Friday, February 13, 2015

Inspiration - Eliel Saarinen

There are times when genius comes out of left field. Eliel Saarinen is an example of this.
Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen was born, the second of seven children, to a middle class couple in the insignificant village of Rantasalmi, in the Grand Duchy of Finland, a small part of the Russian Empire. His father was a clergyman, and his mother was from a good middling family.
There had been no artists on either side of the family up until then, but they were an intelligent, musical family, known for skill with languages (a useful trait in such a polyglot region). His parents were also known to be orderly, quick witted and cheerful.
None of this naturally leads to artistic talent, but young Eliel had drive, and was given opportunities which he ran with. His family moved to a town near Saint Petersburg, which gave him the chance to experience the architecture of the Russian capital as well as the masterpieces in the Hermitage museum. This inspired him to sketch and paint whatever he saw, especially buildings. Later he was sent to Helsinki to study architecture at the Polytechnic Institute, where he thrived and met his future professional partners, Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren.
While in Helsinki, he also took art classes at the the Imperial Alexander University. Although he could not be called a great artist, he was certainly a talented architect-artist, whose sense of color and atmosphere was rare. This skill made him the primary illustrator of the partnership, although both Gesellius and Lindgren were capable artists themselves. Below are some of his paintings, executed from age 20 to 35.

This watercolor of Eliel’s little brother, Einar, from 1893, is deceptively simple, but captures the character and details of the boy.

When the Mail arrives at the Rectory is a watercolor from the same year. It is not a great composition, and it seems a bit unfinished, but the mix of warm and cool is nice, and the flashes of detail suggest Eliel’s ability to observe.

This Nude Study in oil looks like a student’s attempt to get away from the fetters of flesh-colored nudes.

This Villa Fantasy, from 1901, screams “Brothers Grimm” to me. Its ink and watercolor is overdone in my opinion, but it presages Saarinen’s love for dramatic lighting in later renderings.

Mathilda Gylden, 1900, watercolor. Saarinen’s marriage to Mathilda Gylden was not happy and they soon divorced. Later he married Louise (Loja) Gesellius, sister of his architectural partner.

Eero, Loja and Pipsen in the inglenook of the Hvittrask Library, 1910s, oil (Eliel’s second wife, with their daughter and son).
Meanwhile, the architectural practice of Gesellius, Lindgren & Saarinen grew, with the support of a number of wealthy businessmen. Saarinen’s glowing watercolor interior renderings of these quirky houses are worth studying. 

This 1901 interior of a fantasy villa shows a sure understanding of perspective, and a delicate handling of shadow.

Suur-Merijoki was a villa designed for a St. Petersburg industrialist. You might call its style “traditional forest castle.” These two views of the great hall suggest a large, warm, flowing space for a family and friends. Saarinen’s handling of wide ranging color and materials is both friendly and compelling. 

The drawing above and two below are from a competition design for a villa in Germany. The Villa Girardet dining room (above) seems rather busy, but Saarinen uses shading to simplify the sense of space. The great room renderings below sport an even wilder ornamentation than the dining room, but still seem friendly. It is one of Saarinen’s great abilities to bring order to a wild variety of colors and shapes. In spite of the wide range of design elements in these interiors, the palette of the renderings is harmonious, and the special feel is unified.

The architectural influences at this early stage in Saarinen’s career were varied, if not muddled. There was the old Finnish building tradition that Saarinen would have seen in his youth. There was also the eclectic mix of historic styles fashionable in Europe, and the Russian tradition that the czars preferred to see built in their empire. Finally, you had the disciplined practice of the French Beaux Arts, and its various spin-offs, especially Otto Wagner.

One of Gesellius, Lindgren & Saarinen’s earliest competition wins (second place) was the Finnish National Theatre (1898). As you can see above, it is clearly influenced by Wagner in both the design and the presentation.
By 1907 Saarinen was on his own, and busier than ever. Although the principal designer now, he continued to produce perspectives and finished renderings, as well as design sketches. The following examples give an idea of his range.
This thumbnail sketch of Kalevala House tower shows the “sketchy” side of his art. It is quite unusual for Saarinen in its apparent softness, which probably is the result of the small size of the sketch. He was famous for using hard, sharp pencils, a habit that led to a curiously soft effect (shown at the end of this post).

This layout for the Canberra town plan competition, which won second prize in 1912, suggests the eye he had for ordered forms. The trees are not individual, but linear elements. The buildings are first silhouettes, and later articulated volumes. 

Saarinen always had a way of welding detailed bits into a pleasing graphic whole. This detailed layout for the Helsinki Railway Station waiting room is a unified classical composition in spite of the thin hard lines and sharp details.
Informative and evocative aerials for town planning were also used as his career grew and his commissions expanded.
Munkkiniemi Haaga, a new planned suburb of Helsinki, gave Saarinen his first chance at city planning in 1915. The planning, as can be expected, was rationally based on statistical studies, but the aerial illustrations of his ideas were very romantic. This glowing rendering is in ink line and ink wash.

This aerial of the lakefront area in Chicago is a late career drawing. The echo of the Tribune Tower, and the spare technique, suggest that his move to the United States had an impact on his art.

Although Saarinen worked only in pencil, ink and watercolor, he tended to match the media to the project. Interiors were delicate; usually done in watercolor, with added ink on larger spaces. Houses were also done in ink and watercolor, but with a stronger hand. Aerial perspectives were ink or ink and watercolor, and were necessarily clear and conventional in style.
If the preceding examples were all that Saarinen had produced I would not be blogging about him. However, his large-scale, monumental projects tended to be more dramatic. He used ink to create texture and detail, and then added watercolor (including opaque white at times) to heighten the effect. A rational object sometimes needs to be seen in an emotional light, and Saarinen regularly did that with large projects, taking them beyond the usual in a glorious way.
I’m a sucker for atmosphere and drama, and so here are a few examples of his artistic takes on architecture.

