Archive for the ‘international style’ Tag

Des Moines Art Center

A distinguished group of architects contributed to this medium-sized art museum in the Midwest, which includes additions by I.M. Pei (1968) and Richard Meier (1985). But I’ll concentrate on the original structure, one of Eliel Saarinen’s later designs, completed in 1948. This building has the signatures of Eliel Saarinen’s buildings, warm stone, and an undefinable style. It’s not Art Moderne, or Art Deco, or Art Nouveau, or International Style, but is uniquely Saarinen Sr. For those of you who have visited Cranbrook or his churches, this one stands out as an Eliel Saarinen building. The exterior is Lannon limestone, quarried next door in Wisconsin, alternately rough-cut and smooth, with careful attention to detail. His sweeping lines and calculated asymmetry are evident here, as are the protruding bricks interrupting the horizontality, lending a subtle three-dimensionality to the exterior walls. So he manages to achieve an understated, yet individual result. ┬áThe use of decoration is minimized, instead the textures of the stone become the basis of decoration. The entryway is a masterly series of gentle curves that draws the visitor inside, emphasized by the sparse use of horizontal lines around the vestibule. Like all of Saarinen’s structures, the refinement and quality is really appreciated with a closer, rather than cursory, look.

Front entrance, a mix of glass, smooth stone, and brickwork

Another view of the main entryway

Courtyard entrance detail

Courtyard, with Pei (left) and Meier (right) additions

 

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