California Literary Review

The imprint Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) left on the greater Washington, D.C., region is visible to anyone who has had the good fortune of flying through Dulles International Airport. And good fortune it is, despite the potential hassles in finding one’s way from Dulles to downtown D.C., or navigating the shuttle-bus (people-mover) system, or enduring the long, snaking security lines for international flights. Those drawbacks, I contend, are more than compensated for by the sheer delight of the sinuous curves of the roof of the main terminal and remarkable airiness and lightness of the reinforced concrete structure, which brought the jet age to the nation’s capital with considerable style. Yet Saarinen left his imprint on the region in other less visible but equally notable ways, as Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation, an exhibit currently on display at the Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles, reminds us. Featuring a series of models, drawings, blueprints, and other exhibits, the show documents how Saarinen and his father, Eliel, won a competition in 1939 to design the Smithsonian Gallery of Art, beating out more than 400 other entries. Their model comprised low, marble forms arranged along a reflecting pool. But the project was never built after it inspired a heated controversy between Modernists and Classicists—the latter arguing that the proposed building clashed with the newly constructed National Gallery of Art, designed by Russell Pope.

During World War II, Saarinen returned to the nation’s capital and took up residence in a Georgetown townhouse with his wife, Lily. A classmate of his at Yale University, a fellow architect named Donal McLaughlin, had helped recruit him to work at the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. Saarinen was appointed as a consultant in research and analysis in the presentation division (salary: $10 a day), and later was named chief of the exhibitions section, where he helped design propaganda posters and models that the president and joint chiefs of staff used to plan military operations in the war room. He is also credited with inventing the three-dimensional organization chart, useful in managing workflow problems, according to classified documents accessed by the exhibit’s curator, Mina Marefat, AIA, an architect who teaches at Georgetown University.

Marefat documents how Saarinen’s fascination with swivel chairs as he designed the war rooms along with his experimentation with new materials and technology helped influence not only his Tulip and Womb chairs, but also his approach to his later buildings. Through Jan. 3. •