Outtakes of the Miller House by Eero Saarinen shoot for Dwell magazine by photographer Leslie Williamson. The detail above shows how the designers camouflaged what the owners called “visual warts,” like this TV.
Looking forward to seeing this whole shoot, as it is frustrating to look at the same photos of a house over and over again. Nothing is the same as being there, but even multiple visual interpretations help. If nothing else, we are much more interested in things like What Would Alexander Girard Do With a TV? today than we were in 1958.
In 1958, after some failed attempts by the Saarinen office to make a stop-motion film of their model for Dulles Airport, Eero Saarinen called upon his old friend Charles Eames to help him out. The office had spent months researching the new jet airport, and had come to a number of conclusions about how best to connect people and planes. Among their researches was accounting for the steps taken from car to terminal, terminal to gate. In Eames’s resulting film, The Expanding Airport, the distressed passenger’s apparently endless path is animated, shown as a long dashed line, with some nice slapstick involving luggage and children. (I would link to a clip or a still, but the Eames Office, for better and worse, is copyright mad. You can watch the film on this disc, or read a play-by-play in this book.)
Saarinen’s solution to the forced march was simple. Shrink the airport, motorize the path. Dulles, like the TWA Terminal, would have a small footprint, just big enough for the necessary gates and shops. But where TWA passengers traveled a long hall to get to their spiny gate hubs, Dulles passengers would hop on a Mobile Lounge assigned to a specific flight, sit there until it was time to take off, and then be transported directly to their plane, sitting in a satellite location on the tarmac.
I recently flew through Dulles for the first time, and was delighted to see most of its charms intact. On the upper level of the terminal, the gates and signs and stanchions—the branded and security clutter—are still mostly below the line Saarinen drew in the concrete. That means his parabolic roof, lifting up to create a view of the sky to which passengers will soon repair, still floats free. And passengers still have to pass through his flight hall, despite the presence of two new bar-like terminals behind it. Both have been made deliberately blank on the outside so that they are no competition. It made me sad for TWA all over again, empty of bustle, with the new Terminal 5 biting at its heels. I think of Saarinen every time I walk down the long, hot, white hall from the AirTrain to the JetBlue gates. It takes 10 minutes, it is totally unpleasant, and whoever designed it should be fired.
I got to ride in a Mobile Lounge (soon to be replaced by a quick and well-designed underground train, the signage alone puts the AirTrain to shame) and thought two things. One, Dulles is not using the lounges right. They take a motley crew of passengers to the new terminals, where we have to walk to a variety of gates. And two, the problem of the expanding airport is as pressing now as it was in 1958. I stopped to get a sandwich in the newest terminal, B, and was forced into a long march to the center of the bar. There was sunlight, and a few banners, but the design was undistinguished and the train could only take me to one end. There was still an imaginary dashed line behind me and my suitcase, adding steps to my trip in the terminal, at the Dulles entrance, at the rental car pickup. Saarinen thought he solved the problem, but someone needs to solve it all over again.
The plaza around the CBS Building in Manhattan has always seemed perverse. Eero Saarinen designed it to set off his only skyscraper, which he wanted to be as much one thing (“a proud and soaring thing,” to adopt Louis Sullivan’s terminology) as possible. Since Mies had already used a few steps up at the Seagram Building over on Park, Saarinen thought he would use a few steps down, one-upping Mies by creating a building that you could walk all the way around. (Read this period longform on the building, from Harpers; watch this unexciting film of how you walk in the door.)
But why go down? Going up is formal, exalting, particularly when flanked by fountains. Going down always reminds one of a basement. I think the plaza at CBS could have worked if Saarinen and client Frank Stanton’s original, and strikingly prescient idea to put a TV studio in the block-long frontage along Sixth had happened. Then the viewers of the 1960s equivalent of the Today Show could have used the plaza, and its steps, as an open-air ampitheater. Think how much better that would have been than clogging the sidewalks, as they do today.
But instead, they put in a bank. A traffic killer. And they have failed to hold on to said bank, since it is impossible to see anything but the brightest of lights in the five-foot spaces between Saarinen’s granite-clad columns. Walking by the CBS Building today, I realized I hadn’t seen the west side of the plaza in over a year. Now it has been revealed again, but CBS is treating it as badly as ever. Big trees in pots cluster in the corners. Construction and other debris pile up on the granite corners.
It has been 50 years since the design was unveiled. Surely someone out there knows how to make it work? Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation writes often, and well, about how we ignore the landscapes around our architectural icons (most themselves designed by landscape icons). I would never suggest a wholesale remodel of the plaza, warts and all. I just want someone to understand it.
I know, earlier this week I said I liked her 1960s work better. But Ada Louise Huxtable is still the most knowledgeable, elegant, thoughtful critic out there. Witness her review of Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (closing Jan. 31). While other critics dithered about the politics of it all, seeming to blame Eero Saarinen for suburbanization, capitalism and Frank Gehry, Huxtable glides on by, summarizing the career and treating the work in context and in history. It is her history too, since she reviewed a number of his buildings (mixed) the first time around. She’s not OK with the eagle on top of the U.S. Embassy in London either, but she recognizes no one else has yet figured out how to build American.
Her last paragraph in particular speaks to me as a historian and as an inveterate utopian thinker.
There is something profoundly moving about this show; an inescapable nostalgia pervades it for that elusive American Century. The faith in the future, the belief that science and technology would bring us a better world, is part of a more innocent era. Seeing how one architect expressed its hopes and aspirations helps us to recapture the moment and value the maker on his own terms, in his own times, and in the context of what we have become.
Two short pieces in New York Magazine this week, both on topics close to my heart.
The first, “We All Live in a Bauhaus,” is about the continuing influence of the Bauhaus (and Eero Saarinen) on contemporary product design—even in mysterious places. Exhibitions at the MoMA and the Museum of the City of New York open next week. Don’t Josef Albers’s nesting tables still look great?