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Doc traces meteoric career of architect Eero Saarinen

PBS presents ‘Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future’ on Tuesday, which traces the Detroiter’s remarkable career



Eero Saarinen designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Eero Saarinen, son of the man who built Cranbrook, was a modernist architectural giant just hitting his stride when he was felled by a rapidly advancing brain tumor in 1961.

He died on the operating table at the University of Michigan Hospital. He was just 51.

Saarinen was the creative genius behind the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Jetsons-style TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport, the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., and much of the furniture at Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills.

On Tuesday, PBS “American Masters” will present “Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future,” which traces the meteoric trajectory of this remarkable career.

Giving the story added punch is the fact that it’s narrated by Eric Saarinen, Eero’s son from his first marriage to sculptor Lilian Swann Saarinen. When Eero married his second wife, New York Times art critic Aline Bernstein Louchheim, he largely abandoned his original family.

What could have been just a straight profile of a significant architect morphs into a deeper story about a son’s quest to know and reconcile with his late father,

“I hated my father,” Eric said by phone from his home south of Los Angeles. He was just 12 when his father left his mother.

“We were kicked out of the house,” he said. “That was an awful thing. My father kept the house, so all our friends, and the school right next door — that was all gone.”

Eric, his sister and mother moved to Massachusetts.

Eric, who’s spent decades filming TV commercials, was initially reluctant to sign on when first approached by filmmaker Peter Rosen, who’s produced “American Masters” episodes on Jascha Haifetz, Garrison Keillor and Arthur Rubinstein.

Finally Eric gave in, on the condition that he act as director of photography, as well as narrator — instinctively recognizing that photographing his father’s work, which he didn’t know well, might clear a path to understanding the man whose memory had been, up ’till then, mostly bitter.

“So I had to study up,” he said. “I had a pile of books probably three feet high of all my father’s work, because I really wanted this to be a true story.”

The three-year project, Eric said, ended up being “very cathartic and psychologically centering for me. My whole goal,” he added, “was to raise my dad out of the ashes.”

History has not necessarily been kind to his father, though he’s come in for more-sympathetic appraisal in recent years.

Eero, whose practice was in Bloomfield Hills, was always an outlier in the modernist movement. His chief sin was to produce some buildings, like the 1962 TWA Terminal, that were downright sculptural in an era that deplored any deviation from the rectilinear norm.

“Saarinen was not afraid to be expressive,” said Reed Kroloff, former director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. “And that was heresy. It became less so in the later ’60s,” but he was dead by then.”

Critics complained that Saarinen’s buildings all looked different, that they didn’t advance a consistent design philosophy.

And indeed, the rectilinear elegance of Saarinen’s John Deere headquarters in Moline, Illinois, for example, has little in common with the swooping curves of the TWA Terminal.

Yale University architectural historian Vincent Scully sniffed that Saarinen’s buildings were nothing more than corporate branding — architectural billboards, if you will.

“Like most critics at the time,” Scully told The Detroit News in 2007, “I didn’t like his work.”

But over the years he had a change of heart.

“The thing I feel worst about is TWA,” Scully said. “I didn’t fly out of it until after Saarinen’s death, and it’s really remarkable.”

One of the pleasures for Metro Detroiters in the PBS special will be seeing the Cranbrook Educational Community, where Eero grew up and first started designing with his father, Eliel, filmed by a master.

“When Eric decided to work with Peter Rosen,” said Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Archives, “he knew the story had to be grounded at Cranbrook.”

The project in many ways sprang from local sources. One of the prime motive forces was Bloomfield Hills architect Robert Ziegelman, who trained in Saarinen’s office when he was young.

For his part, Wittkopp, who’s an architect, places Eero Saarinen in the top ranks of 20th-century architects.

“I like to quote Minoru Yamasaki,” he said, alluding to the Detroit architect who designed the World Trade Center towers in New York. “He often said Eero was a sculptor about to become an architect.”


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‘Eero Saarinen:

American Masters’

8 p.m. Tuesday

Detroit Public TV — Channel 56


Saarinen, whose practice was in Bloomfield Hills, was the architect behind the General Motors Technical Center in Warren.

Significant Eero Saarinen buildings

1956: General Motors Technical Center, Warren

1960: U.S. Embassy, London

1962: TWA Terminal, Kennedy Airport, New York

1963: Dulles Airport, outside Washington, D.C.

1964: John Deere World Headquarters, Moline, Ill.

1965: Gateway Arch, St. Louis