Cities of the Midwest: Modernist Architecture (Saarinen) Road Trip

Eero Saarinen, Finnish-American Architect, created iconic buildings, all straight lines and bright light. Some of his best works are scattered through the Midwest.
Why Saarinen?
My own personal love for the Saarinen aesthetic came from college. I lived in a now demolished dormitory at University of Chicago. This dorm looked into the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and the Gothic revival Ida Noyes. In other words, the architectural plenty around me only further supported my belief that I was living in prison. The cinder brick walls certainly supported my supposition. At some point, I wandered into the computer center (do they have those anymore?), and above me was an amazing drawing. The drawing depicted my dorm, but better. It had the interior courtyard that we all loved. The interior spaces were similar to our own ugly dorm but nicer. It was like seeing what could have been, and then going to back to what really was.
University of Chicago didn’t choose to invest in the vision Saarinen had for the dorm. They kept the basic plan, and employed cut rate materials. Eventually, they knocked down this cut rate Saarinen for a Raphael Vinoly building. (A topic that need not be discussed.)
My love of Saarinen was sparked by seeing that plan.  He was an architect who thought about people in space. He focused on composing light and raw materials to create human experiences. Even for the non-architecture groupies, walking into a Saarinen space feels remarkable.
Saarinens are easy to find in the Midwest. An easy road trip would be to do Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit. Columbus, Indiana and St. Louis are detour that you might take on other trips.
Road Trip: Milwaukee

Milwaukee War Memorial Center, 1957
Set on a bluff over Lake Michigan, this building is set on concrete stilts to expose a central courtyard.  The building is amazing for its contradictions. Large concrete rectangles seem light as they are filled with enormous glass windows. The monolithic building almost seems to float, like a cloud, beside Lake Michigan.  The original War Memorial was also used for the Milwaukee Art Museum. In 2001, the museum began an expansion by Calatrava, making this an ideal two for one Architecture lovers stop.  When you are in the art museum, try to get a peak of Saarinen’s most famous design, the Tulip Chair.

Road Trip: Chicago
D’Angelo Law Library, 1959
Saarinen created a plan for […]

Continue Reading

Cities of the Midwest: Columbus Indiana

City is perhaps overstating it, but this town of 40,000 in southern Indiana is a mecca for architecture aficionados. This town is an easy drive from Indianapolis, 1 hour south; Cincinnati, 2 hours west; Louisville, 1 hour north. Its the sort drive where you assume that you might be in the wrong place, as you pass field, barns, and grain silos.  And, as with all our our road trips, we were found ourselves slightly off path.

Very close to Columbus we got turned around.  Its a classic family trip ritual when GPS no longer works, and we no longer remember how to read road signs. On this turn about, we found ourselves in Greenburg, Indiana. Apparently, there has been a tree growing out of the old town hall off and on for more than one hundred years. Odd, huh?  I have many questions. No answers.  Only tip I have is to go with the flow on the detours. And take pictures!

Columbus is a destination because of the architecture. It started with a few well-heeled, post-World War II industrialists who decided to put their money into paying architects of stature to change the look of the town. One of the early buildings was designed by Finnish architect Elliel Saarinen. This modernist church was designed to have a sparse exterior to foster the rich interior of the parishioner.  He used brick that resonated with the original architecture, but modernized them with clean rectangular forms.

After this first foray in architecture, the town put in real money to draw other architects including one my favorites Eero Saarinen. His Miller House is a masterful combination of light, space, and pops of color.  Take the Miller house tour, and then drive […]

Continue Reading