This sketch of the Helsinki Railway Station from 1910 uses rear lighting to emphasize the tower. The main façade is thereby put into shadow, but that only accentuates the varied forms. This sketch turned out to be an experiment, and all the final presentation drawings used more traditional lighting angles. Still, it is a daring approach for the time.

Saarinen’s strength and uniqueness was in his perspectives, but he could also bring magic to orthogonal drawings. This interior elevation of the Hague Peace Palace competition entry (1906) is composed of fine cross-hatched ink lines. In spite of the fine grain, it has both a unity and a mystery that make it unlike the usual elevation renderings of the time. 

Saarinen was a good friend of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. This architectural fantasy sketch was a gift on the occasion of the composer’s 50th birthday. It is, like the elevation above, a mass of fine lines, but this time Saarinen used only vertical lines. The result is a curiously misty and romantic feeling; very rare in an ink drawing.

This small ink and watercolor sketch for a monumental building (1908) shows Saarinen at his loosest. It is also another example of rear lighting. The building is almost in silhouette, with spots of highlighting to define the overall form. The main façade is hinted at with vague brushstrokes, and the result is impressive. As much as I hate the phrase, in this case it is appropriate: Less is more.

We have surprisingly few examples of Saarinen’s perspective drawing process. One example is the prizewinning rendering of the Parliament House competition in 1908. This page from his sketchbook above is from 1905. He was looking forward to the Hague competition at the time, and was toying with the form and presentation of a monumental government building. He seems to have landed on an image here that became fixed in his mind.

The thumbnail sketch above is a preliminary massing sketch for the Parliament House competition, but it shows that he is following the sketch from 1905 in regard to lighting angle, composition and general “feel.” He has adjusted the relative values of the façade and foreground, but otherwise it is a simple step forward. The sketch itself is very much in his mature style, with close, quick lines of hatching defining the form. It must be a small sketch, since he normally used a sharp, hard pencil. In spite of that the sketch is a strong image with a wide range of values from black to white (I don’t know if he added some watercolor to the sketch, although it would be entirely in line with his habit at this time).

I can’t find a hard layout of the final perspective, but this layout of Lahti Town Hall (1911) gives an idea of the degree of detail he preferred to work from.

In the final the rendering the viewpoint has moved slightly, and the main façade is articulated clearly within a tight range of values. He has added watercolor over the fine ink work to help clarify the form and make it pop out. At this scale the rendering has a soft, atmospheric ambience, which is painterly, realistic and friendly.
In this detail of the rendering you can see the ink lines which make up the “soft” feel of the rendering. Saarinen keeps the heavy outline so noticeable in his final layouts, but they are sharply noticeable only on close inspection. Notice the careful interplay of cool and warm coloring in the shaded façade. Even the sky has a mosaic of lines and mix of color. 

The Tribune Tower Competition Book was my introduction to Eliel Saarinen. His entry was solid and dignified, not a pastiche of style or a caricature of new; it is an admirable design even now, but what caught my artistic eye was the detail of the ink work.

Here is Saarinen at his best. The overall building is presented clearly and strongly, but the detail shows the subtlety used to get there. The detailing is extraordinary, but the means of expressing that detail is mysterious.

Conclusion: Eliel Saarinen is one of my heroes. As you can see from this post, however, he changed and developed over his career. Tradition and watercolor dominated early on, but he ended on an idiosyncratic, neo-traditional note, rendered in fine misty ink. The early work is less interesting to me, while the later is mesmerizing. Although I love a consistent genius, the progressive exploration seen in Saarinen’s life is also worth examining. Goodhue and Sargent are a joy to experience, but perhaps the complexity of Saarinen’s career is more true to my own career.

The best source I’ve seen on Eliel Saarinen (and the primary source for this post) is Eliel Saarinen – Projects 1896 – 1923, by Hausen, Mikkola, Amberg & Valto, Ginko Press, Hamburg, 1990. It was a gift from Frank Costentino, a first-rate artist, teacher and renderer.

Saarinen moved to the United States in 1923, following the Tribune Tower Competition. His international fame made the move possible in spite of his poor English. He worked on the Chicago lakefront planning, and began teaching at the University of Michigan. He was commissioned to design the campus of the Cranbrook Educational Community, and later became president of the avant garde school of design. Between 1925 and 1945 he designed most of the buildings on the campus (the most interesting exception is the chapel by Goodhue).

I have found few of Saarinen’s drawings from this time. However, the drawings for his master plan of Cranbrook are among his best. Unfortunately, I forgot to include them in the original writing of this post. Above is his aerial perspective of the campus, and below, a detail of that aerial. They seem to be closely related to the diagonal ink lined Tribune renderings, but they are produced in ink and pencil instead of purely ink. You can see the difference below; the diagonal lines are consistent, but they range in value from black to light grey. Saarinen may have found that he needed more detail than possible with ink, and he may have also realized the advantage in erasing the pencil to produce a whiter white and a better vignette effect.

Although Saarinen kept his home in Finland (and visited every year), he spent the rest of his working life in Michigan teaching and designing in partnership (from 1936) with his son Eero. One of the last commissions he completed before his death in 1950, was Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, finished in 1949. It is curious that I bicycled passed it while an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota… and was unimpressed. Of course I hadn’t seen his drawings yet!


  1. love to see and read more on eliel. i write a FB friends of eliel saarinen page. always ready to add details.
    love what you have done here.