May 22, 2024

artfcity

Art Shines Through

How One Woman Built a Famous Male Architect’s Legacy

How One Woman Built a Famous Male Architect’s Legacy

What is today a trite proverb — that behind every great man is a great woman — was once a radical idea. When deployed by second-wave feminists, it invoked systemic, gendered self-sacrifice, generations of housewives, caretakers, and clerical workers whose labor and support propped up countless powerful men. Eva Hagberg’s When Eero Met His Match: Aline Louchheim Saarinen and the Making of an Architect (Princeton University Press, 2022) is ostensibly about the great woman, critic and publicist Aline Louchheim, behind a great man, architect Eero Saarinen. We have Louchheim to thank, Hagberg argues, for Saarinen’s enduring influence on mid-century architecture, and When Eero Met His Match makes a strong case for “how her work — her words — are just as integral to Saarinen’s legacy as the buildings themselves.” 

Aline Saarinen At Work, Box 3 Folder 10, Aline and Eero Saarinen Papers 1906-1977, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

But Louchheim and Saarinen’s relationship wasn’t rooted in altruism or exploitation — it was much more intentional than that. Parsing the couple’s many letters to each other, Hagberg paints Louchheim as a skilled tactician, who leveraged power dynamics and skirted journalistic ethics to get what she wanted. As it happens, what she wanted was to champion Saarinen’s work and supercharge his career. She was fiercely ambitious and, shrewdly, downplayed that ambition when male egos needed stroking: When trying to convince Saarinen of something, Hagberg observes, one of Louchheim’s “most frequent strategies … was to pretend to be clueless.”

Reading through the couple’s correspondence, I sometimes cringed at how Louchheim would prostrate and belittle herself for Saarinen. I also initially balked at Hagberg’s quickness to interpret those moments of self-deprecation as acts of subterfuge. But Hagberg’s literary analysis is meticulous and ultimately persuasive: It is undeniable that Louchheim was a woman with immense savvy — and a limited set of tools at her disposal.

Birthday Card from Aline B. Louchheim to Eero Saarinen, 1953, Box 2 Folder 22, Eero and Aline Saarinen Papers, 1906-1977, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Birthday Card from Aline Saarinen to Eero Saarinen, 1954, Aline and Eero Saarinen Papers, 1906-1977, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Hagberg herself worked for years as an architectural publicist, and she draws amply from her own experiences to critique contemporary understandings of architecture. Like every art form, architecture exists not in a vacuum but an ecosystem, one in which media plays a key role. The writings of critics and publicists shape how we receive, interpret, and remember the work of architects. In the real world, letting a structure — or any work of art — “speak for itself” rarely pans out. Hagberg encourages us to embrace “language and narrative” as “an integral part of the practice of architecture.”

Combining biography, history, personal narrative, and cultural criticism, and sweetened with a dash of epistolary romance, When Eero Met His Match brings Louchheim — and an entire branch of architectural practice and production — out of the shadows. 

Eero and Aline Sitting in Eero’s Womb Chair, Box 3 Folder 23, Aline and Eero Saarinen Papers, 1906-1977, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
MIT Chapel / Kresge Auditorium, Location: Cambridge MA, Architect: Eero Saarinen, © Ezra Stoller/Esto
Ingalls Rink, Yale University, Location: New Haven CT, Architect: Eero Saarinen, ©Esto
TWA Terminal at Idlewild, now JFK Airport, Location: New York NY, Architect: Eero Saarinen, © Ezra Stoller/ Esto