“Arch”itect Delivered Timeless Designs
Architect Eero Saarinen didn’t live to see his greatest work completed. Saarinen died after surgery for a brain tumor in 1961, at the age of 51. It wouldn’t be until four years later, in 1965, that his audacious concept of a massive shining arch would rise 630 feet above the banks of the Mississippi River.
Saarinen beat out 171 other entries in the 1947 design competition with his plan for a colossal arch, now known as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and corresponding landscape. For many of his projects, Saarinen favored very simple geometric shapes. The Arch design is based on a parabolic weighted cantenary curve, which is simply the shape a chain would take when suspended between two points. The final version of the Arch, refined by Saarinen over eight years, also uses a simple 1:1 aspect ratio, meaning the 630 foot height matches the length of the 630 foot wide base.
Interestingly, reports have it that the Saarinen family at first thought Eliel, who also had submitted a separate design, had won the competition, as the official notification read “E. Saarinen.” As the family toasted the win with a bottle of champagne, a competition official called to congratulate Eero. Without bitterness, Eliel switched gears on the celebration and opened a second bottle in his son’s honor.
Saarinen’s other notable projects included the CBS Building (also known as Black Rock) in New York, the General Motors Technical Center in Michigan, the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and the main terminal of Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. He also designed buildings at universities, such as Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Vassar College, University of Michigan and more.
Although Saarinen died before many of his projects were built, his vision, innovation and creativity did not go unnoticed. The American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded Saarinen its Gold Medal in 1962, and his simple, timeless design achievements, including the Gateway Arch, still resonate today.