Eero Saarinen

Reconciliation in Film

Eric Saarinen shares his famous father Eero’s life story in a documentary that premieres on the West Coast during Modernism Week in Palm Springs.

Lydia Kremer Modernism

Eero Saarinen
Eero Saarinen designed the Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, another example of midcentury modern architecture.
PHOTO BY ERIC SAARINEN

Eric Saarinen wants to introduce you to his father. But there was a time when he was reluctant to make that connection known.

When Eric was 12, his parents divorced, leaving him resentful toward his father, Eero, a neo-futuristic Finnish architect. Eero designed the famous Tulip Chair with Charles Eames in 1940, which was and is still being produced by Knoll, and may be less known for designing structures like St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. Eero left Eric’s mother, Lillian, for his second wife Aline with whom he had a son named Eames, named after his best friend, Charles.

Filmmakers Peter Rosen (director) and Robert Ziegleman (associate producer) wanted to put Eero Saarinen’s life on film, and asked Eric for an interview. He was reluctant at first. His father died in 1961 when Eric was 19, leaving seven years where father and son had only summers together to try and reconcile. He began reading his father’s letters that are now housed at the Smithsonian. “I could see that he really loved this woman. I then reconsidered and went back [to the filmmakers],” Eric says.

The result is Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future, which will be screened for the first time on the West Coast Feb. 19 during Modernism Week in Palm Springs. Eric is on camera being interviewed about his father as well as behind the lens. A UCLA film school grad, Eric is an accomplished cameraman who has worked on 15 feature films and numerous commercials.

“I thought it might be good for me to be involved in the project and work for my father’s legacy and keep it truthful,” he says. “I felt I could help him by using my skills as a filmmaker.”

PHOTOS BY ERIC SAARINEN
Collaborating with his father Eliel, Eero Saarinen help build the General Motors Technical Center in 1956.

He decided to jump onboard as the film’s director of photography. “This has been a great journey for me,” he says. “It’s a story of forgiveness almost 50 years later and it gave me closure.”

The name of the film takes its cue from a career retrospective exhibition, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, and a book by the same name. The exhibition traveled from 2006–2010 throughout Europe and the U.S., including a stop at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

“It will be screened in the film’s original full-length version,” Eric says. “It will be the full 68 minutes in high definition the way it’s meant to be seen.” A 53-minute version of the film has previously been aired on PBS. Eric shot the film using drone technology for the film’s spectacular aerial views of his father’s architecture.

Among Eero’s architectural landmarks shown in the film are the TWA Travel Center at New York’s JFK Airport and the General Motors Technical Center in Michigan. Despite the stunning success of his many projects, Saarinen may not have received as much international recognition after his life was cut short at age 51.

In a 2004 Boston Globe article, writer Clay Risen pointed out at the time that “a man dubbed ‘the most famous young architect in America, perhaps in the world’ by Architectural Forum in 1962, has been almost completely ignored — even ostracized — by critics and architectural historians.”

Eric Saarinen aims to change that with this film. “I’m so glad and so rewarded to help my father in the one thing he couldn’t do, to help his legacy and to be known in future architectural study,” he says.

Eric is now researching his grandfather, Eliel Saarinen, also an architect.

“My father and grandfather worked together for about 35 years. When they were awarded the General Motors project, it was the largest commission at that point at $20 million,” Eric explains.

The GM Tech Center is a 710-acre campus opened in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and considered a National Historic Landmark. “When it was finished, it was worth more than $100 million.”

PHOTOS COURTESY OF MANUSCRIPTS & ARCHIVES, YALE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY Completed in 1965 and opened to the public in 1967, The Gateway Arch designed by Eero Saarinen has been a famous symbol for St. Louis, Mo.

PHOTOS BY ERIC SAARINEN
The TWA Flight Center opened in 1962 as the original terminal at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Both Eric and his sister Susan will attend the premiere and participate in a Q&A following the screening.

Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future, 4:30 p.m. Feb. 19, Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; www.modernismweek.com.

Lydia Kremer is a Palm Springs–based writer, publicist, and the author of 100 Things to Do in Palm Springs Before You Die.

Reconciliation in Film was last modified: March 29th, 2017 by Lydia Kremer