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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future

Two days after Xmas architect Eero Saarinen is getting the American Masters treatment, when PBS premieres Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future. If Wikipedia is accurate, this is the sixth time the series has profiled an architect; he follows episodes on Charles and Ray Eames (2011), R. Buckminster Fuller (1996), Frank Gehry (2006), Philip Johnson (2003), and I.M. Pei (2010). With such masterpieces as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the TWA Terminal in New York, and Dulles Airport in DC from his short career (he died in 1961 at the age of 51), Eero Saarinen is definitely worthy of being added to the show's small number of architects.

A trailer for the documentary:


I got a peek at the one-hour documentary and would definitely recommend it, particularly for those who only have a rudimentary understanding of Saarinen's life and buildings. Even for those well versed in Saarinen, The Architect Who Saw the Future has a number of surprises, most of them coming from archival footage and new interviews. Although directed by Peter Rosen, the documentary can be seen as the product of Eric Saarinen, the descendent of two great architects (son of Eero and grandson of Eero's father Eliel) and the doc's cinematographer. Much of the narration is provided by Eric, but when it comes to the words of Eero those are narrated by Finnish actor Peter Franzén (Aline Saarinen is voiced by Blythe Danner). Unfortunately, Franzén's readings border on the robotic, making them a distraction from Saarinen's words. A further distraction comes from the Moby soundtrack, since at times it adds all-too-familiar sounds to the mix. These three figures – Eric Saarinen, Peter Franzeén, and Moby – overlap at times, as when Eric's drone footage of the Gateway Arch is accompanied by a reading from Saarinen and Moby's oft-used "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" (evident in the below clip on the competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial).



Over the course of the documentary's hour we see just over ten Saarinen buildings. Combined with the exploration of Eero's personal life interspersed between the buildings, the documentary cannot go into the depth his architecture deserves; perhaps a 90-minute length would have been better. Nevertheless, the combination of Eric's footage, archival materials, and interviews with Kevin Roche, César Pelli, Rafael Viñoly, Robert A. M. Stern, Paul Goldberger, and others is effective, since it greatly emphasizes the firsthand experience of both his buildings and his working methods (Roche and Pelli worked in Saarinen's office). Saarinen was a master with form, structure, and materials, though it's clear that the experience of people moving through his buildings was of the utmost importance. How many other architects, after all, have been able to design iconic chairs – where the human body interfaces directly with design – as well as iconic buildings?

American Masters -- Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future premieres nationwide on Tuesday, December 27 at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), with the DVD available on January 3, 2017 from PBS Distribution.

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