*Saarinen, Eliel


Eliel Saarinen

Eliel Saarinen

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Eliel Saarinen

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
(Eliel Saarinen)

Eliel Saarinen - armchair

Eliel Saarinen - armchair

The 50-year career of Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) can be divided into two parts. Practicing in Finland for 25 years, he first established an international reputation based on his “National Romantic” and Jugendstill-inspired architecture. The second phase of Eliel Saarinen’s career began when he emigrated to the United States in 1923, after placing second the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition. While practicing in the United States, Eliel Saarinen also assumed the role of educator, first at the University of Michigan and then at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Eliel Saarinen not only designed the Cranbrook complex but, under his stewardship, it became one of the most influential design schools in the nation.

Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen was born in Rantisalmi, Finland, in 1873. A portion of Eliel Saarinen’s childhood was spent in the Russian region of Ingermanland near St. Petersburg, a result of his father being in the clergy. The proximity of St. Petersburg provided the young Eliel Saarinen with an urban experience unequaled in more provincial Finland and also gave him access to The Hermitage. Eliel Saarinen initially intended to be a painter, a desire that he acknowledged was stimulated by visits to the museum. After graduating from high school in 1893, Eliel Saarinen enrolled in the Department of Architecture at the Technical Institute in Helsinki, simultaneously taking drawing courses at Helsinki University. While at the Institute, Eliel Saarinen formed friendships with Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren; the three formed an architectural partnership in 1896, a year before Eliel Saarinen graduated. The Gesellius, Lindgren and Eliel Saarinen office lasted until 1905, when Lindgren left the partnership; Gesellius and Eliel Saarinen continued to practice together for two additional years. Eliel Saarinen married Gesellius’s sister Louise (Loja) in 1904 (his second marriage); they had two children, a daughter Eva-Lisa (Pipsan) and a son Eero.

Eliel Saarinen 1

When the Gesellius, Lindgren, and Eliel Saarinen partnership was formed, Finland was undergoing a period of national self-awareness, a nationalism founded on the desire to search out and understand traditional Finnish cultural origins. This interest in Finland’s origins was stimulated when Elias Lonnrot published the first edition of the national folk epic, the Kalevala. The powerful, poetic imagery of the Kalevala, coupled with the interest in developing a national form of artistic expression, provided a profound source of inspiration for Finnish artists that resulted in a style known as national romanticism. National romantic architecture was an adventurous, eclectic ad mixture of sources that included Finnish vernacular and medieval architecture, continental art nouveau imagery, H. H. Richardson. Although the first commission given the firm was the Tallberg Apartments in Helsinki (1897), the Pohjola Insurance Company in Helsinki (1899-1901) was their first truly national romantic work. The Finnish Pavilion for the Paris Exhibition of 1900 established their international reputation. As the firm’s reputation increased, so did the commissions, villas, apartment commplexes, and major public works. These works were characterized by picturesque plan compositions, irregular building massings, tactile material vocabulary, and the incorporation of motifs and images from Finnish architectural history. Public buildings, such as the Pohjola Insurance Company and the National Museum in Helsinki (1901-1911), are of granite construction with decorative ornamentation derived from Finnish nature or folktales and inclued specific references to Finnish medieval churches and castles as well as to Richardson’s work. Apartment complexes in Helsinki, such as Tallberg, Olofsborg (1900-1902), Fabianinkatu 17 (1900-1901), and EOL (1901-1903), were rendered in painted stucco, with stone appointments and tile roofs and were accented by bay windows and towers.

