‘Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future’ on PBS’ American Masters

Category: Television and Streaming

I don’t know when and how my fascination with architecture was ignited, but I vividly remember how St. Louis’ landmark Gateway Arch made me feel. So when PBS sent me a press release of American Masters episode with a photo of the Arch, I knew I had to watch it.

American Masters concludes the 30th anniversary season with Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future on December 27, 2016. The documentary explores the life and work of Eero Saarinen (1910 – 1961), Finnish-American architect and industrial designer best known for the St. Louis Arch. It is interwoven with a father-son story across three generations of Saarinen men, Eliel (prominent Finnish architect), Eero, and Eric.

The film showcases Eero’s body of timeless work including the Gateway Arch, General Motors Technical Center, New York’s TWA Flight Center, Virginia’s Dulles International Airport along with his designing maneuvers that went on behind the scenes. The architect’s brainstorming sessions while standing in huge scale models are intriguing. How he executed his ideas with unconventional forms, shapes, and materials as well as who and what influenced his designs are fascinating. Thinking outside the box and re-inventing things each time around were in his nature. You could say his designs represent American optimism and openness of the 50s.

Having said that, you can’t deny an underlying feeling of sadness throughout the documentary because it was directed and co-produced by Eric Saarinen, Eero’s firstborn child from his first marriage. Eero left his family for Aline Louchheim, The New York Times art critic. While visiting the sites of Eero’s as well as Eliel’s works, Eric reflects with sadness on the unhappiness of growing up with absent father. It was a different time; work was everything to these men and absent fathers were the norm. Thanks to that lifestyle, though, we get to enjoy their visionary works for years to come.

His passion for architecture and a strong work ethic made Eero one of the masters of American 20th-century architecture, but it’s heartbreaking to hear Eric saying, “I resented my father for literally abandoning my mother, my sister, and me, but I never saw it from his point of view.” Maybe I’m projecting, but he must be carrying all kinds of ill feelings towards his father.

Then, it dawned on me. This is exactly what Noah Solloway (The Affair) was talking about. This documentary proves that a cheater can be a great man. To the public, Eero may be an architectural giant, but to Eric’s eyes he is a cheater who had left him twice. I wonder what kind of thoughts ran through Eric’s mind when he stood in emotionally engaging and awe-inspiring works of his father, who chose to be absent from Eric’s life and died so sudden at 51. “Closure was something I didn’t have with my dad. But I forgive him for his genius,” Eric commented. I get emotional when I think about his predicament and hope this film was a cathartic release for him. Regardless, I believe Eero Saarinen did what he wanted to do and lived a short yet happy life.

Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future premiers on PBS’ American Masters December 27, 2016.

About the Author

Meg Mimura is a TV critic who actually watches shows zealously in search of human drama worth watching. She is a member of Television Critics Association as well as Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.