Eliel Saarinen : architect biography

famous architect : Eliel Saarinen [page1] [page2]

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Eliel Saarinen architect
Eliel Saarinen architect

Eliel Saarinen

As a town planner, Eliel Saarinen was a concentred with political and social issues as with artistic and technical ones. While the English utopian socialist John Ruskin, William Morris, and Raymond Unwin influenced Eliel Saarinen's social consciousness, it was the work of the Austrian Camilio Sitte that gave physical substance to his planning concepts. Based on Sitte's work, Eliel Saarinen was able to combine medieval and baroque organizational notions into fully developed spatial ensembles that had uniquely urban qualities. Of all of his planning proposals, which included the Budapest Master Plan Report (1911), the Canberra City Plan competition (1911), and the Greater Tallinn Master Plan (1911-1913), two projects for Helsinki demonstrate his ability best, the Munkkiniemi-Haaga plan (1910-1915) and the "Pro Helsingfors" plan (1917-1918). The Munkkiniemi-Haaga plan, in particular, with its axial order, residential squares, use of large apartment blocks, and the reconciliation of the automobile to the human scale of the pedestrian, presents a coherent urban and architectural totality. With the exception of portions of the Munkkiniemi-Haaga design, none of Eliel Saarinen's planning proposals were realized.

In 1923 the Eliel Saarinen family emigrated to the United States where his career would focus on education as well as architectural practice. Although his placing second in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition (1922) is often cited as the reason for his immigration to the United States, the economic conditions in Finland prompted his departure. In 1917 Finland declared its autonomy from Russia; in 1919 it became an independent nation after a year-and-a-half of civil war. These events resulted in an economic collapse, and construction slowed; it was for this reason Eliel Saarinen entered the Tribune competition. After spending a brief period in Evanston, Illinois, Eliel Saarinen was invited to join the architecture faculty at the University of Michigan in 1924. In that same year one of his students at Michigan, Harry S. Booth, introduced Eliel Saarinen to his father, George Gough Booth, from whom Eliel Saarinen recieved the commission to design the Cranbrook complex in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

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Cranbrook, in particular the Academy of Art, was the manifestation of a George Booth's vision of a Midwestern institution that would facilitate the integration of the arts and crafts into contemporary culture. Under Eliel Saarinen's direction as president of the Academy and program head of architecture, Cranbrook became a nationally recognized school of design. The faculty included Carl Milles, Maija Grotel, and Mariane Strengell, in addition to the Eliel Saarinen family, while Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Harry Bertoia, Harry Weese, Edmund Bacon, and Jack Lenor Larsen are among its more noteworthy students. At Cranbrook, individuality and freedom were stressed and the sense of community was much like the atmosphere found in the earlier Hvittrast atelier. Eliel Saarinen personally directed the graduate program in architecture, which focused city planning concerns. The studies done in the graduate studio became the structure for Eliel Saarinen's book The City (1), his definitive statement on urbanism.

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At Cranbrook, between 1925 and 1945, Eliel Saarinen executed the School for Boys, the Kingswood Schools for Girls, the Academy of Art, the Institute of Science, the museum and library, faculty housing, and the resident artist's studios. These works ranged in style from the picturesque Boys Schools, to the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Kingswood School, to the more austerely classical Museum and Library complex (Fig. 4). Within this stylistic diversity, the Cranbrook designs exhibit Eliel Saarinen's arts-and-crafts desire for totally integrated environmental works, realized through their excellent siting, exquisite masonry detailing, interior surface treatments, and attendant furnishings and weaving. However, Cranbrook is more than an enclave of Eliel Saarinen buildings; it is a resonant environment incorporating sculptures, artwork, furnishings, and decorative appointments designed and produced by the Academy's faculty and students, as well as by the Eliel Saarinen family.

Eliel Saarinen took few outside commissions in the 1920s, although Eliel Saarinen produced a design for the Christian Science Church in Minneapolis (project, 1925) and entered the League of Nations competition in Geneva (1927). In the 1930s and 1940s, as Eliel Saarinen's practice expanded, he was involved in partnerships with his son Eero and J. Robert F. Swanson, a former student at Michigan (Saarinen and Saarinen, 1936-1942; Saarinen and Swanson, 1943-1946; Saarinen, Swanson, Saarinen, 1946-1947; and Saarinen and Saarinen, 1947-1950). Representative works of this period include Goucher College Plan and Library competition (second prize, 1938, with Eero); Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo (1938-1940, with Eero); Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois (1939-1940, with Eero and Perkins, Wheeler, and Will, associated architects); First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana (1939-1942, with Eero); Smithsonian Art Gallery competition in Washington, D.C. (first prize, 1939, with Eero); and Wayne University Campus Plan competition (second place, 1942, with Swanson). In designs involving Eero's participation, a more modernist posture emerges. Although these buildings and projects often include reflecting pools, towers, and excellent masonry detailing - hallmarks of Eliel's hand - their simplified cubic volumes, elemental plan compositions, and incorporation of horizontal strip windows indicate Eero's influence. At the time of Eliel's death, in July 1950, the Saarinens were engaged in the design of the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, a work eventually completed under Eero's direction.

Although the elder Eliel Saarinen was tied to the romanticism of nineteenth-century arts-and-crafts ideas, and Eliel Saarinen was unable to incorporate modernism's machine aesthetic into his work successfully, he remains an important and influential twentieth-century architect. The sensitivity of his architecture and the perceptiveness of his town planning ideas still provide excellent examples of how to make humane and memorable environments.

Major works:

Finnish Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle (1900), Paris
Hvittrask, Eliel Saarinen's home in Kirkkonummi 1902
Clubhouse of Luther factory, Tallinn, Estonia 1905
Helsinki Central railway station 1905-1914
National Museum of Finland in Helsinki 1902-1904
Lahti Town Hall, Lahti, Finland 1911
Mutual Reserve Association Building, Tallinn, Estonia 1912
Vyborg railway station (today in Russia) 1904-1913 (destroyed 1941)
Saint Paul's Church, Tartu, Estonia 1917
First Christian Church, Columbus, Indiana 1942
Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York; designed in collaboration with his son Eero Saarinen
Original Wing of Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa 1945-1948
Cranbrook Educational Community, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis, Minnesota 1949
The Fenton Community Center, Fenton, Michigan


1 Eliel Saarinen, The City: Its Growth. Its Decay. Its Future, Reinhold Publishing, New York. 1943; republished by the MIT Press. Cambridge, Mass. 1965.

General References

A. Christ -Janer, Eliel Saarinen: Finnish-American Architect and Educator. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1948, Rev. ed.. 1979. Foreword by Alvar Aalto.

R. J. Clark, et al, Design in America: the Cranbrook Vision 1925-1950. Harry Abrams, New York, 1983.

S. Fayens, "Baukunst und Volk," Moderne Bauformen 8(8). 337-353(1909).

"Gesellius, Lindgren, und Saarinen," Moderne Bauformen, 6(4), 137-162(1907).

M. Hausen. "Gesellius-Lindgren-Saarinen." Arkkitehti, 64(9) 6-12(19671.

M. Saarinen, Munttkiniemi-Haaga ja Suur-Helsinki, Osakeyhtio M. G. Stenius, Helsinki, 1915.

E. Saarinen. The Search for Form: A Fundamental Approach to Art. Reinhold Publishing, New York, 1948; republished as The Search for Form in Art and Architecture. Dover PublicaČtions, New York, 1985.

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