PBS Concludes 30th 'American Masters' Season with 'Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future'

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PBS's American Masters — Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future explores the life and visionary work of Finnish-American modernist architectural giant Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) in the series’ Season 30 finale, premiering nationwide Tuesday, December 27 at 8 p.m. on PBS. Best known for designing National Historic Landmarks such as St. Louis’ iconic Gateway Arch and the General Motors Technical Center (Warren, Mich.), Saarinen also designed New York’s TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Yale University’s Ingalls Rink and Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, Virginia’s Dulles Airport, and modernist pedestal furniture like the Tulip chair. His sudden death at age 51 cut short one of the most influential careers in American architecture.

Saarinen’s son, director of photography and co-producer Eric Saarinen, ASC (Lost in America,The Hills Have Eyes, Exploratorium), visits the sites of his father’s work on a cathartic journey, shot in 6K with the latest in drone technology that showcases the architect’s body of timeless work for the first time. The documentary also features rare archival interviews with Eero and his second wife, The New York Times art critic Aline Saarinen, as well as letters and quotations from Aline’s memoirs voiced respectively by Peter Franzén and Blythe Danner.

“Closure was something I didn’t have with my dad. But I forgive him for his genius,” said Eric Saarinen, ASC. “He figured out a way to be important across time, so even though he died young, he is still alive.”

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Eero Saarinen with his model of the Gateway Arch.

The son of prominent Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and textile designer Loja Saarinen, Eero was surrounded by design his whole life, as was his son Eric, whose mother Lily Saarinen was a sculptor, artist and educator. Immigrating at the age of 13 to Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Eero attended Cranbrook Academy of Art, designed by Eliel, who taught there and became the school’s first president as well as the chief architect of the Cranbrook campus, with Eero designing details like gargoyles and chairs. Eric also grew up at Cranbrook with his parents, grandparents, their friends and collaborators, including his godparents, designers Charles and Ray Eames.

“This film is both an immersive look at an architect’s work and a father-son story across generations. Once Eric agreed to go on this journey with me, I knew the results would be compelling and revealing,” said Emmy-, Peabody- and DGA Award-winning filmmaker Peter Rosen (American Masters — Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler, American Masters — Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes, American Masters -- Rubinstein Remembered).

InAmerican Masters — Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future, Eric also tours North Christian Church and the Miller House (both National Historic Landmarks in Columbus, Ind.), Deere & Company World Headquarters (Moline, Ill.) and MIT’s Kresge Auditorium (Cambridge, Mass.). The documentary features new interviews with architects Kevin Roche, César Pelli, Rafael Viñoly, and Robert A. M. Stern, and industrial designer Niels Diffrient, who all worked with or were influenced by Saarinen. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger, curator Donald Albrecht (Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future), author Jayne Merkel (Eero Saarinen) and Cathleen McGuigan, editor-in-chief of Architectural Record, also provide perspectives on why Saarinen’s work stands apart and continues to inspire, especially amongst renewed interest in 20th-century architects and artists.

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