A Brief History of the Arch Part VI: Eero Saarinen

The Arch was designed by Eero Saarinen, who was born in Finland in 1910. Both of his parents were world-famous. His dad was an architect; his mom was a sculptor. From early childhood Eero was exposed to art and design; he later remembered that he was taught that if there was a chair, there had to be a living room or an office; that a building existed within its surroundings.

When Eero was twelve his parents moved to the US. His father was already Finland’s most famous architect. When he won second prize in a contest to design the headquarters for the Chicago Tribune, the family decided that America was ready for his innovative, modern designs. They settled in Evanston, Illinois. Soon afterwards his father was asked to design buildings for the Cranbrook School, a place whose founders wanted to emulate Germany’s famous Bauhaus. Eero’s dad was offered a job to be the head of this effort. The tradition of being surrounded by beauty, creative individuals, and original ideas and designs continued.

Eero showed an early aptitude for innovation and design. At age 12 he won a contest to design matchsticks; the first in a long list of triumphs. By the age of 16 he was in France studying sculpture. He went to Yale to study architecture; as a student he won a grant that allowed him to spend two years in Europe studying the great masters. He also made it to Africa. Then he spent a year in Finland working with a local architect.

Once he came back to the States Eero joined his father’s architectural firm. He made an immediate impression by designing the still famous “tulip chair.” These sold well. This triumph was followed by an onslaught of outstanding commissions and awards. To list a few:

Crow Island School
GM Technical Center
Ingalls Ice Hockey Arena at Yale
TWA terminal building in New York
Dulles Airport Terminal
The “Womb” and “Grasshopper” chairs.

Please take the time to look these up on the Internet. It will give you an idea of what he tried to accomplish when he created something.

Of course, for us in Saint Louis his design for the Arch remains as his most outstanding accomplishment. When Luther Ely Smith’s Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Commission issued the rules for the contest on the Arch design, both Eero and his father submitted entries. This is what Eero saw as his mission:

“The major concern …was to create a monument which would have lasting significance and would be a landmark of our time… Neither an obelisk nor a rectangular box nor a dome seemed right on this site or for this purpose. But here, at the edge of the Mississippi River, a great arch did seem right.”

Eero’s design was one of the five finalists. By mistake, his father was notified that his design had made it to the “Final Five.” He opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Hours later someone had to call him and tell him that it was in fact his son who had caught the eye of the judges. He opened another bottle of champagne and toasted his child. Once the final phase of the contest was entered Eero’s design was the unanimous winner.

Saarinen was an expert on soaring structures that used the concept of “concrete shells.” I’m not an architect and I find it hard to understand forces and dynamics; suffice it to say that many people who saw his sketches were moved to say “How is this roof going to stay up?”

The same can be said for the Arch. For every line of praise there were dozens that were skeptical that this structure would stand. Saarinen’s original design called for an arch that was 590 feet tall. Once developers got wind of what the Arch would look like they swarmed to the riverfront. Plans for huge buildings that were to stand a stone’s throw away were drawn up. Saarinen had a conniption.

He raised the height to 630 feet. The legs were also 630 feet apart. The original inverted catenary arch plan (essentially what you get when you hold both ends of a chain between your fingers) was adjusted so that the weight of the concrete and steel would be more evenly distributed. This made the shape of the arch not as “pointy.” To this day there is an informal, but strictly followed guideline that says that no building within sight can be taller than the Arch.

Each leg is composed of two layers of stainless steel; concrete fills the space between the two. The original design did not allow for an elevator; once the decision was made that people were to be carted to the top, a different engineer was hired to come up with a plan on how to accomplish this (Legend has it that it took less than an hour for the engineer to do this).

Saarinen died of a brain tumor, a few years before ground was broken for construction. So neither of the two giants who envisioned the Arch (Saarinen and Smith) lived to see it finished.

Architecture was Saarinen’s life; he did not leave much in the way of personal notes or books. He left a legacy of inspirational work that still influences every young architect that studies it.

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Lois Allen

    I love hearing about the history of the Arch. I grew up hearing about it from my dad but more than that….I remember riding the bus to school in the 1950s and being able to see the Arch from Ballwin. At the top of the hill we could see it in the distance on a clear day. We can still see it from a distance here in North County, When we first moved into our current house we could see the 4th of July fireworks at the riverfront from our upstairs windows. As trees have grown to maturity the view is gone but we remember it well. I’m sure there are many people who have fond memories of it’s inclusion into St. Louis history.

  2. Cordell Webb

    Thank you for the history of the arch and all the research you did. We St. Louis natives tend to take the arch for granted.

  3. Betty Townsend

    Thanks, you do a very though job. Sad that neither man lived to see what they accomplished.