At Least Three Stories for that Avant-garde

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As Saarinen would hardly be seen as a descendant of the “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition of 1932” he is thus not part of the first story of the avant-garde, which is to say; Saarinen was not channeling a European modernism let alone complicit with the decor de la vie Rowe was referring to. As he predates the second story for the avant-garde, Saarinen must belong to another avant-garde altogether. Even if one could loosely associate Saarinen with the heritage of the first story of the avant-garde, his work is more clearly descendant from the likes of Bragdon, Sullivan and Wright.

Acknowledged and awarded as an organicist, Saarinen is also notable if not infamous for his astylistic designs. In fact, he was often critiqued as lacking consistent style. Saarinen was not so much aligned with an organic style, as he was with a style of thinking. This astylistic approach was necessitated by the range of clientele and associated building types Saarinen designed for. In particular, the urbanism and suburbanism of Saarinen’s corporate clients inflected his designs with intentionally alternative identities. This was, on the one hand, a result of the necessity for corporate branding. On the other hand, his design strategies willfully engaged or resisted the context of suburban and modern-rural American landscapes as well as the urbanism of Manhattan.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than the fired Canadian black granite stone which was used for the facade of the CBS building. All at once, Saarinen brand’s the modernist skyscraper where its differentiation is most homogenized, on the facade, and nods to the heritage of Sullivan, Bragdon and Wright. If granite, marble and travertine were the slick veneers of corporate America’s luxurious interiors, Saarinen turned mid-century modern architecture’s corporeality inside out and held it to fire.