David Leventi

America can learn from the father and son architects that helped shape New York.

October 28, 2015

Over a million immigrants will arrive in the United States in 2016, many through New York’s JFK airport. For the sharp-eyed window passenger, their approach will be guided by the curving wingspan of the TWA Flight Center, the Jet Age masterpiece of one of America’s most celebrated architects: the Finland-born Eero Saarinen.

Eero Saarinen and his father Eliel—collectively referred to as the Saarinens—had an architectural concept of American identity, and the impact of their work is felt all over the country.

Almost 400 miles northwest of the airport, a yearlong celebration is already underway. In Buffalo—where the sun sets over Lake Erie and the stereotype of the former industrial town is energetically brushed off—an acoustic gem is turning 75.

 © Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo

Buffalo’s Kleinhans Music Hall is more than just an object of local pride, it is also a testament to the Old World meets New World collaboration of father and son Saarinen. City firm HHL Architects has maintained Kleinhans for decades, and restoration architect Theodore Lownie talks through the features of the building as if describing the visage of an old friend.

At Kleinhans, the proscenium arch, which encloses the stage in most concert halls, is absent. To Lownie, this is democratic design: “The artists and the performers merge into one being," he says. Meanwhile, the windowless exterior looks like a European fortress. If someone were hoping to find evidence of a generational difference between father and ‘Americanized’ son, the contrast between the exterior (with signatures of Eliel) and soaring interior (Eero) might serve.

Eero’s career is “the American story” says Tyler Morse, CEO of MCR Development, which is converting the TWA Flight Center into a hotel in a public-private partnership with New York’s Port Authority and Jet Blue. It's a deal that's only recently been finalized; over the years the site has been eyed by bigwigs like hotelier André Balazs and Donald Trump. The project is estimated to cost $265 million and welcome guests in 2018.

The Saarinens had “raw talent that succeeded based on merit,” Morse adds, which is the rewards system of the quintessential American dream. Aptly, Eero designed corporate headquarters for national business icons like GM (with Eliel), IBM, and John Deere—as American as apple pie.

The fanciful TWA Flight Center was imagined in 1955, when the idea that anything was possible was at its peak. It has 125,000 square feet of volume held up by just 4 points: “A structural wonder,” Morse says.

However, the history of the Saarinens is hardly as simple as old and new, father and son, or Finn and American—nor would lovers of great architecture want it to be. Even Eero Saarinen—thought to be the Americanized son—spent summers in his Finnish homeland. In a 1956 TIME Magazine profile of the architect, he attributes his success to ‘sisu,’ an untranslatable Finnish term roughly meaning ‘grit.’

“All really good buildings are about something and it’s incumbent on the viewer, if they can, to discover what that something is,” Lownie says. To him, Eliel and Eero designed Kleinhans in order to “contain” people and sound. And as the music of Eliel Saarinen’s friend, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, stormed through the auditorium one recent weekend it was hard not to think of the hall as a vessel for tradition.

“Architecture is not just to fulfill man's need for shelter, but also to fulfill man's belief in the nobility of his existence on earth,” Eero told TIME in 1956. At the end of the day, the Saarinens were not ideologues, nor did they unlock possibilities as a statement of American exceptionalism. If they believed in any bridge between their Old World and New World, it was goodness and nobility.

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