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July 26, 2012

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Eero Saarinen, Birch Hall, and the Master Plan

Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) was not yet the celebrated, controversial architect he would become when Antioch College engaged his firm to put together its first campus master plan in 1944. That year a fledgling Campus Planning Committee had concluded that the College required the services of an experienced reputable architect to help merge the many physical needs of a campus barely changed since its inception almost a century before into a viable plan for the future. At the time planning the future was on the community’s mind in many ways: By summer 1944 the possibility of victory for the allies in World War II was beginning to seem real, and to that end, Antioch College held a series of conferences on post-war reconstruction of Europe sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. At the same time, administrative council was considering how best to address the expected expansion of the student body at war’s end. More dormitories and dining facilities topped the list of needs, much as they have in the planning of the newest manifestation of Antioch College.

The master plan for the College produced by Saarinen's firm
The Antioch College Master plan by Saarinen & Swanson. Birch Hall, the only building completed under the plan, is #12 at right.

Saarinen’s signature works, the monumental Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the air terminals at Dulles and JFK International airports, all completed after his untimely death from a brain tumor, were still years away. What he had already received acclaim for was furniture design. In collaboration with noted designers Charles Eames and Florence Schust Knoll, Saarinen created award-winning furnishings, some manufactured to this day by the Knoll Company, culminating in the “Tulip” chair, released in 1956 and popularized by its use on the set of the television series Star Trek.

While Saarinen’s critics derided him for not having any discernible style, those who worked with him pointed to his lack of interest in developing a signature style as perhaps his greatest strength. Rather than cultivate an identifiable “look,” Saarinen built according to the needs of the client and the site, an approach that produced radically different, but equally pleasing, results. The plan his firm put together called for several much-needed buildings of specific function—dining hall, library, student union—all of which were eventually built, just not with Saarinen’s firm. In 1950, citing his expensive fee and the College’s underutilization of the firm’s collective talents, Saarinen asked to be let out of his contract.

In the case of Birch Hall, the women’s dormitory he designed for Antioch College, Saarinen’s client-centered approach was on full display, and his comments to that effect are included in his dedication speech for the building, reprinted below. Showing a sense of history, Saarinen acknowledges the planning exhibited by the campus’ original deed, a tract of 20 acres given by local magnate William Mills that attracted Antioch College to Yellow Springs in the first place, and its stipulation that nothing could be built on Front Campus, thereby preserving the magnificent view of Main Building from the east, and especially from what was still the railroad in the 1940s.

A photo of Eero Saarinen at the dedication of Birch Hall
Eero Saarinen gives the dedication speech for Birch Hall on the sunken patio in 1947.

From The Antioch Alumni Bulletin, vol. 18, #4, September 1947:

The Beginning of Something More

Speech by Eero Saarinen, Architect

I wonder if we are not really here to lay two cornerstones, a small one and a large one. This stone for the Hugh Taylor Birch Dormitory and this whole building is the cornerstone for the future over-all plan for Antioch—the master plan.

I would like to talk first about the Hugh Taylor Birch Dormitory and the thinking that formed this building. The location of the building and the general shape, which it is taking, is really part of the larger pattern of the master plan and I will come to this later.

The plan and the elevation, which it forms, is an expression of the four hall units within. We have tried to use natural materials within and without, brick and wood, and plaster. A great deal of time was spent in finding brick which in our minds made a nice texture and one that was harmonious with the existing buildings. The building is modest in lines and we feel should be such. It should be a background for the life within it. That is its purpose.

I would like now to talk about the second corner stone for the master plan. During the next twenty years Antioch will have many new buildings, the second dormitory unit, the new dining hall, the new library, Union Building, and many other buildings. The purpose of the master plan is of course to anticipate those needs and to place them into a functional organic plan.

Plan of Our Fathers

You may be interested in knowing some of the early thinking that went into this master plan. I would like to tell you a few of these thoughts. When we started to plan we found that some of the basic planning had really been done for us about eighty years ago. The original deed for the old campus included a provision that no building was ever to be placed on the east half of the old campus. That was really good and farsighted planning. We felt that the general expansion of Antioch should be parallel with and closely related to the Glen because of the beauty of this natural feature instead of west away from the Glen. There was land available west of Livermore Street to place the Women’s Quadrangle, but the reason that guided us in placing it where it is now was the desire to keep close to the Glen.

We feel that the campus physically as well as in other ways should be thought of as a community, an orderly community with all the central facilities at the center. In a small town you have the commercial district, the library the city hall, and maybe the high school in the center and the housing all around. So the library and the Union Building, the dining hall and others become the central function and the housing becomes the periphery in a college community.

The Space Between

Another principle that guided us was that the creation of an orderly and beautiful campus depends not only on the architecture of the buildings themselves but also, and sometimes even more upon the relations of these buildings to each other, the formation of the space between them, the landscaping, the relations of materials, etc. Just as when you come into a room, you are not impressed by any one wall, but you are impressed (or depressed) by the room as a whole. So also out-of-doors the relation between the bordering buildings creates the space—not any one building itself.

The Yeast That Leavens

I would like to emphasize one last point. The order and beauty, and I shouldn’t really use both, because they are synonyms, that you create in your college community have implications far beyond your bordering streets. The cities and communities created by our civilization have not yet achieved order. They are ugly and confused. This, I feel, is not a permanent state. Other civilizations have gradually formed their communities into things of great beauty and harmony. The old medieval town was that; the New England village, and some of the old towns in Maryland and Pennsylvania. But the town of today is still very, very ugly.

The college communities have a great opportunity of creating orderly physical environments to lead the way for our cities and it is in this field that Antioch has a real challenge.