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Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future at The National Building Museum
Miller House, Columbus, Indiana, circa 1957. © Ezra Stoller / ESTO.

WASHINGTON.- Eero Saarinen was one of the most prolific and celebrated architects of the mid-20th century. Designer of such iconic structures as the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the terminal at Dulles International Airport, as well as popular furniture including the sculptural 'Tulip' chair, Saarinen produced a body of work that not only explored the promise of new materials and technologies, but also seemed to capture the uniquely American spirit of optimism during the post-World War II economic boom. His flourishing career was cut short, however, when he died of a brain tumor at the age of 51. His untimely death—coupled with the extraordinary diversity of his work—made Saarinen a problematic figure for critics and historians, and as a result, the architect's many contributions were widely overlooked for much of the past four decades.

A new exhibition, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, makes a powerful case for recognizing Saarinen as an exceptionally innovative figure whose work has exerted a profound and continuous influence on architectural theory and practice for more than a half-century. The first full retrospective of Saarinen's career, this exhibition sheds new light on "the least-known famous architect of the 20th century" and firmly places him among the leading modernist designers.

The exhibition also examines Saarinen as a person, as well as his relationships with family, colleagues, and the press; "Building for Postwar America" explores the wide range of Saarinen's projects and their cultural significance. Featured works include the sculpturally evocative TWA Terminal at what is now Kennedy International Airport in New York; the groundbreaking John Deere Headquarters in Moline, Illinois, which was the first major building to use Cor-ten steel; and the serene Kresge Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lesser-known, unbuilt works presented in the exhibition include the winning proposal, designed by Saarinen in association with his father Eliel, for a new Smithsonian Gallery of Art, which was to have been located on the National Mall.

The exhibition was inspired by the 2002 donation of the Eero Saarinen and Associates office archives, which had been privately held since the architect's death in 1961, to Yale University. Scholars accessing the material for the first time discovered numerous sketches, correspondence, and other items that had never been published or displayed before. The exhibition includes many of these never-before-seen drawings and documents, along with large-scale models, photographs, a full-scale façade mock-up, original furniture samples, and a specially-commissioned documentary film by KDN Films featuring interviews with some of Saarinen's prominent colleagues and collaborators.

A comprehensive, 382-page catalogue featuring essays and a survey of more than 100 of Saarinen's projects accompanies the exhibition. Donald Albrecht, curator of the exhibition, co-edited the catalogue along with Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, assistant professor at the Yale School of Architecture. The book is available in the Museum Shop and through the Museum's web site.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the National Building Museum is launching a series of events exploring the legacy of modernism and current efforts to preserve modernist architecture, much of which is now more than a half-century old. Related programming includes a presentation called Growing up Saarinen: Life and Legacy of an Architect by Eero Saarinen's daughter, Susan; a symposium entitled Preserving Modernism; a tour of Washington Dulles International Airport; and Architecture Family Day. Visit regularly for up-to-date information on related programming.

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