John Gallagher , Detroit Free Press


Fans of Detroit’s architectural history are in for a treat this month as PBS-TV airs the documentary “Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future,” as part of its acclaimed American Masters series.

Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) died tragically young of a brain tumor, but in the dozen years before his death he designed an astonishing array of iconic projects, including the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., and the swooping birdlike TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York.

Like his fellow mid-century modernists Minoru Yamasaki and Edward Durell Stone, Saarinen saw his work derided by the high priests of glass-box modernism as too showy, too emotional, as mere advertisements for corporate clients. But today’s viewers are more likely to respond to the beauty and precision of the places Saarinen painstakingly created at his studio in Bloomfield Hills.

The film features Saarinen’s son, Eric Saarinen, a filmmaker who shot the movie for director Peter Rosen. The younger Saarinen’s relationship with his father’s legacy was a complicated one because Eero abandoned his family to marry his second wife, who proved more supportive of his work.

“As it ended, I really got no closure with him,” Eric Saarinen told me in a phone conversation. “He kind of booted us out of the house when I was 12 and my sister was 10 and my mother was still in love with him. …  Basically, I hated my father, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with him and avoided him and his work.”

But after local architect Robert Ziegelman persuaded the late philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman to help finance the film, Eric signed on as guide and cinematographer and came to a new appreciation of his father’s genius.

Ziegelman himself worked for the architect for three years around 1960 and found him a warm, engaging mentor, almost the father figure Eric lacked after Eero abandoned the family. Today, looking back on the architecture works, Ziegelman said they stand as outstanding examples of architectural art.

“I was astounded 50 years later how well they held up,’ he said. “The designs are current, there’s nothing about it that looks clichéd or hackneyed. And I think it was a lesson in what good design can be, just classical stuff.”…Read more here.

General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich., was a major achievement of architect Eero Saarinen. (Photo: General Motors)


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