Eero Saarinen: Between Earth and Sky At the Matthew Gallery, 20 Chambers Street, Edinburgh, until 21 November
This exhibition helps destroy the myth that Saarinen was essentially an Expressionist whose architecture was mannered and indulgent. Curated by Brian Carter, who as a recent dean of architecture at the University of Michigan inherited a strong Saarinen connection, the exhibition presents him as a rational architect who used technology in a poetic way.
The technology of aerospace, the car industry and tractor manufacture was transformed into beautiful sculptural buildings with the help of clients who became part of the design team. This exhibition presents a picture of architects, engineers, artists and company executives working together to evolve novel design solutions. In this sense it is an optimistic view of American architectural practice after the war.
Architecture exhibitions that do not contain models or beautifully rendered drawings can lack authority. In this case, the appeal of the exhibition lies in the wonderfully dramatic black-and-white photographs taken under Saarinen's instruction by Balthazar Korab. Not well known in the UK, Korab had, like Henk Snoek, an artist's eye for composition and delighted in recording the play of light upon the building surface. It is his photographs that bring the exhibition alive.
There are obvious parallels between Saarinen and Aalto. Both were interested in the art of making, in the sensuous rather than technical properties of materials, in light and nature. Both too came from 'artist' families where architecture was valued as a visual as well as a practical art. The Finnish landscape, with its snowfields, forests, lakes and low winter light, seems somehow to have been transported to the US through the medium of Saarinen's buildings. Each one, bar what Curtis calls the horizontal skyscraper of the General Motors Research Centre at Warren, Michigan, is as much inhabited landform as orthodox architecture.
Korab's photographs document both the process of design and its products. Models were important in the evolution of a design - used to test construction and as a basis for aesthetic judgement. Clients would be invited to comment on them and engage in design modification. Subsequently, photographs of the models were used to test the appearance of the partly constructed building on site. As a consequence, the model and its photographs became almost as important as the drawings in communicating the spirit of the design to the builder. From this perspective, Saarinen and Gehry have much in common.
It is remarkable how similar the photographs of the model, the partly constructed building and the completed one look when set together as a triptych.The TWA and Dulles terminals, in particular, show a concern for prototype - constructing elements of the building to test ideas. In this, Saarinen was an artist-architect in the Arts and Crafts manner, somebody who liked to take the site workers and client with him to push construction to its limit. It is the sense that structure was tectonic poetry, suspended - as Carter puts it - between earth and sky, which unifies the exhibition.
Dulles Airport in Washington (1958) was the first airport specifically for the jet age.
The construction photographs document the erection of the main frame, then the glazing panels and finally the interior fitout. Korab's pictures tell us about a building industry that was still mainly craft-based, one where the architect could change his mind if it didn't look right. In this sense, Saarinen's buildings were monuments in the finest sense of the word.
Saarinen had a large, successful practice.
His was one of a handful of offices in which to work just after the war. It was here, as Korab's photographs demonstrate, young architects like Cesar Pelli, Kevin Roche and Robert Venturi were nurtured. Stretching over large drafting tables, the still youthful Saarinen is seen directing operations with his young assistants. It is the relaying of an age of optimism, the capturing of the generation before corporate America stifled architectural creativity, which is the enduring message of the exhibition.
Brian Edwards is professor of architecture at Edinburgh College of Art