Eero Saarinen's fingerprints are all over mid-century design's greatest hits, and even if you can't pronounce his name, you definitely know his tulip chair. From the St. Louis Gateway Arch, to the Dulles Airport main terminal to the grasshopper chair, the gamut of the architect's best known works are now on view as the A+D Museum hosts the traveling exhibit “Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation.” The show also features some of his recently uncovered, lesser-known projects, and a peek into the secret life he led at the pinnacle of undercover government espionage.
The Finnish native Saarinen was best known in Los Angeles for his collaboration with Charles Eames on the mid-century case study house No. 9 for John Entenza (the editor of Arts & Architecture Magazine, and the figurehead behind the case study house experiment of residences made by major architects), which sits adjacent to other case studies on the famous one-acre plot up in the Pacific Palisades. It's neighbored by No. 8 (the Eames House), No. 18 (by Rodney Walker), and No. 20 (Richard Neutra's Bailey House). Saarinen is also well known for his cavalier stand on modernism's banal forms too, calling much of the formal vocabulary at the time, “the measly ABC of architecture.”
Less known is Saarinen's recently uncovered work by curator, architect and historian Mina Marefat, who's been dutifully gathering research on Saarinen for years. Marefat organized “A Reputation for Innovation,” and her discoveries include insights into Saarinen's special circumstances within Washington D.C.'s power circles, and his appointment as a department chief in the OSS (the pre-cursor to the CIA).
“That meant essentially that he oversaw all visual communication for the OSS,” explains Marefat. “The OSS was competing with Hitler's propaganda machine at the time and the U.S. had to compete. That work included pilot models of new weapons and devices, models for use by military schools, and graphic public propaganda…He also designed the war room in the White House.”
Secret lives are nothing new for architects — we all know Frank Lloyd Wright was a philanderer, Philip Johnson was a Nazi sympathizer, and Louis Kahn had 3 secret wives and families going on at once — but unlike the others, Saarinen kept it professional and on the proverbial down low. “He never mentioned it in any of his correspondence or letters,” says Marefat.
But no amount of fame, regard or high level connections could save Saarinen's most controversial work when it came up against the classically-minded, aesthetic conservatives within the federal government. In what may be the most significant project on view at the A+D, the never-realized Smithsonian Gallery would've been D.C.'s MOMA on the mall — if it hadn't been nixed before breaking ground.
With its extended bar buildings and stacking volumes, programmatic innovation, space for artists in residence, and areas for interaction between the public, arts happenings and exhibits, the proposed Smithsonian Gallery made perfect sense for the modern city Washington D.C. would become in the early 40's. But because of its lack of marble columns and filigree decoration (in other words, because it was modern), the gallery was dead on arrival to the desk of Edward Bruce, the federally-appointed head of the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, and a champion for the classical style. “At first, it was shelved because there was a moratorium on construction during World War II, but Bruce played a role in blocking the project,” Marefat says.
The ironic correlation between the Saarinen controversy of the early 1940s and the current controversy taking place on the national mall regarding , is not lost on Marefat. She sees a direct trajectory between Saarinen's unrealized gallery and Gehry's work (Gehry's proposed monument has been criticized as too modern, out-of-place, and an eyesore on the mall).
“It's history repeating itself,” she says. “Just look at Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial, which was derided as too minimal or too modern when it was proposed. Everyone knows Lin's memorial has gone on to become one of the most beloved monuments in D.C.” Says Marefat of Saarinen's denied proposal, “I think it too would've been as beloved as any monument in the city, if it had been built.”
Saarinen's work is on view until January 3, 2013 at the A+D Museum, 6032 Wilshire Blvd. (323) 932-9393.