Eliel Saarinen - church

Eliel Saarinen - church

The villas, Hvittrask (1902-1904) and Suur-Meriioki (1901-1903), represent the English arts-and-crafts concept of a totally integrated work of art. Hvittrask the studio house of Gesellius, Lindgren, and Eliel Saarinen, is an excellent example of Finnish national romantic architecture. Located on a steep hillside outside Helsinki the compound is ordered about a courtyard within a series of terraced gardens. Presented as a reinterpretation of Finland’s vernacular past, the picturesque massing of the complex is articulated with a rustic stone base and stuccoed or shingled walls, has upper stories of log construction, and is capped by a tiled roof. The interior spaces of the Eliel Saarinen house contain a variety of images and detail qualities: the great hall alludes to vernacular farmhouses and a sitting area incorporates motifs from medieval churches; inglenooks and sleeping rooms are executed in the arts-and-crafts style. These spaces are furnished with appointments designed by either the Saarinens or their artist friends. Suur-Merijoki, a splendid country house located near Viipuri, contains the bestdeveloped Eliel Saarinen interiors of his early career. Moreover, these interiors demonstrate a realized total artistic conception facilitated by the close working relationship between architect, artist, and artisan.
After his association with both Lindgren and Gesellius ended, Eliel Saarinen expanded his practice to engage in city planning projects as well as building design. By 1906, having the stylistic limitations of national romanticism, a more classical and monumental spirit emerged in his work as exemplified by the Helsinki Railroad Station (1904-1914). Eliel Saarinen’s original competition entry was a rusticated, medieval-referenced national romantic design, whereas the completed work is a balanced, Jugendstil-inspired composition incorporating delicate concrete vaulted interior spaces. This transformation was fostered by the negative criticism Eliel Saarinen’s entry received from the more progressive architects of the period; Gustaf Strengell and Sigurd Frosterus launched a vigorous press attack on what they considered to be the backward-looking stylistic qualities of the design. In moving away from national romanticism, Eliel Saarinen’s final design, influenced by Frosterus’s competition entry, also included suggestions for the urban development surrounding the station. Symmetrical planning combined with pyramidal volumetric massing articulated by strong vertical accents, which often included a dominant tower element, characterized Eliel Saarinen’s work before World War I. Eliel Saarinen’s competition entries for the Palace of Peace in the Hague (1906) and the Finnish Parliament House (1908), as well as his designs for the town halls in Lappeenranta (1906) Joensuu (1909-1911), Lahti (1911), and Turku (1911) are representative of the classical sensibility informing his architecture at this time. The Kalevala House designed for Helsinki (1921), although never built, is among his most successful monumental designs. Eliel Saarinen was twice commissioned during this period to design Finland’s currency, first in 1909 while it was still a Russian Grand Duchy, and again in 1918-1919 after it become an independent nation.

Eliel Saarinen

Eliel Saarinen

As a town planner, Eliel Saarinen was a concentred with political and social issues as with artistic and technical ones. While the English utopian socialist John Ruskin, William Morris, and Raymond Unwin influenced Eliel Saarinen’s social consciousness, it was the work of the Austrian Camilio Sitte that gave physical substance to his planning concepts. Based on Sitte’s work, Eliel Saarinen was able to combine medieval and baroque organizational notions into fully developed spatial ensembles that had uniquely urban qualities. Of all of his planning proposals, which included the Budapest Master Plan Report (1911), the Canberra City Plan competition (1911), and the Greater Tallinn Master Plan (1911-1913), two projects for Helsinki demonstrate his ability best, the Munkkiniemi-Haaga plan (1910-1915) and the “Pro Helsingfors” plan (1917-1918). The Munkkiniemi-Haaga plan, in particular, with its axial order, residential squares, use of large apartment blocks, and the reconciliation of the automobile to the human scale of the pedestrian, presents a coherent urban and architectural totality. With the exception of portions of the Munkkiniemi-Haaga design, none of Eliel Saarinen’s planning proposals were realized.

In 1923 the Eliel Saarinen family emigrated to the United States where his career would focus on education as well as architectural practice. Although his placing second in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition (1922) is often cited as the reason for his immigration to the United States, the economic conditions in Finland prompted his departure. In 1917 Finland declared its autonomy from Russia; in 1919 it became an independent nation after a year-and-a-half of civil war. These events resulted in an economic collapse, and construction slowed; it was for this reason Eliel Saarinen entered the Tribune competition. After spending a brief period in Evanston, Illinois, Eliel Saarinen was invited to join the architecture faculty at the University of Michigan in 1924. In that same year one of his students at Michigan, Harry S. Booth, introduced Eliel Saarinen to his father, George Gough Booth, from whom Eliel Saarinen recieved the commission to design the Cranbrook complex in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Cranbrook, in particular the Academy of Art, was the manifestation of a George Booth’s vision of a Midwestern institution that would facilitate the integration of the arts and crafts into contemporary culture. Under Eliel Saarinen’s direction as president of the Academy and program head of architecture, Cranbrook became a nationally recognized school of design. The faculty included Carl Milles, Maija Grotel, and Mariane Strengell, in addition to the Eliel Saarinen family, while Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, Harry Weese, Edmund Bacon, and Jack Lenor Larsen are among its more noteworthy students. At Cranbrook, individuality and freedom were stressed and the sense of community was much like the atmosphere found in the earlier Hvittrast atelier. Eliel Saarinen personally directed the graduate program in architecture, which focused city planning concerns. The studies done in the graduate studio became the structure for Eliel Saarinen’s book The City (1), his definitive statement on urbanism.

