Tulip Chairs, Glass Houses and Bombshells


14 October 2016

What should we make of Eero Saarinen’s role in the Second World War? Designer of the iconic and beloved Gateway Arch, TWA Terminal and Tulip chair, Saarinen also worked for the OSS, a forerunner of the CIA, creating and equipping “situation rooms and military schools” while providing “display equipment for conferences, pilot models of new weapons and devices”.

Saarinen’s work for the OSS has been known for some time, yet was brought back to public attention in June by a Freedom of Information request by the journalist Matt Novak. The subsequent excitement was exacerbated by Novak’s story coming hard on the heels of the furore over allegations that modernist masters Philip Johnson and Le Corbusier were Nazi sympathisers and anti-Semites. What next? The Eameses were gun-toting racists? In the eye of a Twitter storm, all perceived crimes run together. You might even begin to wonder whether there isn’t some logic inherent in high modernism that links its practice to fascism, militarism or bigotry.

The short answer, of course, is that there isn’t. Many modernist architects fled Europe to avoid fascist persecution or execution. Le Corbusier, Johnson and Saarinen were great designers, but also imperfect individuals. In Saarinen’s case, it is important to remember that many civilians joined the war effort expressly to dampen the flames of fascism. And many upstanding citizens (Barack Obama comes to mind) support clandestine intelligence operations. We can also look at it this way: are Saarinen’s acts any more responsible for violence than those of any modern corporation involved in gentrification of neighbourhoods, fast food retail, data capture or car production?

In 2013 Paola Antonelli and I launched the online curatorial experiment Design and Violence. Our objective was not to sit in judgment, but rather to create a space where the design community could hash out its tangled relationship with creation and destruction. Critical reflection entails the hard work of understanding how best intentions might unwittingly lead to harm. The connections between the OSS and military operations are direct, but until we reckon with the true cost of design-as- usual, we will only gain a false sense of self-righteousness in denouncing Saarinen. As the old adage goes, people who design Glass Houses shouldn’t throw stones.