Archive for the ‘eero saarinen’ Tag

Christ Church Lutheran, Minneapolis

So everyone is familiar in some way with Eero Saarinen, as his structures are ingrained into the American built environment. His Gateway Arch became the instant symbol of St. Louis upon its completion in the 1960s, and chances are that you have changed planes at Dulles Airport or JFK Airport.

His father, Eliel Saarinen, is less well-known, and has a style all his own which is difficult to pinpoint. Eliel is best known for his “losing” design for the Chicago Tribune skyscraper, which became an oft-imitated model for the tall building and is now seen in 1920s skyscrapers such as the Gulf Building in Houston and the David Stott Building in Detroit. He created a number of seminal structures that manage to fly under the radar, they’re all carefully designed and executed buildings, but understated. They are however recognizable as Saarinen buildings, especially in his use of tan brick. He

designed two religious structures during his US-based career, two similar, radical designs for modern churches. One is in Columbus, Indiana, completed in 1942, and the other is Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Christ Church Lutheran was Eliel Saarinen’s last structure, completed in 1949, he died in 1950.

The exterior is of a simple geometry, with little in the way of decoration. A few sparse sculptural elements adorn the main facade, with some relief elements such as a cross on the side. The interior is a real treasure, with a narrow vertical window providing the illumination for the altar. Composed of white brick, the altar glows. While the exterior is a simple box, the interior adds a few elements of subtle, but noticeable asymmetry. The roof line is slightly slanted, the wall of the altar curves, and there is extra seating under a low ceiling. The brick walls wave in and out upon close inspection. Light comes in from side windows. In short, there is plenty of visual interest inside, but it requires close inspection to really appreciate the design elements. The overall effect is one of calmness.

Christ Church Lutheran, tower and detail of relief

Saarinen Sr. on the left, with the Saarinen Jr. extension on the right

Eero Saarinen, in one of his last works before his untimely death in 1961, designed the extension, which defers to his father’s design elements, and created a low-key, functional structure. The two buildings are linked through interior hallways and underground passages, creating a courtyard with a fountain in the center. This fountain led to leakage into the basement, necessitating an ongoing restoration effort. Right now, the courtyard is a mess with plenty of construction (as of May 2017), but the finished product ought to be similar to how the structure looked before.

Interior, from second floor balcony

Interior from first floor

Columbus, Indiana

Columbus, Indiana, is one of America’s supreme built environments, in a rather unlikely place, located 45 minutes south of Indianapolis, Indiana. Over the past 70 years, there have been a string of distinguished buildings from the leading architects of the day, starting with the First Christian Church of Eliel Saarinen. In this small town of 44,000 is a treasure trove of civic and religious structures, many of them built in an agreement with the Miller family and their Cummins Foundation, who would pay the architects’ fees in exchange for a commission from their list of architects.

The town overall exudes Midwestern conservatism, no doubt a defining feature of Indiana, especially the southern part of the state. I perceived a bit of a Southern flavor as well, given that it’s south of the I-70, and within about an hour of Louisville, Kentucky, and two hours of Cincinnati, Ohio. And it was difficult to find a cup of coffee downtown.

I dropped by in mid-summer 2012, complete with oppressive heat and humidity, and crunchy brown lawns. The best of the buildings are the churches, I visited the three ‘historic’ ones, by Saarinen senior, Saarinen junior, and Harry Weese. Each of them is in a different style, and rendered even more amazing by the more recent McHouses nearby, typical of American suburbia. The Saarinens couldn’t be more different in style, and Weese puts a human scale to Brutalist architecture, and is a very underrated architect. Weese loves concrete and brick, and he did wonders with the First Baptist Church (1965), just as he did with his more recognized works in the DC Metro and Chicago. The outside is reductionist, almost windowless, with the clear elements of a church. The interior is a surprisingly warm space, with wood ceilings, and still plenty of natural light filtering into the sanctuaries. Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church (1942) is very large, occupying an entire city block, a sprawling complex with his signature brickwork and Craftsman-like woodwork. The building must have caused a stir when it opened, as it was unlike anything in the town at the time, and still dominates the area as the tallest structure downtown. Saarinen junior’s North Christian Church (1964) soars tall, with a 200 foot spire topping an asymmetric floor plan. The interior is subdued, with this filtered oculus that didn’t quite work the way it was intended, but still hovers high above the space in a thrilling way.

First Christian Church (1942)

Door detail, First Christian Church

North Christian Church (1964)

Oculus, North Christian Church

Downtown has stuff that one would never imagine today, for example the post office (Kevin Roche, 1970). This is no ordinary post office, it’s a rugged, brawny structure reminiscent of the Daley Center in Chicago. The main newspaper office (The Republic) is a clean, glassy block. Eero Saarinen’s 1954 bank building (Irwin Union Bank and Trust) is accompanied by the skylit addition (Kevin Roche, 1973) that could have been mistaken for 2003. The Saarinen building was probably the most distinguished bank structure since Louis Sullivan’s banks. And there’s a whole lot more, including buildings by Pei, Pelli, Stern, Meier, Venturi, Birkerts, distinguished public art, and all sorts of creative designs for schools, bridges, fire houses, and other civic structures. There’s also Saarinen’s Miller House, which is hidden away (but I think I’ve figured out where it is) and is open for tours, though they were sold out the day I visited.

Irwin Union Bank and Trust, with the 1973 extension on the left, and the original in the background

First Baptist Church (1965)

Interior, First Baptist Church

Still, given all the wonderful buildings in town, it’s hard to say how much this enhances the daily lives of its residents and workers.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.