Eero Saarinen and his three gifts to New York

Above: an early photo of Saarinen’s TWA terminal

I played hookey from New York City this weekend and journeyed down to Washington DC, where among other things, I checked out the Eero Saarinen exhibit at the National Building Museum. Saarinen, a versatile furniture designer and prolific architect, is best known as designer of the St. Louis Gateway Arch and has a resume of structures all over the globe. Saarinen was known as an architectural chameleon of sorts, shifting styles to fit the project. Although he died relatively young, at age 51 of a brain tumor, he gave New York City three very memorable, completely different buildings.

Vivian Beaumont Theatre (150 West 65th Street, at Lincoln Center) — Completed four years after Saarinen’s death, the Vivian Beaumont was designed as part of the Lincoln Center complex, thus its concrete and glass containment works in sync with the other buildings in the plaza. Friendly but formal, this massive theatre remains as the only Broadway house outside the traditional Broadway district and has a notable thrust stage that gives performances a virtual in-the-round feel. Its two largest recent productions — South Pacific and The Coast of Utopia — gathered piles of Tony Awards. (There’s also a smaller off-Broadway stage, the Mitzi E. Newhouse, inside the building.)

CBS Building (51 West 52nd Street, affectionately known as Black Rock) — Saarinen’s critics accused him lacking a defining aesthetic, something you might believe comparing the Lincoln Center playhouse to this lurching, severe structure on Sixth Avenue. Both buildings opened the same year, 1965, executed by Saarinen’s firm. The CBS Building (pictured at right) employed a moat of public space, and the building springs out of the crevice like an ominous plant. On an avenue of steel, the rather scary CBS Building was the first to use reinforced concrete, although it’s draped in black granite.

TWA Terminal (JFK Airport, Queens) — If you’re gonna write home about a Saarinen building in New York, make it the kooky, sometimes foolish, always imaginative terminal he designed for TWA that was completed in 1962. (Its a tragedy that he never saw any of his New York buildings — not to mention the Arch itself — in final form.) The terminal is so exotic and loopy that it jolts arriving passengers.

It has the unity of some organic space being, retro-futuristic down to its benches. Or as Saarinen describes: “All the curves, all the spaces and elements right down to the shape of the signs, display boards, railings and check-in desks were to be of a matching nature.” It outlived TWA, which was bought out in 1991. Thankfully landmarked in 1994 — saving it from any potential urges to demolish its now-dated, spacy halls — its slated to reopen in the fall as a gateway to a new JetBlue terminal.