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Seminal projects

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Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity By Antonio Román. Laurence King, 2003. 225pp. £40

As an enthusiast of Eero Saarinen's work, I have to rejoice in the first major book on the subject for more than 30 years. Saarinen was one of the leading international architects - perhaps the leading figure - of the generation that followed in the footsteps of the pioneering European Modernists. His productive career spanned little more than a decade, from 1950, when he inherited the family practice from his distinguished father, Eliel Saarinen, until his untimely death in 1961, aged 51, from a sudden brain haemorrhage.

Yet in this brief period he produced seminal projects of astonishing quality and variety.

During his lifetime, and more so after his death, Saarinen was attacked by critics for being too inconsistent in his aesthetic and architectural concerns. He was marginalised or even expunged from the record. In this new book, Antonio Román mounts a sterling defence of Saarinen's eclecticism, suggesting that it anticipated the pluralistic and relativistic climate that pervades architecture today. Certainly when compared with the sterile designs of his detractors, it is likely to be Saarinen whose work will be judged better by history.

Román's study is to be applauded, though it is highly partial in its re-reading of Saarinen.Much of the problem for any historian is that Saarinen said or wrote very little about his architecture; he was in no sense an architectural theorist, but instead a practical and intuitive designer who thrived on taking on new challenges and devising ingenious solutions. In Román's account, however, we get a typically Spanish emphasis on Saarinen's more monumental and civic projects - the TWA Terminal in New York, Dulles International Airport outside Washington DC, the Jefferson Memorial Arch in St Louis, the Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale University, the CBS Tower in Manhattan, and the deeply flawed US Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

Far less is made of Saarinen's parallel role as a prototypical figure in technology transfer, setting an agenda for British High-Tech architects to follow. Not only was the General Motors Research Center outside Detroit the first building to use 'zip-up' neoprene gaskets to hold the cladding panels and glazing, as was then already being routinely used for car windscreens; of even more interest (though not mentioned here) was that Saarinen's team consciously developed the architectural detailing in partnership with the technologists at General Motors. Likewise, much too little is mentioned of Saarinen's other remarkable innovations, such as the ground-breaking mirror-glass cladding at the Bell Research Laboratories or the first architectural use of self-rusting Cor-Ten steel in the John Deere Headquarters in Moline, Illinois.

Another problem caused by the book's fixation with monumentality is that Román underplays the ways in which Saarinen tried to rethink how people would inhabit and experience his buildings in everyday use.

The issue is only really touched upon in discussing Saarinen's revolutionary idea for passenger handling at Dulles Airport, the first major airport to be designed specifically for jet transport. Rather than having passengers walk a long distance, Saarinen designed a set of mobile lounges that drove people from the elegant terminal building to their jet, actually delivering them at the height of the aircraft's doors as it stood on the ground (and thus avoiding the need for those damn stairs). The pressures of coping with rising passenger numbers soon put paid to this luxurious mode of delivery, but it suggested a mind that was always willing to think afresh to enhance the comfort of the user.

The weakest section is that on the General Motors Research Center. By focussing on a formal description, Román misses out the key fact that Saarinen was more interested in using the Miesian device of campus buildings in a beautifully landscaped site to create an architectural aesthetic that could only be appreciated by a car-based observer driving around the estate at speed. It was intended as a homage to the products of General Motors. One of the eager young architects in Saarinen's office at the time, Robert Venturi, went on to develop the idea further in the direction of overtly expressed roadside symbolism.

There is much to be enjoyed in this book, such as the lucid account of Saarinen's likely role in ensuring, as a competition judge, that Jørn Utzon got the commission for the Sydney Opera House. The section on Saarinen's classic 'Womb' and 'Tulip' furniture is equally accessible. And the old black-and-white photographs are truly stunning, incorporating classic shots by Ezra Stoller, as well as recordings of the inventive and hair-raising construction process for the St Louis Arch.

So the book provides a valuable basis for future studies - yet there remains a much broader and livelier text to be written on Eero Saarinen.

Murray Fraser is professor of architecture at Westminster University

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