Though some may now know him only as the father of Eero Saarinen, Eliel Saarinen (August 20, 1873 – July 1, 1950) was an accomplished and style-defining architect in his own right. His pioneering form of stripped down, vernacular Art Nouveau coincided with stirring Finnish nationalism and a corresponding appetite for a romantic national style and consciousness; his Helsinki Central Station became part of the Finnish identity along with Finnish language theaters and literature. Later moving to America, his city planning and Art Deco designs resonated through western cities in the first half of the 20th century.
Graduating from the Helsinki University of Technology at the end of the 19th century, the 1900 World’s Fair provided Saarinen with his first opportunity to draw attention. His Finnish Pavilion was an extraordinary mix of the many styles of the period, combining Art Nouveau with traditional Finnish wooden architecture and the Gothic Revival which had dominated much of Northern Europe for the previous 50 years. He continued working in this style, which would help found the National Romantic movement in Scandinavia. Building on the early commercialism of Art Nouveau, he even design a line of pottery for Arabia Pottery.
A romantic imagining of a Finnish national past helped Saarinen’s designs catch on, and he was soon designing National Museums, important railway stations and the other infrastructure typical to an ascendant national culture in the early twentieth century. His most important commission, Helsinki Central Railway Station, became known around the world as an example of Scandinavia’s quiet, “rational” nationalism. His high profile helped him in breaking into city planning, working on plans for Tallinn, Budapest and Helsinki in the 1910s, and later influencing the design of Canberra.
Interrupted by the First World War and changing tastes, Saarinen moved along with his then-13-year-old son Eero to the United States after his design for the Tribune Tower in Chicago was placed second in 1923. Although not built, his application of gothic verticality to a streamlined modern design won praise across the US and influenced many other architects in their designs for the early generation of skyscrapers; even Louis Sullivan, “father of skyscrapers”, hailed his design as the future of the Chicago School. Working in the US through the 1940s, his style shaped and evolved Art Deco into the stripped back, West Coast style that would define mid-century Los Angeles.