Arts: Eero Saarinen’s Sublime Curves

A master in his field accomplishes things that are separate from the ordinary, things that reveal the essences of a higher hidden world that reveals all the mysteries. The Ancient Greeks had knowledge so extraordinary that their temples to this day are considered timeless models of order, dimension, proportion and subtle harmony, structures that hew to a heavenly ethos and understanding of form, mathematics and the ever-volatile concept of “beauty”.

The temple to Athena Parthenos – the Parthenon – atop the Acropolis in Athens, is to this day considered the most geometrically perfect building ever made.

In our times, engineering masterpieces like the Golden Gate Bridge, visible in every mind’s eye, is a striking achievement of pure aesthetic mastery. Its graceful daring, its exemplary function, its sheer physical audacity all combine to reflect advancements in structural engineering that only millennia of progress could have produced and that only modern materials and industrial processes could make real.

At the same time, our museums hold paintings and sculptures that express perfection, from Renaissance masterpieces that articulate genuine originality of form and color, to grid-like canvases by one of only a handful of 20th century masters, Piet Mondrian, that reflect a unique concord of rectangular forms.

Like all great art from Polyclitus to Leonardo, Mondrian’s paintings appear at the same time casual in nature yet highly organized, which is the true mark of a master. They have both a lightness and a gravity. They reveal to us a natural geometric order that only an original mind can comprehend and communicate through art.

One of the great masters of form was the architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), a Finnish-born American who sadly died prematurely of a stroke. Son of the noted Eliel Saarinen Eero excelled in design throughout his childhood, was encouraged in his creativity by his mother, and rose up through the ranks of his father’s Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan to become one of the brightest lights of the so-called Second Generation of the ‘modern’ architectural movement that also included Edward Durell Stone and Wallace K. Harrison.

Sometimes maligned in his lifetime as an architect with no signature style who worked in an eclectic world of forms that did not measure up to the theoretical austerity of Bauhaus legends like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, Saarinen’s oeuvre indeed included the straight-line Bauhaus aesthetic. But it went on to distinguish itself in its foray into a world of curvaceous beauty that includes the St. Louis Gateway Arch in Missouri and the Dulles International Airport Terminal 25 miles west of Washington, DC.

Saarinen was charged as being too willing to please and excite viewers with startling forms. His architecture was called “corporate”. His Arch in St. Louis was criticized as overly referential and literal as a “gateway” to the American West. Yet these critiques never have stood the test of time. And as Saarinen himself said, the real significance of architecture is not found in its intellectual foundation, but in the way in which a building can “convey emotionally” its purpose, something that he came to believe that the conceptual rectangularity of the Bauhaus could not.

Sandy Isenstadt, assistant professor of art history at Yale wrote of Saarinen… “function was abstracted and visually and often lyrically expressed… the threat Saarinen posed to contemporaries may be seen in the denouement he achieved between an architecture based on the conditions of its making and one based on the performance of its meaning.”

So whatever one wishes to say about any given artist/architect/designer, the proof is in the pudding. And Saarinen’s forms ultimately were expressive of nature’s organic energy and of timeless forms that were thoroughly considered, manipulated and seen. They spoke the sublime language of order, harmony, proportion and balance that few designers have captured in their lives. And thus few have attained the status of Eero Saarinen, and the criticisms have been revealed as mere intellectual poofery.


Top to bottom: 1) Dulles International Airport Terminal outside Washington, DC. Awesome! 2) The St. Louis Gateway Arch at the installation of the keystone piece in 1965. This black-and-white photo does not show the arch's shiny stainless exterior. The profiles of the inner arch and the outer arch are smartly conceived and calculated to create a totally dynamic form. 3) Chair designs by Saarinen. Aren't they beautiful!? (Photos courtesy of Eero Saarinen, Shaping the Future)

The Gateway Arch

The St. Louis Gateway Arch first was proposed by a civic commission in 1933 to establish a federal memorial to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In 1935, St. Louis citizens passed a $7.5 million bond issue for the (President Thomas) Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. "Expansion" referred to the expansion in the size of the United States.

Buildings were demolished in the construction zone along the Mississippi River, but it was not until 1945-47 that the Memorial Association financed a nationwide architectural competition. In February 1948, Saarinen was named winner of the second stage of the competition. One of the interesting tidbits in the history of architectural competition is that the original winner of the first stage was mistakenly believed to have been father Eliel Saarinen, not Eero, because they both lived at the same place and were known as E. Saarinen.

It was not until 1958 that President Eisenhower signed the bill to fund the monument by authorizing $17.25 million in federal dollars.

Eero Saarien died September 1, 1961, six months after excavation began on the site. The first section of the Arch was put in place February 12, 1963 and the exterior shell of the span was completed October 28, 1965 at a cost of $15 million. It was named Gateway to the West, in honor of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition of 1804-06, which explored for the first time the new American land acquired by Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase. The entire memorial includes the Arch, the Museum of Westward Expansion and St. Louis’ Old Courthouse.

Saarinen made a wise choice for the Arch, not bogging down in details but instead stating with the strikingly simplified form not only the beauty that is requisite but the metaphorical substance of a “gateway”, all captured in one dazzling shape. The Arch is as much a mark of St. Louis as the Eiffel Tower is Paris. And that is the power of its design.  Of the innovative and demonstrative motif, designer Charles Eames predicted to Saarinen that “the arch… should be enough to swing it” (the competition in favor of Saarinen).

No American could rightfully object to the Arch. There is nothing that could displease a critic except a nagging monologue about architecture’s true intent. Indeed the monument pleases us on many levels. And that is the joy of it.


The book Eero Saarinen, Shaping the Future, was published in conjunction with an overview exhibit of Saarinen’s work in cooperation with the Finnish Cultural Institute of New York; the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki; the National Building Museum in Washington, DC; and the Yale School of Architecture.

Here's a quote from the book by a former Saarinen detractor, architecture critic Vincent Scully:

‘A recent earnest study of Eero Saarinen characterizes the criticism of some of his buildings that I wrote in the 1960s as “derisive” and “even hostile”. I’m sorry for that if it’s so, but it is true that at the time most of us, as evangelical modernists tended to be more categorical and exclusive in our judgments than I for one would be today…’

‘I think I wasn’t entirely wrong in much of that, but times have changed…  He (Saarinen) clearly was much more, at once more complex and more deeply serious, and more directly concerned with human use and meaning, than I thought he was so many years ago…’

It is not that often that you see a major critic eating crow in such fashion but that is the nature of Saarinen’s longevity. Because those who dismissed him themselves were often consumed by simple intellectual hubris.

So what about the graceful curves that Saarinen’s two projects here engender? What is it about curves that awaken us and stimulate us? Is it the fact that the human form – notably the female form – is but a bundle of magnificent curves? Is it that the masculine form represents the no-nonsense straight-line aesthetic of Bauhaus minimalism, while curves are feminine and thus seductive? Is this why painter Mondrian said that curved lines are “too emotional”?

Is it man versus woman all over again?

Throughout the history of railroads, their tracks have needed to curve based on specific mathematical formulae that have come to be known as 'railroad curves' and that give speeding trains a way to change course through numerical precision. The same for superhighways, from the Autobahn in Germany to America’s modern interstates. Their profiles reflect a beauty and grace necessary to move vehicles safely through the land. In fact these constructions reflect an organic precision in their own right through mathematics. They integrate themselves with the land; they do not confront the land. And thus they reflect nature's dynamic, and indeed that is the model for all noteworthy art and architecture. Otherwise they look "wooden".

Curves have informed artists and architects for millennia, and they have been both intuitive and mathematical. The proportions and harmonies of the human form itself are said to be at the heart of all of man’s attempts to better nature in the creation of objects of the highest form and function, to reflect what Frank Lloyd Wright called the "hidden forms" that lurk "behind" nature.

In the Arch, Saarinen rejected pure mathematics in favor of artistic intuition. Originally it was a purely mathematical form (a parabola) that finally was dropped in favor of a ‘catenary arch’ that was created by simple physical means. He wrote:

“The arch, in stainless steel, has a core of concrete. An absolutely pure shape where the compression line goes right through the center line of the structure directly to the ground. In other words, a perfect catenary. The absolutely simplest shape with the greatest impact and with a great deal of thought on its lasting qualities."

The catenary is a form derived when you take a chain and hang its ends from two nails hammered into the wall at the same height. Depending on the distance between the nails, the “sag” of the arch is narrower or wider. And of course, upside down vis a vis St. Louis.  And since we are so accustomed to seeing the narrow parabolic shape of McDonald’s hamburger arches, we almost forget that, viewed dead on, the Gateway Arch is a perfect square, as wide at the base as it is tall at its center (630 feet). This is an illusion because we certainly tend to think of it as taller than it is wide.

The catenary was ultimately chosen over the somewhat similar parabola because, as Saarinen said, they had “worked at first with a mathematical shape (the parabola), but finally adjusted (the arch) according to the eye.” This comports with Saarinen’s assessment of genuine architecture:

"When I speak of ‘architecture’, I am speaking of architecture as an art… its driving force comes from its art characteristics.” Combined with the 20th century’s technological advances in materials, he said that his so-called Second Generation of modernists was fortunate in that “there are new and unexplored materials… they are now probing in many different directions and the vocabulary of modern architecture is being greatly expanded.”

