Master Plan

Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) was born in Rantasalmi, Finland, and lived outside Helsinki with his wife, son (Eero), and daughter. He moved his family to the United States in 1923 for an architectural job at the University of Michigan. Previous works included Art Nouveau designs for the Helsinki Central Railway Station and a skyscraper design submitted to the Chicago Tribune building competition. In 1925 he was approached to design a boarding school for boys named Cranbrook outside of Detroit. He would later become the principal architect of the expanding Cranbrook campus, as well as a teacher and president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) joined his father’s architectural team in the late 1930s. In 1947 the Saarinen firm was hired to design the Des Moines Art Center. The design worked with the landscape, using local materials and pre-existing gardens surrounding the site to create a serene backdrop against which local residents could utilize and learn the fundamentals of art.

Upon Eliel Saarinen’s death in 1950, his son became the principal partner in what came to be known as Eero Saarinen and Associates. During his decade-long independent career, Eero Saarinen’s work included the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the womb chair, and the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport, New York.

In 1945 Saarinen, Swanson, and Saarinen were hired to create a new master plan for Drake University. The board of trustees had originally entertained ideas of a traditional campus plan, like that of the University of Virginia. However, in a letter to the mid-century president of Drake, Henry Gadd Harmon, a Mrs. Mather wrote about her surprise at the traditional nature of the proposed architectural design. She believed that creating a campus for future students required modern architecture and a campus plan that allowed for expansion. Some of the university’s trustees suggested the work of Eliel Saarinen, familiar due to his work on the city’s Art Center. After President Harmon visited Eliel Saarinen and J. Robert F. Swanson at Cranbrook, the university hired the Saarinen firm.

After World War II, science and technology were synonymous with American progress and the Saarinens sought to use a forward-looking style for their buildings to suggest the potential for expansion and change. The use of an industrial aesthetic at Drake also communicated the importance of higher education in the post-war economy.

The Saarinens’ style utilizes a modern aesthetic and building strategies, facilitates harmony between landscape and architecture, and looks to the future, anticipating needs and room for growth. These themes can be seen in their plan for the campus and what eventually was implemented.

Text: Rachel Crown, Meredith Gallivan, and Kjersti Campbell