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Growing up the son of a world-famed architect was no easy problem for Eero Saarinen. He had to win through to a style of his own. First clear-cut sign that he was going to be something more than just the son of a famous father was the national competition for the St. Louis Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in 1948. The elder Saarinen submitted a formal monumental design; Eero's entry was an audacious, 590-ft. stainless-steel arch that looked like a giant, glistening croquet wicketwhich he had conceived while bending a wire and wool pipe cleaner. A telegram announced Eliel the winner. The family broke out the traditional champagne to celebrate.
Only days later was the secretary's mistake uncovered: the $40,000 first prize was properly Eero's. His arch, hailed by the jury as "a work of genius . . . which will rank it among the nation's great monuments," has not yet been built, but it is Eero Saarinen's favorite work.
"Tivoli Gardens. Boy!" The younger Saarinen clinched his position as top U.S. architect with the $100 million, 25-building General Motors Technical Center outside Detroit, hailed by Architectural Forum as "an architectural feat which may be unique in our time." A model of modern architecture, the G.M. center has glistening expanses of aluminum, greenish glass and grey porcelain façades, interchangeable office paneling and windows "zippered in" with neoprene gaskets.
At G.M. and in his other work, Saarinen readily acknowledges a number of his father's influences: a sense of spaciousness and orderliness, the complementing of existing structures, the use of bodies of water to provide focal points, resistance to a set style, a fondness for expressive materials. But there is another influence at work: that of Mies van der Rohe, the glass and steel purist whose "Less is More" has become younger architects' gospel.
Saarinen readily admits Mies's crystallizing influence on his work. "Mies was a mature influence," he says. "He puts clamps on the problem." But Saarinen is no blind follower of any style. "When you do a job like this," he says of the G.M. Center, "your mind goes back to Versailles, the Tivoli Gardens, San Marco, the way Italians used pavements. And you think, 'Boy! Let's do that!'" Saarinen admits he has to ask himself: "Is that creating a new architecture?" And he replies: "Isn't it just bringing back things that have been lost to architecture? We must still create, but we would like to bring back some of the great awarenesses that existed in the past, expressed in our own forms and technology."