2017-10-06 06:52:02
Pursuits: Eero Saarinen’s Michigan

When Washington Dulles International Airport opened in Northern Virginia in 1962, the soaring design of its main terminal, a minimalist structure with a suspended catenary roof, was seen as a bold reflection of American aviation. That same year, the Jet Age-inflected Trans World Airlines Flight Center, with its concrete shells and curvy interior, opened at New York’s Idlewild Airport, which later became John F. Kennedy International Airport. In St. Louis, the Gateway Arch, a towering welcome to the Midwest, was completed in 1965.

The common denominator of these masterpieces is the architect Eero Saarinen, one of the most prolific designers of futuristic style in the 20th century.

I have had a longtime affinity for Saarinen’s work, beginning in my teenage years when his brand of modernism seemed unreal to me. The vaulted T.W.A. flight center and its Jetsons-like flight departures board seemed as if they would be more at home in my drawing pad than in real life.

While Saarinen’s groundbreaking works gave him international prominence, many people don’t realize that his earliest architectural and design laboratory was in Michigan. From the General Motors Technical Center in Warren to the Saarinen House on the grounds of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance in Ann Arbor, among other buildings in the region, Saarinen’s imprint was largely cultivated in the upper Midwest.

Two years ago, I had explored much of the flight center as part of Open House New York, a nonprofit organization that aims to increase awareness of local architecture and drive a greater appreciation of the city. Enamored by the experience and inspired by plans for the flight center to be restored and become part of a new hotel, I wanted to learn more about Saarinen and his Michigan roots, where lesser-known, but critical parts of his life unfolded.

In 1910, Saarinen was born in Finland to Eliel, a highly prolific architect in his own right, and Loja, a textile designer. He also had a sister, Pipsan. As the runner-up to the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower design competition, Eliel Saarinen won $20,000 and used the money to come to the United States with his family the following year.

Soon afterward, the Saarinens settled in Ann Arbor, where Eliel taught architectural design at the University of Michigan. In 1925, the family moved to Bloomfield Hills, where Eliel had the support of the newspaper magnate George Gough Booth in shaping the architectural development of the Cranbrook Schools.

If you drive north from Detroit on Woodward Avenue, which extends outward from the city like the spoke of a wheel, you’ll eventually reach Bloomfield Hills, known for its upper-crust sensibility. It’s easy to see that the Cranbrook of today is similar to that of yesteryear: the grounds remain pristinely manicured, people walk across the campus in relatively muted conversation, and the Saarinen House, which the elder architect designed for his family, remains a vital part of the educational community. Before the home was completed in 1930, Eero Saarinen designed sculptural tiles and a variety of carved-stone pieces for Cranbrook, which were among his first commissioned projects in the country.

On a guided tour, the members of my group were incredibly excited to view the Saarinen House, named for Eliel. Walking through the main doors of the home, I was slightly awed to enter a space that was largely intact from the time when the Saarinens lived there. To avoid any damage to the floor and carpeting, everyone was required to remove their shoes and put on flat protective booties. In the living area, I was immediately drawn to the multitude of handcrafted objects in the room, including the patterned rugs on the floor and walls, designed by Loja Saarinen. The décor was heavily influenced by the Art and Crafts movement, which arose in 19th-century Britain in response to industrialization. The fireplace, composed of local glazed Pewabic tiles and fronted by bronze andirons, stood out for its unique intricacies.

“There is a lot of geometry here,” our guide said, referring to the living room. “This area was used frequently by the Saarinens.”

Virtually all of the artistic decisions were executed by Eliel and Loja Saarinen, something that became apparent as I walked through the rest of the Art Deco-influenced home. The large, round wooden table in the dining room correlated with the circular shape of the ceiling, enhanced by side chairs fitting for the regal space. The octagons and squares in the dining room rug exuded a strong sense of character, as did the nearby studio space.

Upstairs, Eero’s legacy was much more evident. He designed furniture for his parents’ bedroom area, including the bed and nightstand, as well as a sterling silver vanity collection. The lamps near the vanity collection emit light toward the ceiling, avoiding direct exposure to the face. The master bathroom, designed by Eliel, boasts additional Pewabic tiles. At Cranbrook, Eero Saarinen also created designs for several glass windows and crafted many of the beds, tables, and chairs for the Kingswood School for Girls.

After high school, Saarinen studied sculpture at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture, where he excelled with the traditional Beaux-Arts curriculum. When Saarinen returned to Cranbrook in between school breaks and later in his 20s, he stayed in an upstairs bedroom at the Saarinen House. Even as Eliel Saarinen served as president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1932 to 1946 and was its resident architect, Eero Saarinen began entering into architectural competitions with him in the late 1930s.

As I walked back downstairs, I recalled a framed photo of the Gothic-inpired design that Eliel Saarinen submitted for the Chicago Tribune competition that I had seen in the house earlier. In many ways, the Saarinen House represented the transition from Eliel’s genius to Eero’s distinct design skills. It was almost as if the creative energy in the Cranbrook community catapulted Eero Saarinen to greatness, evidenced by his early influences in the family home.

A few minutes from the campus is the former Eero Saarinen and Associates office building, which housed his namesake architectural firm and was designed by Saarinen himself, near the intersection of West Long Lake Road and Woodward Avenue. Opened in 1953, the building is set on a gently sloping site, oriented so that the front of the building deceptively shows only one floor and the back reveals the second. Both floors included drafting rooms. A healthy amount of natural light filters through the building’s wide, transparent front windows. For decades, many suburban buildings have been criticized for lacking sufficient character, but this compact structure has kept its minimalist edge.

