Cities of the Midwest: Modernist Architecture (Saarinen) Road Trip

Eero Saarinen, Finnish-American Architect, created iconic buildings, all straight lines and bright light. Some of his best works are scattered through the Midwest.

Why Saarinen?

My own personal love for the Saarinen aesthetic came from college. I lived in a now demolished dormitory at University of Chicago. This dorm looked into the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and the Gothic revival Ida Noyes. In other words, the architectural plenty around me only further supported my belief that I was living in prison. The cinder brick walls certainly supported my supposition. At some point, I wandered into the computer center (do they have those anymore?), and above me was an amazing drawing. The drawing depicted my dorm, but better. It had the interior courtyard that we all loved. The interior spaces were similar to our own ugly dorm but nicer. It was like seeing what could have been, and then going to back to what really was.

University of Chicago didn’t choose to invest in the vision Saarinen had for the dorm. They kept the basic plan, and employed cut rate materials. Eventually, they knocked down this cut rate Saarinen for a Raphael Vinoly building. (A topic that need not be discussed.)

My love of Saarinen was sparked by seeing that plan.  He was an architect who thought about people in space. He focused on composing light and raw materials to create human experiences. Even for the non-architecture groupies, walking into a Saarinen space feels remarkable.

Saarinens are easy to find in the Midwest. An easy road trip would be to do Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit. Columbus, Indiana and St. Louis are detour that you might take on other trips.

Road Trip: Milwaukee

Milwaukee War Memorial Center, 1957

Set on a bluff over Lake Michigan, this building is set on concrete stilts to expose a central courtyard.  The building is amazing for its contradictions. Large concrete rectangles seem light as they are filled with enormous glass windows. The monolithic building almost seems to float, like a cloud, beside Lake Michigan.  The original War Memorial was also used for the Milwaukee Art Museum. In 2001, the museum began an expansion by Calatrava, making this an ideal two for one Architecture lovers stop.  When you are in the art museum, try to get a peak of Saarinen’s most famous design, the Tulip Chair.


Road Trip: Chicago

D’Angelo Law Library, 1959

Saarinen created a plan for the University of Chicago expansion in the 1960s, but this is the only extant building on campus. Set on the other side of the Midway, this building is at once modern and Gothic with its pleated glass facade. At night, the lights reflected in the water out front are magical. The interior space was refreshed to speak more to Saarinen’s original vision.

Road Trip: Michigan

Saarinen’s father, also a renowned architect, taught at Cranbrook in Michigan, so there are a number of buildings he produced. Here are a couple of my favorites.

Charles J. and Ingrid V. (Frendberg) Koebel House, 1940

This was the first commission that Saarinen created with his father, as a father-son team. This was actually a total family effort, with his sister doing the interior, and his brother-in-law doing the build plans. While the restored interior is not currently available for viewing, the perfection of the exterior is still clearly visible.  This unassuming house on a private street was ahead of its time, with its clean lines and organized visual planes.

General Motors Technical Center, 1956

The thing for me about Saarinen is that his vision is so pervasive as to be imperceptible. The GM Tech Center is like every building in every office park in America, except this was the first one. So, when you drive by this building, you might almost miss its features. Called an “industrial Versailles”, the building complex combined light and order to create an idea workplace.

Saarinen House, 1920s

Saarinen’s House at Cranbrook is a museum worth visiting. There is something fascinating about looking at architect’s personal space. Rather than building a structure from whole cloth, he started with a Victorian building. His additions and changes turn the space into something wholly new, an eclectic wonderland.

What next?

After this, if you have still more cravings, there is certainly more Saarinen to see.  You can catch the North Christian Church and Miller House in Columbus, Indiana with their Alexander Girard interiors. You can rise to new heights at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.  You can also get yourself to New York to enjoy the TWA  International Terminal.

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