SAARINEN: ONE OF US?by Joseph Masheck
When is architecture going to send packing the hopelessly non-visual, essentially literary “cultural” culture now in its second generation of presumptuously proffering advice? How long do we have to hear otherwise cultivated people blab ignorantly on about how modernism was all cold-hearted right angles and totalitarian bullying?
Last summer’s Granta (no. 108), devoted to Chicago, took for granted the all-too-familiar, cynical anti-modernist call: that the demolition of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe project in Saint Louis proved “utopic” modernism socially unrealistic and ugly in the bargain (never mind that the people who lived there, all on public assistance, were given no support for maintenance and no space for children). Although Chicagoans admit that the Olympics were just an excuse for taking over in-town African American neighborhoods for yuppie development, Granta went along with the typical smokescreen that high-rises are African American housing and hence bad, reproducing an album of color photographs of Chicago public housing blocks to be demolished. The trouble with the supposed evidence is that if you care about architecture, you see that several of the big blocks are (were?) nicely designed in an extended Chicago-Miesian mode, some being (having been?) downright beautiful and worthy of rehabilitation.
At least until January 31st, however, we can review and assess for ourselves the work of a major orthodox modernist architect in a stimulating exhibition of drawings, models, and good photographs, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, at the Museum of the City of New York (Fifth Avenue at East 103rd Street).
The Finnish-American Saarinen (1910-1961) is not unfamiliar in this context, if only owing to those who seem to think that the TWA Terminal (1958-62) at what is now John F. Kennedy International Airport must not be modernist because modernism means rectilinearity, and even they can see that this building is as curvy as Gina Lollobrigida. Surely a main spiritual “function” of the building was to coddle against Reisefieber the many travelers who some fifty years ago were waiting to take their first flight. Well, who said modernism can’t be polymorphous perverse! Actually, I’ve always thought that building had vital entailments, not only in regard to contemporary art—notably the Louisiana-born, ever-verging-on-tacky José de Rivera (1904-1985), whose curvaceous, revolving polished chrome sculptures are rather embarrassingly coincident with Saarinen’s forms, if not his saving amplitude—but also to art history. Ever since it was new it has seemed to me that the voluptuousness of its modernism, following upon Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel (1950-55), related just as vitally to the rediscovery of the Baroque, of which 18th-century rationalists had, one thought, definitively disposed. To this day, when I teach the building I show the similarity of its ground plan to the interpenetrating lobes of the plan of Guarino Guarini’s Church of the Immaculate Conception, Turin, of 1672-97, which was popularly accessible at the time of the terminal’s construction through Henry A. Millon’s still fascinating Baroque and Rococo Architecture (Braziller, 1961).
Other more “normal” U. S. buildings are well presented, though it probably wouldn’t be obvious here how spiffy the General Motors Technical Center, at Warren, Michigan (1948-56), would turn out to be—in a somewhat dumbed-down yet squintingly earnest, American Son of Mies kind of way—except for an inexcusably junky ‘grand’ staircase. Perhaps more appropriately “subjective” photography might have made apparent the excellence of Saarinen’s Kresge Chapel (1950-55), close by his fine contemporaneous Kresge Auditorium, at M.I.T. There is sufficient photographic evidence to think, for instance, that, funnily enough, the somehow more patly formalistic Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale (1956-58), big and swollen, longs for the lyrical articulateness of Pier Luigi Nervi as a designer of stadia and such, while the even tamer Dulles International Airport Terminal at Washington, of 1958-62, is vain and rhetorical with its sagging tent-like roof, its fingertips seemingly barely touching its tilted pseudo-Nervian toothpick piers.
Now I have to note, after 40 years as an art critic, with a Ph.D. in architectural history at that, that this was the first time I’ve ever been denied a copy of an exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, the evaluation of which I would consider part of my critical responsibility. Consequently, I have decided to face the installation using only the wall texts that would be available to an ordinary citizen who might well not be able to afford $50.00 for a paperback catalogue at his or her municipal museum, though this alternative has left me disappointed with one small thing said and, more so, with something larger left, as far as I saw, unsaid. The former is a wall label stating that during World War II, Saarinen “served in Washington, D. C., with the precursor of today’s C. I. A.” Maybe this is only a fashionable pinch of spicy scandal intended to add “spectacle” to the scholarship people supposedly don’t want (the Office of Strategic Services, which was principally concerned, needless to say, with fascism during what our Soviet allies called the Great Anti-Fascist War, was disbanded after the War before being superceded by the C.I.A.).
This seems a bit more dubious, however, in respect to what I didn’t see brought out, namely, that Saarinen’s most popular all-American work was basically an Italian fascist design: the Jefferson National Expansion Monument, or ‘Gateway Arch,’ in Saint Louis, was really just a Xerox of Adalberto Libera’s 1935 projected arch for Mussolini’s Esposizione Universale Roma (“EUR”), planned for 1942 (fascist Year XX), published as a poster in 1940. Libera (1903-1963) was still alive when Saarinen won the 1947 competition with his plagiarized design, dying at the age of sixty while the St. Louis arch was being built (in 1990 it was given a 25-year award by the AIA). Maybe someone will tell me if any of this is in the catalogue. Meanwhile, it seems cynical to insinuate something like sensitive anti-terrorist activity just to make the guy timely, when direct deference to fascist cultural production is the elephant in the room.
Okay, but maybe that is looking too much the way the literary folk do. If we stand back and take it all in, we find a perhaps more operationally important problem: how Saarinen sometimes shows an essentially suburban mentality to the detriment of architecture, and not only in his enthusiasm for transplanting ‘midtown’ business to overly preened landscapes of golf-course restraint. The beautiful John Deere Headquarters, at Moline, Illinois, commissioned in 1956 and executed posthumously in 1961-64, is exceptional not only because it is the first building of Cor-ten steel, but also because it actually permitted an old rural company to stay in its home town. Differently, a building that I think people find too risky to discuss, but which I think may be one of the few cases of a true architectural Minimalism (which has nothing to do with boutiques full of all-black yuppie clothes and attitude) just happens to be a city-type building laid out flat: the 1957-62 Bell Telephone Laboratories at Holmdel, N.J. And wasn’t that where Billy Kluver, technologist to a generation of performance artists, worked?
Otherwise, speaking of suburbanity of outlook, the less said about such a supposedly “creative” idea as the “conversation pit,” the better (even apart from suburban damp and drafts). Even with the sophistication of a basically Euro background, Saarinen was more at ease, in Manhattan, with the Vivian Beaumont Repertory Theater, at Lincoln Center, 1958-65, in its once sensitively urbane landscape setting, than with the CBS Building of 1960-65, near the Museum of Modern Art, which has always struck me as having such a stern, defensive regularity (can’t be too careful in Manhattan) as not to want to concede an entrance door. The TWA Terminal was inside the city limits, though not on an urban site, but even it starts to play into the “Fun City” suburbanization of the great city as a fixture of the wider culture—which in retrospect began when Television City was built in Los Angeles in 1952 (one of the developers bearing the name of the jerk who tore down Pennsylvania Station to build the trash-can Madison Square Garden) instead of inside New York.
JOSEPH MASHECK is an art historian-critic whose most recent book is Texts on (Texts on) Art (Brooklyn Rail Press).