Eliel Saarinen
in the United States
A Scandinavian Designer
Builds a School
As second place winner in the 1922
international Chicago Tribune
competition, Finnish architect Eliel
Saarinen was catapulted into the
company of the most important
designers in the western world.
His design for the tower evidenced a
far better grasp on the essence of the
early 20th-century skyscraper than
most of the American architects who
entered. His unique formal solution
appealed to the selection committee
but was by-passed for the apparently
safer design in Gothic Revival mode
by Hood & Howells.
With his prize money,
Saarinen came to Chicago
in 1923 and began work on
a project for the Lakefront
that would have put a
similar but much larger
tower in a complex of
buildings in Jackson Park.
Although neither tower was
realized, the impact of the
design on the imaginations
of American architects was
enormous and far greater
than the first-prize entry in
the Tribune competition.
Vehicular and pedestrian traffic circulation proposal for Lakefront
project, c. 1923
In the fall of 1923, Eliel Saarinen and his wife Loja, a weaver,
settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Eliel joined the faculty of the
School of Architecture at the University of Michigan. He became
involved in public projects for the city of Flint and the city of
Detroit, neither of which were built.
However, George Booth, the son of a wealthy newspaper magnate
in Detroit and an architecture student at the University of
Michigan, invited Saarinen to the family home in Bloomfield Hills.
The Booth family had long been active in the Arts and Crafts
Society in Detroit and were eager to found an art academy that
would promote the crafts as well as the more conventional arts in a
collaborative venture. The family recognized in Eliel and Loja
Saarinen the perfect artisans to build the school both pedagogically
and architecturally. This project became the landmark artistic
achievement of Saarinen’s career.
The Cranbrook School for Boys had already been planned as a
school to train boys who would sing in an English style choir of
men and boys at nearby Christ Church Episcopal in Bloomfield
Hills. The Cranbrook Foundation quickly expanded the school for
boys to include the Art Academy in 1925. By 1928, Kingswood
School for Girls had been founded, in 1931 the Cranbrook Institute
of Sciences, and in 1940-43 the Cranbrook Museum and Library.
The Art Academy was organized with a series of master crafts
artisans, beginning with Eliel Saarinen (architecture) and Loja
Saarinen (weaving and fibre arts). They added the Swedish Carl
Milles (sculpture) and a group of others who practiced in such
areas as ceramics, graphic design,painting, and photography. The
concept of the Cranbrook Academy was the interaction of the arts
and their respectful acknowledgement of each other’s qualities.
The site for the new school and academy was the Booth farm in
the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, a rolling acreage as seen in
the photograph above.
Through careful landscape planning and cultivation, the open
land of the farm was slowly transformed into an idyllic woods
with meadows and lakes as well as an architectural character.
The original concept for
the school was to convert
the existing farm buildings
into the school with an
adaptive reuse strategy.
When it became clear that
the old farm buildings
were structurally and
formally inadequate,
Saarinen retained their
general massing and
rebuilt them in new
materials, principally brick
and stone with fine
detailing throughout.
Dining Hall view
in pencil
Tribune Tower Detail
in pencil
As with the Tribune Tower design, Saarinen’s
work leaves an initial impression of historical or
revival architecture. This impression fades as one
inspects the details and discovers how unique and
original they are.
Cranbrook School for Boys
Dining Hall of the Boys School
Library of the Boys School
Observatory and classrooms of the Boys School
Library and residence hall of the Boys School
Kingswood School for Girls
Kingswood Dining Hall
Tapestry designed and
woven by Loja Saarinen.
Tapestry Detail
Dining Hall Details
Main Lobby
Rug designed and woven by Loja Saarinen