The book: When Eero Met His Match: Aline Louchheim Saarinen and the Making of an Architect (Princeton University Press) draws attention to the previously unrecognized force behind the career of architect Eero Saarinen — his wife, Aline Louchheim. A journalist and critic, Louchheim met Saarinen in 1953 while on assignment for The New York Times. She later became his publicist and spouse, creating his public persona and cementing his place in the history books (for instance, as the creator of the St. Louis Gateway Arch). Drawing upon extensive correspondence between the two, Hagberg reconstructs their relationship and Saarinen’s rise to prominence through Louchheim’s keen publicity skills. In the niche world of architecture media, where connections and secrecy were crucial to success, Hagberg writes, Louchheim’s methods became standard practice and changed the way that architects promote themselves. More fundamental to When Eero Met His Match, though, is the love story between Saarinen and Louchheim — one that is just as poignant half a century later.
The author: Eva Hagberg ’03 received her bachelor’s degree in Architecture and Urban Planning from Princeton. She now teaches in the Language and Thinking Program at Bard College and at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University. Her books include How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship and Nature Framed: At Home in the Landscape. She lives in Brooklyn.
It is time to meet our central actors from the past: the architect Eero Saarinen and the writer Aline Bernstein Louchheim, who was at the time of their meeting the associate art critic for the New York Times. Their life together was short, from their first encounter in 1953 to Saarinen’s death, from a brain tumor, in 1961. They didn’t marry until 1954, and so the formation of their relationship took place in its earliest years, a period documented by a series of what I call “working” letters sent back and forth and now held—and digitized—by the Smithsonian. The letters worked in two ways: one, they work for us, as later readers, in offering insight into not only the intimate romantic developments between Louchheim and Saarinen but also the general culture in which they both lived, Louchheim flitting among parties in New York and producing a near-astonishing amount of text for her employer, Saarinen at home in Bloomfield Hills, agonizing equally over whether to leave his wife, the sculptor Lilian (Lily) Swann, and how to become famous (and whether doing the former might lead to the latter). Through her near-daily letters to Saarinen, invariably typed and running two to three pages in length, Louchheim began, along with reporting on her goings-on, asking him what he thought of her drafts, suggesting easy ways to get out of his marriage, to articulate a professional position—later called Head of Information Services—that she would come to occupy; this articulation, in its earliest and most fungible forms, offers us an insight into the way in which their relationship was both reflected and, crucially, constituted in letter form. The letters also worked for them in that these documents are not simply representative of what they were thinking and feeling at the time, but also iterative: the letters began to formalize and make coherent a series of plans that ranged from sexual to architectural to logistical. Louchheim and Saarinen’s epistolary relationship could be seen as the foundation of, or the precursor to, their real-life relationship, although I find intriguing the idea that their epistolary relationship was actually just as real as the in-person one they built later. In some ways, their epistolary relationship was even more real, being the only one available to us; as a writer who works with the past and with memory, I have thought often about how the past exists and how we trick ourselves into thinking we can engage in processes of resurrection. With this process of reading their love letters and seeing the story of their relationship unfold, it is hard not to feel that this is their undocumented relationship and their in-person relationship might have been, in some way, a shadow of this profound literary and intellectual intimacy. Today, when so much of our communication is mediated through correspondence, whether that be text, email, Facebook message, WhatsApp chat, or otherwise, it is easy to think of non-face-to-face communication as a stand-in for a later, or earlier, more truthful, more real interaction. But social media and texts and emails and long typed and handwritten letters are communication. Their language produces the form of a relationship. And it is lucky for me, for us, that so much of what Saarinen and Louchheim experienced early on in their love relationship has been documented for us in this way. It is in a sense then tragic, for our purposes at least, that, once they began living together, they stopped writing to each other (with the exception of some exasperated memos that we’ll get into), for their letters are lively, vibrant, playful, and make their relationship feel as tangible as any photograph of them vacationing on a boat.
A series of letters sent and received between 1953 and 1956 demonstrate the rapid pace of their personal and professional relationship. These letters are useful for a number of reasons, some historical and some conceptual. Historically, they demonstrate the teasing out and working out of a particular role that Louchheim envisioned and came to formalize. Conceptually, they begin to ask us how work is organized and described, how collaboration is negotiated, and how love is developed. Throughout this book, my focus will be primarily on Louchheim’s letters and words, not on Eero’s. And I want to highlight Louchheim’s letters to Saarinen for two reasons: one is pragmatic, which is that there are many more of them in the archives; the other is purposeful: this book is really about Aline, and all the ways in which it was her facility with language, with manipulating the press, with using words to begin to produce entire worlds, that had such a profound influence on Eero’s career and, eventually, mine—and so many others’.