Of mathematics alone as a basis for architecture, Saarinen was skeptical:

“It was born as a means of refinement during a time when the concept of Greek architecture was static (did not change from the basic lintel and column structure). The book was full of rules by the time Rome became degenerate and fell… During the Dark Ages that followed, new architecture sprung up unhampered by the laws of proportion. The Romanesque and Gothic, the finest architecture that Western man has produced, was the result.”

Regarding his thought processes in creating the Arch, he said,

“The problem of a chapel is an obvious one. Imagine what Chartres Cathedral would look like if the Gothic master builders had not placed their main effort on the inner meaning and emotional impact of this building, but instead concentrated their efforts on making the plan work functionally.” 

Saarinen loved the soaring and weightless Gothic interiors and was less impressed with what followed:

“The Renaissance was another kind of period – great in many ways but perhaps a bit overrated architecturally. Not because they did not solve architectural problems well, but because their aims in architecture were limited. They were not able to create a form for their time. They borrowed Roman sub-assemblies and their main concern was how to use these in new, ingenious and well-related ways.”

Saarinen had a studio with a series of catenary chains hung on its wall in order to be able to observe them to make his final choice. The question is why did he choose the square format (same height and width)?

Certainly because he knew that the Arch would be viewed from many angles and that the fewest views would be from head-on. The more obtuse the view, the more its geometry favors height over width (the ‘sharper; the curve). So he rejected the parabola as too ‘sharp’ to start and certainly chose the “neutral” format so as to create a dynamic. Because the inner edge of the arch in fact is significantly taller than wide, where height is favored by 613 feet versus 522 feet wide. So he was able to create a tension between the two forms (inner and outer), while  avoiding its taking on too severe a height/width aspect when viewed from increasingly obtuse angles, which are going to be those from which most people will see it.

For a series of views of the Arch, please go here  

The Arch consists of stacked sections of equilateral triangles narrowing from 54 feet per side at the base to 17 feet at the top. It is made of reflective stainless steel that causes the whole structure to "pop" visually in virtually any state of light by “becoming” and then reflecting that specific light.

Its construction required a pair of “creeper” cranes (see photo) attached to each leg that rose with the tower, methodically loading on new sections whose equal sides shrank incrementally as the Arch rose. On the day that the final keystone piece was installed, as shown in the picture, fire departments needed to spray water on the south leg to cool it because the mathematics of the Arch are so precise that the sun’s heat knocked it slightly out of line, and thus had to be accounted for.

Cool, man, cool…

Dulles International Airport Terminal

Another example of Saarinen’s boldness was his design for the Dulles Airport terminal outside Washington, DC. Dulles was the first airport in America designed specifically for the jet age.

Saarinen’s design uses a swooping roof to suggest flight, contravening the hyper-modernist ideal that architecture is just function shoehorned into minimalist rectangular form, a cerebral stubbornness that has driven a wedge between the Bauhaus aesthetic and the public.

Dulles is the perfect antidote. It remains thoroughly modern in its uninterrupted interior that is a testament to the elasticity of 20th century materials and engineering. It is neither reclusive nor arrogant. It is a celebration of form, and darned well made. Its details speak volumes about “quality” in design, and therein lies its wonder. Like Mondrian’s art it stands immobile yet is highly energetic.

Dulles is made of forms that fit. Nary an inch of waste can be found, no redundant forms or needless spaces. Every measure is precise. It is pure function wrapped in a package of boisterous beauty. Arriving at the Terminal in anticipation of a flight to faraway places, one can sense immediately what Saarinen's plan is supposed to instill — integrity, emotion and excitement wrapped in a neat package as weightless as a soaring airliner.

And the large variety of interacting forms in Dulles – as opposed to the single arch in St. Louis – is superbly knit. Not only is each window, column and door perfectly proportioned, but in their relative tensions, the entire structure vibrates with artistic vigor.

Its open plan allows daylight to pour in in heavenly ways. And at night, those same windows allow Dulles’ interior glow to radiate out.   

Finally, Saarinen needed to reduce the terminal down to its single rectangular footprint, and that required the development of bus-like height-adjustable transporters to move passengers out to the planes on the tarmac, avoiding the necessity of making sprawling terminal  ‘fingers’ that reached out to accommodate the aircraft.

By nailing down Dulles with one daring form, Saarinen showed us how modern architecture can awaken us aesthetically and, at the same time accommodate our daily needs in a seemingly simple, but finally complex package, all delivered by an architect of vision and clarity. It comes to us as a work of art, an airline terminal, and a building for the ages. In his life, Saarinen was criticized, and he handily survived. It will be a long time before anyone tries that again.

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