarinen sought to create unique buildings that fit their surroundings and their purpose. In the process, he pioneered several materials and techniques. For example, he was the first to use Cor-Ten weathering steel in an architectural context (evoking sturdy farm machinery at the Deere and Company headquarters in Moline, Illinois) and the first to use mirrored glass on a building’s exterior (the Bell Telephone Laboratories in bucolic suburban New Jersey, where the glass reflects a grassy field).

The exhibit makes clear that Saarinen was very much a man of his era, working in close cooperation with notable contemporaries such as Ralph Rapson—Minnesota’s recently-deceased architectural giant—and Charles Eames. He was a protégé and colleague of his father Eliel Saarinen, who gave Eero his first professional design work when Eliel enlisted his son to design the furnishings for his building projects. Besides the Gateway Arch, Eero Saarinen’s most recognizable designs might be his furniture: “tulip chairs” and sunken couches dubbed “conversation pits.” (The seating area Saarinen designed for Vassar College’s Noyes House is known to amorous Brewers as “the Passion Pit.”) Blauvelt called the sweeping base that anchors chairs and tables in Saarinen’s Pedestal Series a characteristically sculptural gesture. “He looked beneath ordinary tables and saw a mess—what he called ‘the slum of legs.’ He wanted to clean that up.”

The exhibit—organized by (take a deep breath) the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York, the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki, the National Building Museum in Washington D.C., and the Yale School of Architecture—is appropriately grand in size for a man who helped to define modernist design, but the presentation of Saarinen’s work is disappointingly uninventive. Though well-organized, both the Walker and MIA halves of the exhibit largely comprise photographs and drawings mounted on walls. Several pieces of furniture are also on view, as are a number of detailed models—some created by Saarinen’s studio, some newly-built. There is, however, little attempt to convey the experience of occupying Saarinen’s spaces. To be sure, it’s a daunting curatorial challenge to present an exhibit on architecture within the constraints of an art gallery, but if there’s a really effective way to meet the challenge, this isn’t it.

The Walker/MIA exhibit is welcome evidence that our major local art institutions can collaborate productively, and it will be a rewarding stop for fans of modern design. That said, your best bet for appreciating and paying tribute to Saarinen’s genius might be to kneel in the sanctuary of Christ Church Lutheran and pray that Saarinen’s landmark structures be granted perpetual salvation from the ever-looming wrecking ball.

Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

Image credits, top to bottom: IBM Manufacturing and Training Facility, Rochester, Minnesota, circa 1958, photographer Balthazar Korab, © Balthazar Korab Ltd.; United States Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri, under construction, 1965, from the Collections of Arteaga Photos Ltd.; patent drawing for pedestal chairs, June 7, 1960, courtesy Eero Saarinen Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University.