A Brief History of Eero
Eero Saarinen set up his office in Bloomfield Hills in 1950. Before that, after being educated at Yale and receiving a degree in architecture in 1934, he returned to Cranbrook in 1936 to rejoin his father Eliel’s firm and the Cranbrook Academy. In 1939, as his son Eric Saarinen recounts, Saarinen married the sculptor Lily Swann, and had two children—Eric in 1942 and Susan in 1945. In 1950, after Eliel’s death, Saarinen founded his own office, called Eero Saarinen & Associates. In the early years, those associates were Joseph Lacy and Kevin Roche.
Saarinen in the 1930s was subject to some press attention, though not much—and I hypothesize that whatever attention he did get was because of his connection to his more famous father. An example of the kind of press Saarinen got before he connected with Aline would be a story that appeared in the October 1937 issue of Architectural Forum, then the most respected periodical on architecture and design. The issue was devoted to “Domestic Interiors” (a field Saarinen barely touched), and marked a larger cultural shift from the pure modernism of then-famous architects like Le Corbusier to the more human-centered approach that would come to mark Saarinen’s work. “While we have not generally accepted the Le Corbusier house, our kitchens and bathrooms, at least, reflect his idea,” an unnamed author of a photo essay focusing on good house de-sign wrote. “Moreover, designers are learning that the small interior is not a large one compressed, and that the open plan cannot be decorated like the closed, formal room.” The story was accompanied by a small drawing of Le Corbusier’s box-shaped Villa Savoye with a large red X through it, next to a simple gabled-roof New England–style farmhouse, this one without an X. The resistance to Corbusier’s famous remark, “The house is a machine for living in,” was demonstrated through the confluence of these three narratives—the quotation, running along the top of the page, the text, which disavowed Corbusier, and then the drawing.
This is the context of the Saarinen article, which was a single page that appeared elsewhere in the issue and showed a perspective drawing of “a combined living—dining room—study.” The design was done “for the Architectural Forum,” exemplifying a practice of periodicals commissioning design work, exhibiting the keen interrelationship between publishing and practice. Saarinen, who was profoundly ambitious, would have seen the value of being published in Forum, even with this relatively small piece with its focus on the domestic, which wasn’t where his ambitions lay. The short description that accompanies Saarinen’s design gives us a sense of his developing reputation. “Eero Saarinen is the able son of a famous father,” the text reported. The rest is pure résumé, listing dates and locations. “He spent 1929–30 in Paris . . . from 1931–34 he studied architecture at Yale, where he won medals on Beaux-Arts projects with almost monotonous regularity.” We learn here that Saarinen left Yale before graduating, spending a year of travel in Europe and Egypt sponsored by the Matcham Traveling Fellowship. “He is now back in Cranbrook associated with his father, and is also connected with the Flint Institute of Research and Planning, developing a comprehensive plan for that city.”
This document is noteworthy for a few reasons, the most striking of which is that there is almost nothing about his work, or his personality. Yes, we are given biographical data that proves useful in fleshing out an understanding of where he was when, but there is nothing of the sort that we see later—stories of Saarinen looking at a grapefruit and being inspired to construct the TWA Terminal in a similar shape, or loving personal profiles. His work was also not yet as formally developed as it would prove to be. Here, he offered a simple three-part structure for a single rectangular space, which could be divided with the installation of screens and the careful layout of furnishings by Alvar Aalto. The only nod to Saarinen’s actual design skills were here: “Of deceptive simplicity, the design is a distinguished, and [an] entirely realistic solution of a common problem.”
Between 1937 and 1953, when he met Aline Louchheim and our central story begins, Saarinen appeared in the architectural press thirty-two times. Between 1953 and 1964 (I’ve extended the years past his death to account for the attention given to the TWA Terminal, which opened in 1962), Saarinen appeared in the architectural press 157 times. It’s quite an increase.
Reprinted with permission from When Eero Met His Match by Eva Hagberg, published by Princeton University Press. © 2022 by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved.
“A hybrid romp through modernism, Eva Hagberg’s When Eero Met His Match is both a paean to Aline Louchheim’s tireless work behind the scenes to promote Eero Saarinen and a compelling personal narrative, encompassing the vital, often invisible work of storytellers in shaping America’s love affair with architecture.” —Emily Maloney, author of Cost of Living
“Eva Hagberg brings a relationship to life and illustrates how critical and promotional language shape the story of architecture, gently melting opinions into accepted history. Quick and brilliant.” —Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician