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Eliel Saarinen, Finnish architect

Exploring treasures in the Museum of Finnish Architecture

colour drawing of a room interior with fireplace, seats and tables
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Suvi Juvonen (leiho berrian irekiko da) (Museum of Finnish Architecture)

Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950) was the first Finnish architect to rise to international fame in the early 20th century. His importance to Finnish architecture is indisputable. In this blog, we will explore his collection of drawings which have been the key collection of the Museum of Finnish Architecture since the museum’s beginning.

Career in Finland

The main theme of Saarinen’s architecture throughout his career was the 'total work of art', the aesthetic whole of the building, environment and interiors. While still a student, he set up an office together with his fellow students Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren. They made an international breakthrough with the Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 Paris World Fair and designed several buildings together between 1896 and 1905.

architectural drawing of a building on a green background
architectural drawing of a building with an orange roof
orange drawing of a farm building and courtyard
drawing of a room with table, chairs and fireplace, a blue room with piano is visible in background

After 1905, Saarinen continued to work with Herman Gesellius and founded his own office a few years later. His designs shifted from National Romantic style to a more rational style. The use of symmetry and geometrically defined structures are present in Helsinki railway station which is his key project of this period and probably the best known of Eliel Saarinen’s buildings. The collection holds some amazing indoor perspectives (1910–1913).

drawing of interior of Helsinki railway station
drawing of an interior room with blue walls

In the 1910s, Saarinen designed several city plans. He made a study for a Budapest master plan and master plans for Tallinn and Canberra. In Finland, he designed a plan for the Munkkiniemi-Haaga district in Helsinki and a pioneering urban project for greater Helsinki.

drawing of a city plan for Tallinn
black and white drawing of a building in a lake landscape

Career in America

In 1922, Saarinen participated in a competition for the Chicago Tribune building and won the second prize. His elegant design aroused a lot of attention and, in hope of better assignments, Saarinen moved to the United States in 1923 and stayed there until his death.

He was invited to design the master plan and the campus of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and headed its Department of Architecture and Urban Design from 1932 to 1950.

architectural drawing of a tower building
monochrome drawing of a water-side hall building

Saarinen participated in several competitions in Europe, including those for The Peace Palace in The Hague (1906) and the Palace of Nations in Geneva (1927). Even though twenty years apart, both have an appealing atmosphere of peace and tranquility. Saarinen’s competition entries did not appeal to the organisers, but we can enjoy the beauty of these designs today.

drawing of building by a lake

Saarinen and the Museum of Finnish Architecture

The collection of 256 drawings were donated to the Association of Finnish Architects in 1952, two years after Eliel Saarinen’s death. The collection became the founding collection of the museum. The Museum of Finnish Architecture was established in 1956 and it is the second oldest architectural museum in the world.

Several private individuals and organisations have donated Eliel Saarinen’s drawings to the museum and now the collection contains about 500 drawings and sketches as well as hundreds of photographs of Saarinen’s buildings. The copyright of Eliel Saarinen's works expired in the beginning of 2021 and the museum decided to digitise the whole collection and publish it as high-resolution images for free use.

black and white group photograph of architecture students

In a few months, The Museum of Finnish Architecture will publish more high-resolution images online. This time the theme of the celebration is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Wivi Lönn. She was among the first female architects in Europe and a fellow student of Eliel Saarinen.

Architecture Finland