Art: The Maturing Modern

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Well-building hath three conditions:

Commodity, Firmness and Delight.


Ever since man settled down under roof, he has been at the mercy of his buildings. What he sees, how he lives, looks, thinks—even how he dies—are overwhelmingly affected by the structures he designs and builds. Through the generations, good builders have tried to measure up to the formula of Roman Architect Vitruvius Pollio, contemporary of Julius Caesar, but they have often thought more of the structure than of its inhabitants, and have at times produced more monstrosity than delight, more discomfort than commodity. But in mid-20th century the art of well-building has reached a high state, and is moving toward greater achievements.

The greatest progress has come in a land not otherwise noted for its leadership in the world of art: the U.S. From Beacon Hill to Nob Hill, modern architecture has squalled and tottered through its awkward, unruly, early years, but it has begun—if only begun—to mature. In Paris, architectural students eagerly follow the new work of younger U.S. architects with all the fervor that Left Bank jazz addicts reserve for Dizzy Gillespie and Satchmo Armstrong. Said a young French architect: "When we have a chance to see what your architects are doing, we have a picture of what the future can become. We have something to believe in."

Monopoly on Masters. In a major sense, U.S. pre-eminence in modern architecture is an expression of the country's fabulous industrial expansion. It is also a tribute to the triumphant breakthroughs by U.S. industrialists and engineers whose work (ranging from the pioneering Brooklyn Bridge to the machine precision of General Motors' new Technical Center outside Detroit) has made U.S. resources, machine craftsmanship and technical brilliance the envy of the world. Because there have been and are great opportunities in the U.S., the country now has a virtual monopoly on the best creative architectural talent of this century (see box).

Surest sign of the healthy state of U.S. architecture is the large number of promising younger talents. And of the whole U.S. cast of modern architects, none has a better proportioned combination of imagination, versatility and good sense than Eero Saarinen, 45, son of late great Finnish-born Architect Eliel Saarinen.

Outwardly, Eero (pronounced arrow) Saarinen (rhymes with far-'n-then) looks like a country family doctor, dresses with the casualness of a young college prof, prefers to live clear of the cities, in the rolling countryside of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (pop. 2,100), 18 miles from downtown Detroit. His headquarters is a simply constructed, often cluttered office shed he designed for himself, just two minutes' drive from his home over winding country roads. Even with an office staff of 43, Saarinen's is a small operation by comparison with the major U.S. architectural organizations, e.g., Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's 700 employees. Says Saarinen, who likes to see his plans through from drafting table to finished building: "I feel strongly that architecture has to be a personal service."

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