I Want to Catch the Excitement of a Life
In 1961, shortly after the sudden death of the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, his wife of seven years, then known as Aline (Louchheim) Saarinen, sent a cable to another Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto: “Heartbroken Eero died after short illness Aline Saarinen.” It was the most personal of the many cables she sent.
In early 2019, I left New York for a six-week book tour to support the launch of my memoir, How to be Loved. My friend Chani had agreed to come with me, thinking, correctly, that being on book tour by myself would lead nowhere good: to a constant oscillation of egomania and crippling self-doubt; to my forgetting to bring my toothbrush while remembering to bring sixteen phone chargers; to a level of solitude that has often led to a depth of loneliness that makes me forget people can ever be good. We had a flight out of JFK, but the flight was delayed by six hours. Or maybe we’d missed the flight? Or was this another trip, the one we took to Cancún? My training as a historian means I should remember my own history, but it doesn’t work like that, at least not now. I remember the emotions, the cast of light, the person I was with; I cannot ever remember the year, the time, the concrete details. Either way, I definitely suggested we go to the TWA Terminal, which had just reopened after decades of closure, and which had first opened in 1962, a year after its architect, Eero Saarinen, died.
I had been writing and thinking about the TWA Terminal for nine years, first for a dissertation that centered on the Saarinens and then for a biography of Aline. But I had been inside only once, for a design world party, at some point, a long time ago, probably before I stopped drinking, so I don’t remember it, or maybe right after, so I also don’t remember it. Now, together, Chani and I walked through the front door. “Why are the walls like this?” she asked, or she said something like it. I tried to remember. Saarinen had begun pursuing an unusual formalism with projects like the curved Kresge Auditorium at MIT, the Ingalls ice rink (aka the Yale Whale), and right before his death, TWA. “Do you feel the sense of enclosure?” I asked her. We went to the second floor, ordered breakfast. The curve of the walls felt so close. I had spent years looking at images of the building, making arguments for the iterative relationship between photography and design, between architecture and language. In all my analysis, how had I never realized how small the terminal was?
We finished our eggs and walked around. We had three more hours. We played Twister and posed in a photo booth, saw an exhibit of flight attendant outfits. It was hard to tell what was historical and what was contemporary. The check-in desks were staffed, so that people could stay overnight at the new hotel that had opened next door. The lounges were empty. We slipped into a dark room and sat on a bench. Everything was so tiny. When it was built, it seemed huge. How things change.
I had spent so much time thinking about how Aline Saarinen had made this project legible to the many, many people who wanted to write about the building, describing it as “a bird in flight.” Eero didn’t love the bird idea but understood that it would play well with the press. That’s ultimately what the TWA building became—a moment in the press, a moment of opportunity, the chance for Eero to really, truly make his mark, opening an airport terminal at the dawn of the jet age. “I Want to Catch the Excitement of a Trip,” read one breathless contemporary article. The whole time it was closed, we architecture people all thought about its future. Now that its future is here, we just think about its past.
After Eero died, Aline took over—she kept the office together, ensured that the project was finished, and wrote a book about his work. What I found out when I was reading through the archives was that right before his death she wanted to stop writing so much about his work. She’d expressed to a friend that she wanted to start working on ideas that didn’t have anything to do with Saarinen, but then, well, he died, as she cabled Aalto, so she had to see it all through.
I always see buildings through the lens of people—the people who wanted to build them and the people who did; the people who wanted to see them through and the people who had to because there wasn’t anyone else. I think about Aline’s cable, how cables never had punctuation, how you had to fill in the gaps yourself. That’s what we do as historians, isn’t it? We take moments in history without any punctuation, and we fill in the gaps ourselves. It’s heartbreaking.⬤
Eva Hagberg is an author, academic, and formerly-secret publicist living and working in Brooklyn. She has degrees in architecture from Princeton and UC Berkeley, and a PhD in Visual and Narrative Culture from UC Berkeley. She is the author of the critically-acclaimed memoir HOW TO BE LOVED, and teaches architectural history and theory at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.
This article appeared in our December 2021 Issue, #25. Click here to purchase a copy. Click here to receive the current and future issues.