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Washington DC, USA – Revealed: Eero Saarinen's secret wartime role in the White House

Documents reveal Eero Saarinen’s Second World War secrets

A new exhibition in Washington, DC – entitled Eero Saarinen: A Reputation for Innovation – highlights the work of the Finnish-born American architect, including such 20th century masterpieces as St Louis’ Gateway Arch and the TWA Terminal Building at New York’s JFK Airport. A pioneer of modern form and a structural innovator, his career was bookended in Washington between the much-publicised Smithsonian Gallery of Art competition of 1939 and the world’s first jet airport, Dulles International, completed in 1962. But Saarinen also had another Washington connection – a secret one. He was among a handful of design professionals who worked directly for America’s first intelligence agency. The context is crucial: in those critical years when America entered the Second World War, Saarinen and his colleagues had the opportunity to use design as a strategic tool.

When Saarinen was featured on the cover of Time magazine in July 1956, his portrait was superimposed on the masterplan of General Motors Technical Centre in Detroit, the largest corporate campus in America. At 45, Saarinen was one of the youngest of Time’s
cover-architects, a small
fraternity that includes giants
like Frank Lloyd Wright and 
Le Corbusier. Although a generation younger, Saarinen died just two years after Wright and four years before Le Corbusier. Unlike them, he did not enjoy the sustained interest of historians or the press until recently, when new books and a major travelling exhibition (Shaping the Future) revealed the depth of his legacy.

Press coverage brought Saarinen instant fame in 1939, when he was 29. Washington was then the scene of the most heated architectural battle in the country. The Smithsonian competition had attracted more than 400 entries, with the Saarinen team (father, son and son-in-law) as the unanimous winner. Reflecting the aspirations of New Deal America, the competition represented a culmination of the brief but direct involvement of the federal government in the arts. The result precipitated the clash between modernists and classicists and remains to this day a significant episode in the collective memory of 20th-century architects.

The Saarinen team was from Cranbrook Academy, the school in Michigan that produced world-famous creative designers including Charles and Ray Eames, designer Harry Bertoia, Swedish sculptor Carl Milles and furniture designer Florence Knoll, with whom Eero Saarinen established lifelong friendships and collaborations. Cranbrook was the brainchild of Saarinen’s father, Eliel, a famous architect who emigrated from Finland in 1923 with his second-place prize money for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition. 

Franklin Roosevelt established America’s first intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942, with William Donovan as its head. Saarinen was appointed consultant in research and analysis in the Presentation Division at a salary of US$10 per day. Within four months he was appointed chief of the Special Exhibitions Section. That Saarinen’s work was highly regarded is evidenced by his supervisor’s description of him: ‘Mr Saarinen came to the OSS with the reputation of being the most versatile and gifted young designer and architect in this country.’

His application stated that ‘due to the confidential nature 
of the work of this office, it is not in accord with the public interest to reveal the specific assignments of the registrant.’ However, declassified documents reveal he was
‘responsible for planning,organising, developing andadministering all activities of the Special Exhibitions Section engaged in the design, construction, installation and operation of exact scale models […] for specific use in planning the strategy of actual military operations.’

Saarinen’s background was perfect for the job to which he volunteered his services. His model-making was honed throughout his youth at Cranbrook where, under the tutelage of his sculptor mother, he helped make models for Eliel’s buildings; his design skills were displayed in the many furniture pieces he drafted while still in his teens. Saarinen initially wanted to pursue his mother’s profession but went on to study architecture at Yale, where he gained a reputation for winning competitions. After graduating it was no surprise that he was recruited by a classmate to work on Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama exhibit for the New York World’s Fair. 
It was the same Yale classmate, Donal McLaughlin, who would be his connection in Washington during the war. McLaughlin, who graduated in 1933, worked with a New York industrial design firm that recruited for Donovan’s team. McLaughlin later confirmed that their experience at the New York World’s Fair was directly relevant; the futuristic world of the fair found practical application in the war efforts.

Saarinen was in charge of all the exhibits work of the Presentation Division of the OSS. The 32-year-old architect led a large group of specialists engaged in production of exact scale models to equip the situation room, or war room, where the president and the joint chiefs of staff conducted briefings. Equipped with projection equipment and props, the room relied on visual communication to inform these busy decision-makers about complex problems in the shortest time possible.

Saarinen’s OSS work also involved developing ‘special display equipment for conferences, pilot models of new weapons and devices, models for use by military schools, props and models for film reports’. Documents establish the breadth of a contribution that was not confined to architecture but significant in redefining design in the broadest sense. ‘A notable example is his invention of the three-dimensional organisation chart, which has proven so useful in presenting problems of procedure and work-flow through various parts of an organisation,’ they reveal. Aware of the power of visual presentation, OSS leadership harnessed the creative energies of Saarinen and his peers byextending the use of visual tools into crucial public propaganda efforts.

Although most of his work was highly secret, Saarinen was free to consult with other specialists and technicians in private industry and other government agencies. It may be that both his unconventional design experience at the OSS and his contacts during the war served him well the rest of his life, as he emerged one of the preeminent architects of the mid 20th century.

During his tenure at OSS, Saarinen lived in a Georgetown townhouse with his wife Lily and one-year-old son, setting up an architectural practice with his brother-in-law Robert Swanson. He was permitted to take time off from the OSS for private commissions such as large-scale war housing projects. After the war, he returned to Michigan to work with his father, until Eliel’s death in 1950. When he established his own practice that year Saarinen quickly emerged at the forefront of the profession, well known within architectural circles and in public, after newspapers and magazines such as Vogue, Esquire and Playboy published his buildings and furniture. In 1953 he divorced Lily to marry Aline B Louchheim, an accomplished art critic who had fallen in love with him while profiling him for a piece in the New York Times. Aline would prove a compassionate partner and formidable ally who helped him get plum commissions including Vassar College and the CBS headquarters in New York City.

By 1960 Eero Saarinen was one of America’s busiest architects, with numerous corporate commissions as well as campus masterplans and educational buildings. Even more visible were his technologically innovative public buildings (the airports) and the Gateway Arch, the tallest steel monument of 
the time.

His buildings abroad include the American embassies in London (the largest US embassy in Western Europe) and Oslo. Saarinen’s mass-produced
furniture became instantly well known, particularly the Wombchair and the Tulip series of chairs and tables, symbols of the space age. In the late summer of 1961, at the peak of his fame, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Tragically he died soon after on 1 September. 

Saarinen left an enormous body of work. His buildings, too hard to categorise, had made him difficult to pigeonhole with other modernists and, despite all the fame he attracted during his life, his popularity almost vanished for decades. He had defined and practised architecture as ‘new structural material, new uses, a new spirit of our age’, always aware that ‘yes, we are facing new frontiers’. That exuberant variety, but more importantly his passion for innovation coupled with his sense of social responsibility and ability to use design in the most strategic and effective way, have proved that his work has ‘lasting truths’ – and maybe a few titillating secrets. 

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