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Architect's decline, revival topic of lecture

Acclaimed mid-20th century architect Eero Saarinen's most famous commissions include the Trans World Airways Terminal at JFK Airport, the St. Louis Gateway Arch and Kleinhans Music Hall, designed with his father, Eliel Saarinen.

Those well-known projects, however, were the exception to the rule for the highly adaptable Finnish-American architect, whose works were often in significant but less conspicuous locations.

Architectural historian and critic Jayne Merkel told an audience in Canisius College's Richard E. Winter Student Center on Tuesday it was one reason why the years immediately after Saarinen's death in 1961, at age 51, began a decades-long slide in recognition for a man she said was "the most famous architect of his generation."

Saarinen's drift toward obscurity began to be reversed in the 1990s, and his place as one of the 20th century's most versatile and modern innovators is now secured, Merkel said.

"This really was a man of his time. He was on the cover of Time magazine [in 1956], which was like -- for the young people in the audience -- winning 'American Idol' back then," Merkel joked. "It showed he had really done something big."

Merkel's highly praised monograph, "Eero Saarinen," published in 2005, is one of several recent books that, along with a traveling exhibition, celebrate the architect's modernist vision and influence.

Merkel, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Eliel Saarinen, spoke of Eero's early creative home life in a country estate 18 miles west of Helsinki.

Musical composers such as Gustav Mahler often visited.

"It was because of those friendships that Eliel was asked to design Kleinhans Music Hall later. In a sense, the roots of Kleinhans were there," Merkel said.

Kleinhans was significant, she said, partly because "it's one of the few mature works that the two worked together on. It's also one of the few modern concert halls of that period."

Steps along his career included designing corporate headquarters for General Motors, IBM and John Deere, and buildings on university campuses from Yale to the University of Pennsylvania. The curvy TWA terminal and 630-foot-tall stainless-steel St. Louis Arch remain Saarinen's most recognizable designs.

At the time of his death, Eero Saarinen and Associates employed 40 architects, several of whom went on to widely successful careers.

"He was the boarding school for becoming a famous architect," Merkel said.


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