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The son of Eliel Saarinen, he studied with his father at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he had a close relationship with Charles and Ray Eames, and became good friends with Florence (Schust) Knoll. He received a B.Arch. from Yale University in 1934, and in 1940, he became a naturalized citizen.
Saarinen came to attention for his 1948 competition-winning design for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, not completed until the 1960s. (The competition award was mistakenly sent to his father.) For the General Motors Technical Center, the Noyes dormitory at Vassar, the famous ‘expressionist’ concrete shell of the TWA Flight Center, and other important commissions, he designed all the interiors and furniture in a curving, theatrical, futuristic style. He served on the jury for the Sydney Opera House commission and was crucial in the selection of the internationally-known design by Jørn Utzon.
In 1954 he married Aline Bernstein, an art critic at The New York Times, with whom he had a son, Eames, named for his collaborator Charles Eames. (Aline Saarinen was later head of the Paris news bureau of NBC -TV.) This was his 2nd marriage; he was divorced from his first wife.
Saarinen died of a brain tumor at the age of 51. The firm of Roche-Dinkeloo, with partners Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, completed some of Saarinen’s unfinished projects from their new offices in New Haven under the auspices of Eero Saarinen and Associates. Neglected and sometimes mocked during his lifetime by the architectural establishment, he is now considered one of the masters of American 20th Century architecture. There has been a veritable surge of interest in Saarinen’s work in recent years, including a major exhibition and several books. This is partly due to the Roche and Dinkeloo office having donated their Saarinen archives to Yale University, but also because Saarinen’s ouvre can be said to fit in with present-day concerns: he was an architect criticised in his own time – most vociferously by critic Vincent Scully – for having no identifiable style (Miesian rationalism for the several company headquarters; organic or abstract expressionism for several individual structures such as the TWA Flight Center; but also classicising eclecticism, for instance in the USA embassy in London): one explanation for this is that Saarinen adapted his modernist vision to each individual client and project, which were never exactly the same.