All the references and theatrics made purists so censorious that Saarinen felt compelled to confess a weakness for arbitrary acts of beauty. His bubble-on-stilts water tower at General Motors, he admitted, is a departure from the completely rational. And yet his inspiration was just as classical as that of the first wave of modernists, who sought a stripped-down lightness reminiscent of Greek and Roman temples in their bleached and ravaged state. Saarinen explored other aspects of antiquity: complex plans, clustered buildings, broad domes, muscular masonry.
The exhibit rides a wave of reappraisal, driven by the popularity of his womb chairs and tulip tables, by preservationists who fought to reclaim TWA, and by architects who have carried on his search for theatrical forms and expressive technologies. The thin blue membrane of glass with which Saarinen wrapped an IBM facility in Minnesota proved unequal to the winters, but it has recently rematerialized in Jean Nouvel’s glowing blue cube of a concert hall in Copenhagen and Bernard Tschumi’s blue-on-blue glass tower on the Lower East Side. The tilted supports and upswept roof at Dulles airport crop up in nearly every Santiago Calatrava project. And you can see TWA’s concrete swirls in Frank Gehry’s baroque undulations and Zaha Hadid’s frozen slipstreams. But while these auteurs developed brands, what spurred Saarinen was something harder to reproduce: a sense of common destiny and the dogged pursuit of joy.