August 20: the Saarinens

2012/08/20 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1873 Eliel Saarinen was born and thirty-seven years later his son Eero was born.

Plenty of sons have followed their fathers into the wild world of architecture but few (probably none) did so with quite the one-two punch that the Saarinens dealt twentieth-century architecture.

Born in Finland, Eliel breathed in the wonderful creative air of the late nineteenth century and exhaled a string of complex and fascinating buildings.  In tune with the broader art nouveau movement, he drew from the stores of Finnish vernacular, Classical and Gothic traditions  and his own deep imagination to design a striking range of wonderful buildings that define his early career, including his own house, Hvitträsk (1902) to the Helsinki Central Railway Station (1904).  Through the decades, Eliel took on lots of projects at all scales, from bank notes to city plans, at home and abroad.  Surely he is rivaled only by Alvar Aalto for the title of Finland’s greatest architect, and may have the edge on Aalto for his broader international influence (and probably the quality of the buildings too).  Already famous in Europe, Eliel made a huge splash in America after winning second place in the competition for the Tribune Tower in Chicago.  Although the winning Gothic design is an irreplaceable part of the skyline, Eliel’s proposal was more prophetic of the stylized-streamlined-moderne skyscrapers soon to rise in big cities nationwide.

In addition to exercising influence over the course of architectural design and practice, he worked at Cranbrook (no doubt feeling at home among the Arts and Crafts-inspired buildings already built there) and in the architecture department at Michigan.  Even as his approach to architecture reflected the values of Modernism later in his career, his buildings never lost something of the care for detail and texture of his earlier work in Finland.  The First Christian Church, built in the unexpected architectural mecca of Columbus Indiana in 1942, is a case in point.  In spite of a blocky mass, its scale and the presence of the campanile, as well as the detailing around the portal and obvious Christian symbolism express its function.  Likewise, the interior is simple, even sparse, but recalls traditions of church architecture (scale, materials, light) that make it one of the finest twentieth-century churches anywhere.

Although he died in 1950, Eliel Saarinen’s influence survives in his many designs, his legacy in practice and education, and also through his son.  At the age of thirteen, Eero emigrated with his father and would have a distinguished career of his own (although he survived his father by only eleven years)–but more of that later.

Image: First Christian Church, Columbus (from this source)

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