The Deere & Company Administrative Center in Moline embodies the idea that Modernism doesn’t have to be sparse and plain. The exposed, self-rusting steel exterior was meant to evoke the color of brownstone.
Gabriel Jorby The Deere & Company Administrative Center in Moline embodies the idea that Modernism doesn’t have to be sparse and plain. The exposed, self-rusting steel exterior was meant to evoke the color of brownstone.

A quiet revolution in the design of corporate headquarter buildings happened in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Deere & Company Administrative Center, which opened in 1964, was one of the works of architecture that changed the face of American buildings as corporate identity symbols. Its architect, Eero Saarinen, emigrated to the Midwest from Finland when his father, architect Eliel Saarinen, finished second in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition in 1923. The standard-bearer of this new strain of Modernism appeared not in Berlin or New York, but in Moline, Ill.

The river and railroad town of Moline lies between the farmland of Illinois and the prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and beyond. It was here that John Deere, another transplant (from the rocky soil of Vermont) created a blade that could pummel the West’s heavy sod. Deere’s plows broke the plains and made possible the development of the greatest agricultural powerhouse ever.

Farm and construction equipment is on display in a grand hall at the heart of Saarinen’s Deere complex. Like a temple to Yankee ingenuity, the shiny tractors, combines, and bulldozers remind us that Americans were long the pre-eminent manufacturers of agricultural machinery. The yellow-trimmed green harrows and hay balers echo John Deere’s muscular yet elegant exterior and setting. Shaped by Sasaki, Walker and Associates, the landscape opens up like a Japanese scroll painting as one approaches the building set amidst almost 700 acres planted 60 years ago with more than a thousand new trees. Spanning a ravine and facing a lake, the John Deere headquarters imparts a monumentality not seen since Beaux-Arts classicism from the turn of the 20th century.

Contextual Modernism?

Saarinen’s other best-known corporate work, the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich., was indebted to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, yet the aeronautical look of aluminum skins that so characterized work like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House or Air Force Academy campus was going out of fashion by the early 1960s. Mies’ iconic 1958 Seagram Building, for example, employed dark steel and smoky glazing. Saarinen took that a step further in his 1965 headquarters for CBS in New York, a black granite stele unlike any previous skyscraper, the apotheosis of Louis Sullivan’s “tall office building artistically considered.”

Deere, like so many of Saarinen’s projects, was completed after the architect’s death, so one has to wonder in what direction the ever-experimenting designer would have taken American architecture. In his all-too-short career, Saarinen challenged the prevailing morphology, whether he was creating new ways of forming churches, airports, college campuses, or museums.

That revolutionary aspect was demonstrated at Deere by the development and first use of exposed and intentionally self-rusting steel. The critic Walter McQuade, writing in Architectural Forum, described CorTen steel as a “dense protective coating, which has the richness in finish of an old Etruscan coin.” The color is also reminiscent of Henry Hobson Richardson’s use of Connecticut Valley brownstone in his muscular designs. At Deere, Cor-Ten was used for structural members, as well as sunscreens—a sort of scrim that shields the building’s glass walls. Saarinen’s tectonic statement at Deere, with its exposed rivets and its I-beams employed like a wooden balloon frame, recalls the anti-International Style advocated by Peter and Alison Smithson.

Echoes of the Smithsons’ “Mies made gutsy” ethos seems entirely appropriate, as Deere’s chairman William Hewitt reminded his architect that Deere had been built by “men of strength—rugged, honest, close to the soil.” Hewitt further declared that Deere’s headquarters would be “thoroughly modern,” but also “down to earth.” In response, Saarinen promised “a building which is bold and direct,” and furthermore, it should “not be a slick, precise, glittering glass and spindly metal building.”

Countering any temptation to fall back on the Miesian aesthetic present in his work for IBM and Bell Laboratories was Saarinen’s strong sense of his ancestral Finnish sensibility. The Nordic Arts & Crafts tradition of which his father was a leader reveals itself in the building’s metal cladding, which is handled as if it were timber. The earthy spirit of Deere proffers the same mix of the timeless and the radical as the work of Saarinen’s compatriot, Alvar Aalto.

But unlike Aalto, Saarinen’s reputation went into a multi-decade eclipse in the years following his death. Saarinen biographer Jayne Merkel called Deere, “One of the greatest works of architecture,” but the architectural community only reluctantly came to realize that Deere was arguably Saarinen’s masterpiece, and thus belonged in the pantheon of American culture. When Deere was recognized by AIA’s Twenty-Five Year Award, that accolade came just three years after the organization bestowed the same honor on Saarinen’s St Louis Arch, another heartland monument, just a few hundred miles down the Mississippi.