Kleinhans Music Hall - Table of Contents  ........................ Eliel and Eero Saarinen - Table of Contents

By Adrian Sheppard
McGill University

(online May 2016)

During the 1960’s, Eero Saarinen was one of America’s principal masters of the Neo- Expressionism movement. It is ironic that he was also one of America’s most successful establishment architects. He was able to produce a body of significant Expressionist works for corporate and institutional clients who usually seek the route of safe, conservative architecture. Saarinen was one of the few architects who convinced his clients that daring, unconventional buildings made corporate sense.

He began his career as a committed follower of Mies van de Rohe and produced a series of highly disciplined buildings, most notably the General Motors Technical Centre in Warren, Michigan (1948-56), which he designed with his father, Eliel. The Centre was as pure and rational as any Mies building, no less an essay in rationalism and visual order than Mies’ campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Soon after the completion of the General Motors Centre, Saarinen changed his vision dramatically. His first and most significant Neo-Expressionist building was the TWA Terminal (1959-1962)  at Kennedy Airport (formerly Idlewild). In this project, he attempted to express the idea of flight. Allan Tremko described the Terminal as “an abstraction of spatial liberty, expressed in continuous movement beneath the soaring roof”.

Saarinen believed that modern architecture lacked drama. He wanted to create memorable buildings with daring structural techniques. His goal was “to express the drama and the specialness and excitement of travel” (David P. Handlin, in American Architecture) . His solution was to create a vast 315-foot-long concrete shell made of four intersecting barrel vaults supported by four enormous Y-shaped columns. It was a totally new solution for an irport terminal building. The terminal was an optimistic statement and a prototype for a new monumentality, setting a conceptual precedent: the transformation of the classical notion of monumentality. Only Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie in Berlin and Jorn Utzon’s Opera House in Sidney have attained the same level of free-form monumentality and Expressionism.

Concurrently, Saarinen designed two other significant Neo-Expressionist buildings, the Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale University (1956-1958) and Dulles International Airport (1958-1962) in Chantilly, Virginia (near Washington, DC). Both buildings used a suspended flying roof system to span the great space below.

In the Yale Ice Hockey Stadium (Fig. 29), Saarinen suspended a steel-cable roof on both sides of a central concrete arch spanning the entire building longitudinally. From a formal point of view, the building is a dynamic interplay of convex and concave forms, of sloped and straight walls, of high and low spaces. Together with the TWA Terminal, it is the building which best conveys Saarinen’s interest in architectural dynamism.

Dulles International Airport (Fig. 30) has a simple rectangular plan, but the form of the building is complex. The terminal is a compact building and an exercise in architectural and technical formalism. The structural concept is manifest and consists of colonnades of tilted and tapered columns on the two long facades of the terminal from which is suspended a steel-cable roof. The roof is high in the front, lower in the rear, and its lowest point, as in all catenaries structures, is in the middle of the span. The colonnades, together with the curved shape of the roof, emphasise the dynamic qualities of the building.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2016
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