Heading southeast toward Warren, the third-largest city in Michigan, it’s easy to see why cars have ruled the Detroit metropolitan region for so long. Broad streets are ringed by an extensive collection of highways, which quickly led me to one of Saarinen’s first large-scale modernist marvels, the General Motors Technical Center.

As I pulled into one of the entrances, I caught my first glimpse of the buildings. I was about to receive a rare insider’s look at the sprawling Technical Center, home to about 21,000 employees. It is a private facility and is not open for tours. However, given the center’s outsized influence on the design of office buildings across the world, it was an important piece of the larger Saarinen puzzle.

The center, built from 1948 to 1956, officially opened in May 1956. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2014. There is a main rectangular man-made lake at the G.M. center, along with a Design Dome with an exterior height of 65 feet, reflecting pools and a stainless steel water tower. Saarinen designed the original buildings in a way to bring everything to a human scale, with an emphasis on long, horizontal glass-and-steel buildings.

On a scorching 99-degree day, I made my way across the parking lot to the Design Center, which was previously called the Styling building, my first stop at the G.M. center.

In the lobby, I met Susan Skarsgard, the design manager at the General Motors Design Archive and Special Collections. I immediately noticed the sleek white podlike reception desk, which resembled a saucer, a few inches away from me. It is a reproduction of the original desk and is equally impressive.

As Ms. Skarsgard and I walked further into the lobby, I saw the “floating staircase,” a minimalist set of stairs that rose effortlessly above a small pool of water. It was perhaps one of the simplest, yet aesthetically pleasing aspects of any office lobby that I’ve visited. The sound of the water was both calming and subdued. As we walked through one of the long hallways, some of Saarinen’s modernist influences were readily apparent, including tinted glass, wood paneling and windows that allow for an abundance of natural light.

There were also several other notable design elements. A nearby cafeteria had orange vinyl flooring, something that I hadn’t seen in years. There were also orange banquettes, giving the eating area a personalized, intimate feel, while retaining the eccentric color coordination. The nearby executive dining room had a bold blue design, with a stunning hexagonal wood ceiling and an excellent lakefront view.

The crown jewel of the nearby Research and Development building is its circular staircase, designed by the architect Kevin Roche, a prominent Saarinen collaborator. The staircase gets its structural support from thin rods that are anchored at the top and bottom, creating another “floating” effect. The hallways leading to offices are generally long and narrow, but remain vibrant spaces since the design enables frequent sightings of co-workers.

Walking out on a patio at the Research and Development building, the blazing sun was contributing to an unbearable heat index. However, I got a great overview of much of the G.M. center, one that further revealed its carefully planned, linear layout.

The center originally contained 25 buildings, which were mostly built of curtain wall construction, with beams exposed on the exterior and glazed brick that deviated from the standard industrial look. Currently, there are 38 buildings across 710 acres. From Engineering to Design to Research and Development, with other departments in between, the G.M. center continues to thrive.

“It is amazing that General Motors is using buildings more than 60 years later for the same purpose,” Ms. Skarsgard said. “The entrance canopies pull you into the buildings, and they’re simple, clean and inviting.”

Next year, the company is slated to expand the General Motors Design studios, constructing a new building that will surround the Design Dome, along with a new parking garage. I couldn’t see the interior of the silver-topped dome since it is still hosts internal events, but it has a storied history. Many G.M. vehicles have been tested, inspected and approved at the dome, featuring models as old as the 1957 Chevy Bel Air and 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. The column-free interior was designed to be a grand showroom during a time when American automotive companies dominated the market share.

Saarinen was accomplished by the time his first few buildings opened at the G.M. center. Here was evidence that he wasn’t resting on his laurels, that his vision had kept him on the path to his goals. Saarinen sought to design at the highest levels while retaining creative control, which is why one of his last projects resonated with me so deeply.

Drive roughly an hour west of Warren and you’ll arrive in Ann Arbor, filled with quirky shops and collegiate charm. Eero Saarinen temporarily served as a design consultant for the North Campus development at the University of Michigan there and designed the Earl V. Moore Building, which opened in 1964 and houses much of what is now the School of Music, Theater and Dance.

When I approached the building, I was struck by the peacefulness of the surrounding area. I had driven past the bustling main campus closer to South State Street, but the North Campus was much quieter. I walked through the William K. and Delores S. Brehm Pavilion, the modern addition to the Moore building, and noticed several undergraduates taking their instruments into performance spaces and auditoriums. In the Saarinen-designed section, the wooden doors, well-placed brickwork and large clocks signaled his imprint: they are hallmarks of his architectural style.

Through a door left slightly ajar, I could see the sun starting to set, and hear the crickets starting to chirp. The Moore building, on hilly terrain and overlooking a small pond, inspired me to meditate. Saarinen wanted to connect people to nature, and I was proof of that.

Eero Saarinen fell ill while his university building was being constructed, and passed away in 1961 at only 51 years old. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor just weeks before his death and didn’t get to see the completion of the flight center, Dulles Airport, the Gateway Arch or the John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, Ill., among his other high-profile projects.

Today, the Saarinen imprint in Michigan continues to be widely revered. His works will continue to be models for future architects and designers. Eero Saarinen gave the world visually-stunning works that influenced modern design and challenged conventional wisdom, a legacy that’s well worth exploring.

If You Go

The Saarinen House (39221 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills; www.cranbrookartmuseum.org/tours/saarinen-house; 248-645-3323) at the Cranbrook Art Museum offers public tours from May through November, with a select number of private tours available from November through April. Regular admission is $15.