This Fourth of July holiday, we’re reflecting on those visionaries who have helped to shape the American architectural landscape over the past many decades. This is a big idea with several notable contributors. So, we decided to take a poll within our office to see which designers have made the greatest and most lasting impact on our staff. We came up with the list below. It is by no means comprehensive, but instead simply a snapshot of a handful of profoundly inspiring design leaders that we thought were worth exploring.
Charles (1907-78) and Ray (1912-88) Eames were prolific and influential designers within the Modern Architecture and furniture movement. Charles, a great admirer of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, met his future wife, Ray while the two were studying at Cranbrook Academy of Art. As a student, Ray was trained as a painter and studied Abstract Expressionism. In fact today, one of her paintings hangs in the Whitney Museum of American Art. Early in her career, Ray realized her abilities reached far beyond the canvas, stating “I never gave up painting, I just changed my palette.” She went on to produce works in fine art, industrial and graphic design, textiles, and architecture.
Together, the couple enjoyed a deeply collaborative professional relationship. They led the “Eames office” in Los Angeles, CA. Here, they employed a diversified workforce – local people, war veterans, housewives – to contribute to the production of their designs. One of their most iconic works, Eames House, Case Study No. 8 (above) was built in 1949 in Pacific Palisades, California. Deeply rooted within the Modern Architecture oeuvre and with clear ties to the De Stijl Movement in Europe, the design reflected their own household and needs – simple, functional, relevant design solutions. They were a young married couple wanting a place to live, work and entertain. With the Eames House, all these needs are met, and within a setting in harmony with the site.
Contemporary architect, Jeanne Gang (1964-) leads Studio Gang Architects, a design firm based in Chicago and New York. She is recognized as one of the most prominent architects of her generation. Gang is known for her design process that focuses on and harmonizes the relationships between individual, community, and environment. Gang’s designs are dynamic, fluid, and closely tied to the landscape and population surrounding them. Her built work in and around Chicago includes the University of Chicago Campus North Residential Commons, the Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, IL, the Eleanor Boathouse at Park 571, City Hyde Park, Columbia College Chicago Media Production Center, and the Bengt Sjorstrom Starlight Theatre in Rockford, IL..
In 2010, Studio Gang completed the Aqua Tower in Chicago, IL (above). It was the largest project ever awarded to an American firm headed by a woman. The 82-story, mixed-use skyscraper includes more than 82,000 square feet of terraces, some stretching out as much as 12 feet from the façade. Gang’s team took into account the surrounding community when making the decision to incorporate such dramatic planes. Chicago’s dense urban landscape required a novel design to ensure views and an engaging user experience. The result is a building composed of irregularly shaped concrete slabs, lending an undulating, sculptural quality to the tower. Subtly tying the contemporary structure to its environment and the region is the striated limestone used for the terraces. The material is a common topographic element of the Great Lakes region wherein the Aqua Tower is situated.
It was not until Louis Kahn (1901-74) was in his 50’s that he arrived at his distinctive architectural style. Initially working in a relatively orthodox version of the International Style, Kahn was greatly influenced by his stay as Architect-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1950. This marked a turning point in his career when he adopted a “back-to-basics” approach. At this juncture, he really began to develop and finesse his own style, which was influenced by earlier modern movements, but not limited to their oftentimes strict ideologies. It’s been said that Kahn’s style was monumental and monolithic, culminating in a simple and confident elegance. His body of work includes the Yale University Art Gallery, the Richards Medical Research Labs at the University of Pennsylvania, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India, and the Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire.
One of many arts buildings designed by Kahn is the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, TX. Completed in 1972, the museum is composed of 16 parallel barrel vaults, each 100 feet in length. Before its construction, it was made clear by Museum Director Richard Fargo Brown how important it was that “natural light…play a vital part” in the new structure. Kahn understood. Along the apex of each vault, delicate slits allow natural light to pervade the galleries, bathing the works of art in constantly-changing shades. Additionally, there are three glass-walled courtyards bringing light into exhibition spaces. Outside, the façade is meant to be quiet yet impactful. The repetition of timeless forms work to create an intriguing dichotomy between subtle modernity and simple classicism.
Today, Eero Saarinen (1910-61) is considered by many to be one of the masters of twentieth-century American architecture. His pluralist tendencies – often criticized during his own time as having no identifiable style, perhaps due to his neofuturistic vision for each individual client and project – would likely fit in with present-day processes. One of Saarinen’s earliest works to receive acclaim was the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. Although rationalist in design with the incorporation of steel and glass, accents like two-toned blue glass panels make the design distinctly unique. Following this, other corporatoins like John Deere, IBM, and CBS commissioned Saarinen to design their headquarters. Again, these structures were defined by rationality, but also boasted interiors defined by dramatic, sweeping flourishes and furniture, oftentimes designed by Saarinen.
One of his most notable designs is the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy Airport. It represents the culmination of his previous designs and demonstrates his neofuturistic expressionism, as well as the technical marvel in concrete shells. Like so many of Saarinen’s designs, here pragmatism was met with striking authenticity in design. Noted architect Robert Stern called the TWA Flight Center the “Grand Central of the jet age.” It was the epitome of what the industry wanted to be, stylistically speaking, while also being hyper-efficient. Demonstrating both Saarinen’s insistence to approach each project and client from its own vantage, as well as his keen marketing sense, the bird-shaped, emblematic construction features a harmoniously coordinated interior with references to TWA’s corporate identity.
Often referred to as the “Father of Skyscrapers,” Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) is considered by many to be the creator of the modern skyscraper. As a member of the Chicago School, he was active during a exciting and rapidly-changing time in American history, and is part of the “recognized trinity of American architecture.” Innovation and creativity drove a wave of new ideas affecting the entire nation, and architecture reacted to this. Regarding the built environment, Sullivan was as influential as any during his lifetime. Sullivan became known for his office buildings, and is credited with the phase “form follows function” (although he attributed it to Marcus Vitruvius Pollio of Rome). His crisp, utilitarian designs were practical down to their steel column frames.
Sullivan’s Wainwright Building (1891) in St. Louis, Missouri, is considered one of the earliest skyscrapers. The development of cheap, versatile steel in the second half of the twentieth-century meant that architects could design up rather than out. The 10-story building acted as a prototype of the modern office building. It exemplifies Sullivan’s theory of the tall building, which included the tripartite composition: base, shaft, and attic. This is based on the structure of the classical column, and highlights Sullivan’s desire to emphasize the height of a building. Despite the column design, the building is deliberately modern with clean lines and a clear rejection of neoclassical tendencies. Also distinctly modern was the infusion of natural light within. Large windows and skylights flood the office building with light, and reflect the modern effort to make workplaces safer and more enjoyable moving into the twentieth century.