At Cranbrook, between 1925 and 1945, Eliel Saarinen executed the School for Boys, the Kingswood Schools for Girls, the Academy of Art, the Institute of Science, the museum and library, faculty housing, and the resident artist’s studios. These works ranged in style from the picturesque Boys Schools, to the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Kingswood School, to the more austerely classical Museum and Library complex (Fig. 4). Within this stylistic diversity, the Cranbrook designs exhibit Eliel Saarinen’s arts-and-crafts desire for totally integrated environmental works, realized through their excellent siting, exquisite masonry detailing, interior surface treatments, and attendant furnishings and weaving. However, Cranbrook is more than an enclave of Eliel Saarinen buildings; it is a resonant environment incorporating sculptures, artwork, furnishings, and decorative appointments designed and produced by the Academy’s faculty and students, as well as by the Eliel Saarinen family.
Eliel Saarinen took few outside commissions in the 1920s, although Eliel Saarinen produced a design for the Christian Science Church in Minneapolis (project, 1925) and entered the League of Nations competition in Geneva (1927). In the 1930s and 1940s, as Eliel Saarinen’s practice expanded, he was involved in partnerships with his son Eero and J. Robert F. Swanson, a former student at Michigan (Saarinen and Saarinen, 1936-1942; Saarinen and Swanson, 1943-1946; Saarinen, Swanson, Saarinen, 1946-1947; and Saarinen and Saarinen, 1947-1950). Representative works of this period include Goucher College Plan and Library competition (second prize, 1938, with Eero); Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo (1938-1940, with Eero); Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois (1939-1940, with Eero and Perkins, Wheeler, and Will, associated architects); First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana (1939-1942, with Eero); Smithsonian Art Gallery competition in Washington, D.C. (first prize, 1939, with Eero); and Wayne University Campus Plan competition (second place, 1942, with Swanson). In designs involving Eero’s participation, a more modernist posture emerges. Although these buildings and projects often include reflecting pools, towers, and excellent masonry detailing – hallmarks of Eliel’s hand – their simplified cubic volumes, elemental plan compositions, and incorporation of horizontal strip windows indicate Eero’s influence. At the time of Eliel’s death, in July 1950, the Saarinens were engaged in the design of the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, a work eventually completed under Eero’s direction.
Although the elder Eliel Saarinen was tied to the romanticism of nineteenth-century arts-and-crafts ideas, and Eliel Saarinen was unable to incorporate modernism’s machine aesthetic into his work successfully, he remains an important and influential twentieth-century architect. The sensitivity of his architecture and the perceptiveness of his town planning ideas still provide excellent examples of how to make humane and memorable environments.
________________________________________
Major works:
Finnish Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle (1900), Paris
Hvittrask, Eliel Saarinen’s home in Kirkkonummi 1902
Clubhouse of Luther factory, Tallinn, Estonia 1905
Helsinki Central railway station 1905-1914
National Museum of Finland in Helsinki 1902-1904
Lahti Town Hall, Lahti, Finland 1911
Mutual Reserve Association Building, Tallinn, Estonia 1912
Vyborg railway station (today in Russia) 1904-1913 (destroyed 1941)
Saint Paul’s Church, Tartu, Estonia 1917
First Christian Church, Columbus, Indiana 1942
Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York; designed in collaboration with his son Eero Saarinen
Original Wing of Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa 1945-1948
Cranbrook Educational Community, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis, Minnesota 1949
The Fenton Community Center, Fenton, Michigan
________________________________________

Eliel Saarinen-railway station

Eliel Saarinen-railway station

BIBLIOGRAPHY
1 Eliel Saarinen, The City: Its Growth. Its Decay. Its Future, Reinhold Publishing, New York. 1943; republished by the MIT Press. Cambridge, Mass. 1965.
General References
A. Christ -Janer, Eliel Saarinen: Finnish-American Architect and Educator. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1948, Rev. ed.. 1979. Foreword by Alvar Aalto.
R. J. Clark, et al, Design in America: the Cranbrook Vision 1925-1950. Harry Abrams, New York, 1983.
S. Fayens, “Baukunst und Volk,” Moderne Bauformen 8(8). 337-353(1909).
“Gesellius, Lindgren, und Saarinen,” Moderne Bauformen, 6(4), 137-162(1907).
M. Hausen. “Gesellius-Lindgren-Saarinen.” Arkkitehti, 64(9) 6-12(19671.
M. Saarinen, Munttkiniemi-Haaga ja Suur-Helsinki, Osakeyhtio M. G. Stenius, Helsinki, 1915.
E. Saarinen. The Search for Form: A Fundamental Approach to Art. Reinhold Publishing, New York, 1948; republished as The Search for Form in Art and Architecture. Dover Publications, New York, 1985.

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