23 November 2006

What's Showing at Kunsthalle Helsinki

I live in one of the world’s great museum cities, which is I why a strict accounting of the number of hours per week, or month, or year, I manage to log in the museums of Washington, D.C., would be extremely embarrassing. The problem is that the regular round of errands and chores somehow fills every minute of every day.

As a Fulbrighter in Finland, however, I have plenty of time, after fulfilling my duties as teacher, housekeeper, and self-improvement faddist, to hit the museum trail, and I have been taking careful notes.

This is the second installment of a series on museums in Finland.

You still have time, but you’d better hurry, if you want to see the exhibition on the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen at Kunsthalle Helsinki, Nervanderinkatu 3. On 12 December, it’s “wheels up,” as the show, called “Shaping the Future,” moves to Oslo and Brussels, and then to the United States.

It’s well worth a visit, though you could wait for it to come to us. Saarinen is not a favorite of mine, though like most Washingtonians I have learned to appreciate the charms of Dulles International Airport, particularly the singular swoosh of Saarinen’s dramatic terminal (see photo above). Over the years the elegance of Saarinen’s original design has been compromised in various ways, particularly in the 1980s with the introduction of the clunky “mobile lounges”—part moon rover, part Edsel—that transport passengers out to the mid-field concourses and back. The mobile lounges finally are being replaced by an underground train shuttle service that is very much in vogue at major airports these days. My guess is that the mobile lounges will find a new home at the Air and Space Museum, where they could be exhibited along with a Concorde, in a gallery called “Where the Future Went to Die.”

Airports were one of Saarinen’s specialties, he being very much a man of his times. The exhibit does an excellent job—mainly just by showing photographs of the man and his buildings and renderings, many of the last culled from the archives of Yale University—of recapturing the spirit of the 1950s and early ‘60s, the period just prior to the Kennedy assassination and everything connoted by the word, “Vietnam.”

Saarinen was the son of the Finnish architect who built, among other things, the Helsinki railway station, a blend of the functionalist ethic with whatever frayed remnants of romantic nationalism and Art Nouveau managed to survive the Great War. The Eero Saarinen revealed by this exhibit was a child of privilege—of Cranbrook and Yale, and then of Madison Avenue. He displayed talent at an early age, naturally enough, and also a strong need to establish his own place in the world, vis-à-vis the pater. There are moments in the exhibit when one can’t help but cry out, Freud lives! In New York, anyway, the era of post-war prosperity was also an age of angst and therapy. That may not have been the case in Gopher Prairie, but then it was one of the legacies of the 1950s that Gopher Prairie no longer counted for much.

It could be argued that Saarinen’s corporate campuses and university research parks foreshadowed the end of industrialism and the triumph of technocracy over liberal learning. The photos of the man at work—in white shirt and tie, sometimes with a pipe or cigar, almost always with cronies in tow—are intriguing, though it’s hard to say exactly what they reveal. They could pass for out-takes from a movie like Cash McCall--or maybe, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Shags Doris Day under the Gateway Arch. Above all, there is the image of Saarinen looking out from the cover of Time magazine, but now we’re not in Hollywood anymore, Toto, we’re back in the “real world.” The corporate Eero, working long hours, entering competitions, trying to satisfy demanding clients, attending yet another cocktail party, was constantly burnishing the image he wished to project—a preoccupation that we would now call “branding.” His output is remarkable when one considers that he was only fifty-one when he died suddenly of a brain tumor.

Those of us who are creatures of the world that Saarinen and his contemporaries built need to come to terms with these images. I’m still working on it. Visit “Shaping the Future” when it comes to a gallery at an airport near you. Then, on your way home, stop at a newsstand and pick up a copy of the latest issue of Metropolis magazine to see for yourself the long reach of the “long” 1950s.

Click on the title of this post for a link to the Museum of Finnish Architecture.