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Sire & Sisu. Saarinen credits his natural competitiveness partly to his Finnish sisu* and the example of his hardworking, hard-playing father. Eliel Saarinen was Finland's No. 1 architect (the Helsinki railroad station and National Museum) and town planner (Helsinki, and Canberra, Australia). He set up headquarters in a romantic, rustic, 38-room retreat which he and his partners built overlooking Hvitträsk (White Lake), 18 miles outside Helsinki. After he married a sister of one of his partners, Sculptress Loja Gesellius, they turned it into a center of crafts and architecture. Among the stream of visitors and guests: Russian Novelist Maxim Gorky, Critic Julius Meier-Graefe, Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil von Mannerheim, Composer Jean Sibelius.
Center of the household for Eero and his older sister, Eva-Lisa, always called Pipsan, was the 90-ft.-long, all-purpose studio and living room where the elder Saarinen worked with his draftsmen while his wife sculptured and sewed. Such a beehive of cultural activity was calculated either to smother or force the children. In the case of Eero and Pipsan, it forced.
By the time Eero was five, his talent for drawing had shown itself. Sitting under his father's drafting tables, he busily turned out his own versions of door details and houses. Encouraged by his mother, he progressed to blood-and-thunder pictures of Indians he had read about in James Fenimore Cooper (he can still rattle off the names of 30 tribes) and knights from Ivanhoe. At twelve he was proficiently drawing nudesa common sight in the house, since Eliel Saarinen was then busy designing Finland's national currency, using nude models (while grandfather Juno Saarinen, a Lutheran minister, sat in the background rheumily chattering about religion and philosophy).
From his father Eero learned two lessons he never forgot. One: "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger contexta chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, environment in a city plan." The second, Eero learned one day when he went to visit a girl friend, leaving half-done at home his design for a matchbox-emblem contest. When young Eero asked to stay longer, he was firmly ordered home, told: "Competitions come first, girls second."
Two years later Eero proudly walked off with first prize in a Swedish newspaper matchstick-design contest, collected 30 Swedish kronor ($8). The same week, his father received a telegram from Chicago announcing that he was runner-up in the international Chicago Tribune Tower contest, with a design that Skyscraper Architect Louis Sullivan hailed as "a voice, resonant and rich, ringing amidst the wealth and joy of life." Eliel Saarinen promptly dipped into the $20,000 prize to move his family to the U.S. When the family landed in Manhattan, Eero Saarinen was twelve.