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Eero Saarinen's Fort Wayne Village

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-09-22


When you’re talking about great architecture in Fort Wayne, the usual suspects tend to include the Allen County Courthouse — created from 1897-1902 by Brentwood S. Tolan — or one of Alvin M. Strauss’s many accomplishments like the Lincoln Tower, or the Embassy Theatre and Indiana Hotel. But rarely does the Concordia Theological Seminary designed by the world-renowned Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen come to mind.

This mid-century master happens to be one of the most prolific, unorthodox, and controversial progenitors of 20th and 21st-century architecture. Saarinen spent his first 13 years in his native Finland before he immigrated with his family to the United States in 1923. Here, Saarinen continued to grow at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where his father Eliel Saarinen (an art nouveau master architect himself) was the director. Later, Eero Saarinen then took classes at Cranbrook and was classmates with such notable designers as Charles and Ray Eames, Neils Diffrient, Ed Bacon, and Florence Knoll (although she didn’t graduate). Saarinen also studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, and Yale University, finishing his studies in 1934.

Part of Saarinen’s genius was the way which he fluidly manipulated his designs and style from project to project, allowing the structures to take the forefront and keeping his persona as architect subtle in relation to the work. Some of Saarinen’s most public and popular works include the Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri, which, upon winning the design competition, the notification was addressed “E. Saarinen” and sent to his father Eliel, who had also sent an entry. Two hours later, the family received a second notice saying that it was Eero who had won. Another masterpiece was the TWA Terminal (now Terminal 5 and operated by Jet Blue) of the JFK International Airport, which was designed as an abstract symbol of flight, and is considered the most architecturally distinguished terminals in the world. The successful evocative design was actually first implemented when Saarinen designed the main terminal of Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. In addition to all of these public monumental buildings, Saarinen also designed the headquarters buildings for CBS, John Deere, and IBM, and was responsible for structures on the campuses of numerous prominent academic institutions such as MIT, Vasser College, University of Michigan, Yale University, and the University of Chicago.

Saarinen’s concept behind the Concordia Theological Seminary was a Scandinavian village — all of its buildings are clustered around the beautifully executed Chapel with its high-pitched roof, and the whole campus effortlessly interfaces with the environment. The multiple layers of the pedestrian spaces surrounding the campuses buildings allow a multitude of perspectives, making the space seem alive through consistent variation. The addition of numerous benches throughout the Preus Memorial Plaza allows for magnificent views of Saarinen’s architecture, and the beauty of the man made lake, which is immediately south of main campus. Also noteworthy and immediately visible is Saarinen’s use of a diamond shaped brick, which creates a novel design of diamonds within diamonds, especially noticeable in the chapel.

The chapel was designed as the architectural focal point of the campus; the tallest building in the “village,” it sits on an elevation next to the lake. After walking through a modern glassy entrance, the chapel tightens with low lying ceiling which abruptly opens up into a breathtaking vaulted sanctuary with mechanically serialized rows of pews which lead to a very open altar surrounded by minimalist candle holders. The whole room is enveloped in the soft, deeply reverent light cast across the space from ingenious portals, which are hidden from view, making the light seem to emit from the walls themselves. The large triangular space is enclosed in front of the viewer by the intricately patterned brick which could be seen on the parallel wall from the exterior as the viewer walked in. This wall however, acts as the backdrop for the religious services, as well as holding the beautifully simplistic stick thin golden cross that hovers above. The two sidewalls, which are segmented, come together, framing the space perfectly, finishing the aesthetically refined, and emotionally complex space.

Because of this visionary’s many accomplishments, an exhibition of Saarinen's work entitled, “Eero Saarinen: Realizing American Utopia”, was organized by the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York City along with the Yale School of Architecture and the Museum of Finnish Architecture. When completed, the exhibition will have toured Europe and the United States, its tour so far has taken it from Helsinki to Oslo, then to Brussels, Cranbrook (Detroit), and Washington D.C., and is presently in Minneapolis at both the Walker Art Center, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art . The exhibition will end in 2010 in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale University. The exhibition is also accompanied by the publication Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.

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