Art: The Maturing Modern

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Earth & Sky. As usual, Eero Saarinen has much to keep him busy far into the night. With 39 major structures already built, he has $35 million worth of works in progress, involving 50 buildings, 21 campus residences and one $300,000 house. As usual he is never completely satisfied with his own projects nor with the general state of his profession.

"Strict functionalism was a necessary purgative," he says, "but after all, there is nothing esthetic about an WOMB CHAIR) enema." Agreeing that modern architecture has won the day, he says: "Now is the time to examine the presuppositions."

Saarinen's insistence on doing this has made him one of the most debated, and at the same time imaginative, architects today. Rejecting the cult of the cube as the answer to every problem, he made his M.I.T. auditorium a billowing, white shell of concrete, resting on three points, in which the acoustic elements could be placed. His questioning ("Need a church be rectangular?") produced M.I.T.'s cylindrical brick hatbox chapel, lighted from a single honeycomb skylight above and light bounced up from the narrow, containing moat through low arches to give the interior a grotto-like mystery and calm.

In designing Concordia Senior College at Fort Wayne, Ind., Saarinen remembered the snug appearance of Danish villages clustered around their church, kicked the modern cliche of the flat roof skyhigh, and designed the chapel and buildings with pointed roofs. Says he: "There is a whole question of how to relate buildings to earth and sky. Is the sharp horizontal really the best answer? We must have an emotional reason as well as a logical end for everything we do." Saarinen admits his decision spread dissension even within his office, but he let the peaked roofs stand. "The smorgasbord boys love it," he says, "but the Mies followers are not convinced."

"It Will Get Better." Saarinen's belief that "each building must have its own look," and be a "good neighbor" as well, has brought down the wrath of modern purists, who favor glass and steel even if it clashes with every building in the area. Saarinen's answer was to show what he meant in his plan for the new design of the U.S. embassy on London's Grosvenor Square by keeping the structure modern but keying the floor levels and spacings of the front façade to the surrounding Georgian buildings. He also got off his mind another pet peeve: that too much modern ages poorly. He designed the embassy in Portland stone, London's traditional building trim which ages to a contrasting rain-washed white and deep, sooty black.

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