A son's journey to forgive his father, Eero Saarinen

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

When Eric Saarinen was 12, his father -- celebrated modernist architect Eero Saarinen -- abandoned his first family and took up with a reporter who'd profiled him in the New York Times.

In short order, Eric, his sister and mother were pushed out of their house, and had to leave Cranbrook's idyllic bubble for Massachusetts. It was a violent uprooting for a young boy who'd spent his childhood ranging across Cranbrook's 300-odd acres of rolling lawn, forest, and breathtaking architectural set pieces designed by his grandfather, Eliel Saarinen.

The bitterness associated with this forced march permanently soured Eric's relationship with Eero, who died in 1961 when his son was 19.

"I hated my father," said Eric, 78, speaking by the Triton reflecting pools at the Cranbrook Art Museum. It was a dark passion he couldn't shake.

Eric Saarinen collaborated on a 2016 film about his father, modernist architect Eero Saarinen. Now he's tackling his grandfather, Cranbrook designer Eliel Saarinen. He holds one of Eliel's books.

But unexpectedly, Eric -- a filmmaker and director of commercials by trade -- got pulled into shooting a PBS documentary about his father, the 2016 "Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future," and the experience changed his life. At a stroke, it purged the gall that had plagued him for decades.

Now Eric's moved from Los Angeles to Bloomfield Hills, to produce a similar film about his grandfather Eliel, creator of Cranbrook -- another step in an unlikely story of family reconnection late in life.

"The Architect Who Saw the Future" went a long way toward establishing, once and for all, Eero Saarinen's place in American architecture.

Birmingham architect Robert Ziegelman started his career working in Eero's Bloomfield Hills office, and was the individual who decided his former boss deserved documentation, and pushed hard to make it happen.

Eero's reputation had suffered in part from his untimely death from a brain tumor, before most of his designs were ever built. It also suffered from the disdain of International Style architects, who deplored the fact that his buildings all looked different, with no unifying aesthetic tying them altogether.

"Eero went quiet for a long time," said Ziegelman, a principal at Luckenbach Ziegelman Gardner Architects who ended up being associate producer on the film, "when nobody talked about him. Even when I started the Eero film 10 years ago, it was still pretty quiet."

With the film, Eric -- despite his resentments -- hoped to lodge his father in the canon.

"The only thing I really couldn't do for my father was make him happy," Eric said. "He once said he’d like to have a place in architectural history, however, and that was the one thing I could give him."

The Eero documentary, produced and directed by Peter Rosen for the public network's "American Masters" series, wove Eric's personal story into a tour of his father's most-important buildings, including St. Louis' Gateway Arch, the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, and the futuristic, Jetsons-like TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport.

Filmed in high definition and employing drones for aerial shots, the film manages to be breathtaking and moving at the same time -- no small feat in the world of architectural documentary.

But when Eric was first contacted, he wanted nothing to do with the project.

"Peter Rosen approached me," Eric said, "but  I said no, explaining that I hated my father." Over the course of the next year, however, Rosen kept pushing, and Eric found himself regarding the idea with new eyes.

"Peter made the argument that if somebody else did it, they'd screw it up," he said. "I realized here was a chance to shoot my father's stuff. I promised myself I would do him proud, in effect doing commercials for his work -- selling it."

It's a task he accomplished handily. Nonetheless, catharsis didn't come instantly.

"It took about a year," Eric said. "And I didn’t really see it coming. I was sitting by the lake at the GM Tech Center one day and it got me. Suddenly I was forgiving my father. But," he added, "it’s a process. You can forgive little by little. It doesn’t happen all at once."

Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, and former director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, thinks Eric was driven to do the Eero film to find out just who his father was -- and applauds the fact that the son's relationship to his famous father became part of the narrative.

"The film is a wonderful hour about the life and work of Eero Saarinen, a very important architect," Wittkopp said. "On the other hand, it's also very much a story about a father and son. Indeed, when Eric was creating the film, I think he was a little nervous about how people would react to that."

Wittkopp says he was "blown away" by the documentary, and argues that Eric's story was key to its success. "That’s one of the salient features that makes it so important," he said, "bringing together his personal and professional voice."

Eliel Saarinen's dining hall on Cranbrook's red-brick campus is a striking sight in the afternoon sun.

He hopes Eric will bring the same voice to the Eliel documentary.

Eric argues that, a bit like his father, Eliel has been slighted by architectural history. Others seem to agree. In an interview Eric recorded with superstar architect Frank Gehry, the latter called Eliel one of the 20th century's greats.

Ziegelman, who's executive producer on the current project, called Eliel's work "classical," in the sense that it forms a foundation that others built upon.

"Eliel is like the rock, the beginnings of modern architecture," he said, noting that he was unusual "in treating each building as a separate design, and not ever copying himself. He was probably one of the first to espouse that idea."

For his part, Eric -- who flies to Finland Aug. 12 to raise money for the film -- thinks the story of his grandfather, who moved to the United States when he was about 50 after taking second place in the competition for a new Chicago Tribune tower, has pathos and universal appeal.

"I want to produce something that will be inspiring not just to architects, but to everyone," Eric said. "My grandfather's life was so inspired. He came up from nothing. The generation before him? The family was all penniless serfs."

The statue commonly known as the "Chinese Dog" (it's actually a lion) regards Eliel Saarinen's Cranbrook Art Museum.


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'Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future'

The documentary is available for rental or purchase online.