Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future By Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and Donald Albrecht.Yale University Press, 2006. £40
Eero Saarinen died suddenly in 1961, aged just 51 years old. In a decade he had eclipsed his famous architect-father, Eliel, and established himself as the leader of the new architectural generation in the USA.
His clients were among the elite in booming postwar America: blue-chip corporations and prestigious universities. His collaborators were equally esteemed, from designers like Charles Eames to business folk like Florence Knoll, while talented young architects - Roche, Pelli, Venturi - fought to work in his office. And the buildings were astonishingly diverse, switching structurally from steel frame to reinforced concrete to tensile cable with alacrity.
A few books marked his passing, notably monographs by Allan Temko and Rupert Spade. But death signalled the eclipse of his reputation, and soon he was attacked for being too willful and eclectic, for favouring empty sculptural gestures. Writers like Vincent Scully and Reyner Banham used him as a whipping boy.
Wider attacks in 1970s America on technologically driven Modernism saw architectural discourse turn to other subjects and Saarinen became a forgotten figure, even a pariah. Save for a special issue of A+U magazine in Japan in 1984, all that surfaced were a few essays. Otherwise, Saarinen tended only to pop up in cameo roles in architectural history texts, such as being the judge who insisted on Utzon winning the Sydney Opera House competition in 1957.
Then, four years ago, came a new monograph on Saarinen by Antonio Roman (AJ 19.06.03). Serious in tone and lavishly illustrated, it reected particular concerns in Spanish architecture with its focus on Saarinen's most monumental, reinforced-concrete designs, such as the TWA Terminal at JFK or Dulles International Airport. As such, it missed out almost entirely on the crucial side of Saarinen's character, that of the systems designer and technological innovator who gave us the first neoprene gasket curtain walling at the General Motors Research Center, the first Cor-ten steel structure at the John Deere HQ, and the first mirror-glass building at the Bell Telephone Research Laboratories.
Since this fitful attempt to resurrect Saarinen's reputation, two quite different books have raised the bar further. One is Jayne Merkel's superb biography, easily the most balanced and readable account of the subject (AJ 27.10.05).
Merkel, however, did not mix any political critique into her analysis, but Reinhold Martin, in his equally excellent book The Organizational Complex (AJ 13.11.03), did. He located Saarinen within the emerging 'military-industrial complex' in post-war America, noting how many of his clients were those companies creating the computers and electronic communication systems for the US military in its Cold War campaigns.
And now we have another publication on Eero Saarinen, with the obvious question: do we need it? The answer happily is yes, since it is again a very different and complementary work - essentially the result of years of research into the Saarinen office archives, now held at Yale University, by scholars from Finland (where Saarinen was born in 1910) and the USA (where he grew up and made his name). It adds little that is dramatically new to our knowledge, but works well as a collected reference book, providing lots of useful detailed information on his projects.
While the standard of written entries is variable, it does include some fine essays, such as Hélène Lipstadt's on the St Louis Arch, which merits further attention for its breathtakingly simple design and the ingenious way it was built. A competition winner from the late 1940s, the arch had to wait for technology to catch up with it, making it still totally of the moment when completed in 1965. Indeed, it was the - rst architectural structure to use stainless-steel cladding on such a scale, a material newly handed down from NASA's space-rocket programme.
Also fantastic in this volume are the illustrations.
Was there a better time to be an architectural photographer than in 1950s and early-1960s America, when technical improvements coincided with astonishing architectural innovations? It is worth buying this book for the photographs alone, taken by masters of the craft like Ezra Stoller. There will undoubtedly be other interpretations of Eero Saarinen emerging in the years to come, for which this will continue to act as a vital source book.
Murray Fraser is a professor at the University of Westminster