Curves, concrete and catharsis: Saarinen and Hadid on screen

Zaha Hadid’s curving Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku Azerbaijan, references Azeri culture as distinct from the prevalence of Soviet architecture in the country’s capital.

Archiflix, Australia’s only architecture film festival returns for 2018.

For their third annual architecture film festival, ArchiFlix curates an evening of revealing biopics on the 20th-century architectural heroes, Eero Saarinen and Zaha Hadid. Similar in style, although rarely compared, this dual screening of Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future and Zaha Hadid: An Architectural Legacy brings their architectural works into the same conversation.
Eero Saarinen and Zaha Hadid, who never met, both left behind an architectural legacy of curves. Take for instance, the swooping interior of Saarinen’s TWA Flight Centre, or the simple, majestic curve of his Gateway Arch for St. Louis, Missouri. There is an easy comparison to the monumental concrete interior of Hadid’s London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 summer olympics, where the diving board is the only straight-edge in sight. Saarinen and Hadid’s individual ambition for a new architectural typology led them to a similar conclusion - to make a futuristic architecture, buildings cannot be orthogonal.

Zaha Hadid designed the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympic Games. Two temporary wings were added during the Olympics to accommodate an extra 15,000 people. Photo by Martin Pettitt.

Another striking comparison is the fact that both were ambitious practitioners who died before their time. Saarinen was 51 when he died of a brain tumour in 1961, and Hadid was 65 when she died of a heart attack in 2016. As noted by Thomas de Monchaux in the New Yorker’s obituary for Zaha Hadid: “Architects are, as a rule, old. Architecture is the slowest art”. The sheer breadth of knowledge, experience and industry trust required to design a building usually delays an architect’s career peak, often until their 50s. “That is why the death… of Zaha Hadid, gives such pause: although her vision was unusually visible from early on, she may also have been, like many in her generation, just getting started,” notes the obituary. Saarinen too only worked for a solid decade before his passing. Had either lived longer, their legacy would no doubt be more spectacular.

Eero Saarinen’s thin-shell, bird-like TWA Flight Centre opened in 1969 as a state-of-the-art airport terminal. Photo by Glenn Beltz.

Comparisons between architects aside, these are two very different documentaries. Peter Rosen, the director of Eero Saarinen eschewed traditional filming techniques and the typical way of interviewing subjects. Instead, he brought Eero Saarinen’s son from his first marriage into the project - Eric Saarinen - a cinematographer and director in his own right. Eric then became both the subject, director and co-producer of the film.
Eric Saarinen initially refused to be involved in the film. His relationship with his absent father had been too fraught: Eero Saarinen left his first family when Eric was only 12 years old and died seven years later. But, once convinced to participate, the film evolved into a cathartic experience for Eric as he discovers his father’s passion and vision for the first time. Eero Saarinen captures this journey. As Eric tours his father’s masterpieces, scouting for filming locations, Rosen films and interviews him. This deeply personal, biographical reading of Saarinen’s architecture is engaging for its humanity. There is also spectacular drone footage of Saarinen’s works, including the Gateway Arch captured at its apex.

A testament to the city of St Louis’ optimistic vision of the future in 1965, Saarinen’s Gateway Arch is the world’s tallest arch and largest man-made monument in the USA. Photo by Ziquinhosilva.

In history, Saarinen is never noted for his personality or working style, and therefore this film offers an intimate insight into the man behind the architecture. In contrast, Zaha Hadid was always discussed with reference to both her vision and her single-mindedness, which perhaps engendered her public persona as a diva. Hadid rightly pushed back against this type of critique but even in this documentary her collaborators, friends and teachers all rush to describe her personality as much as her work. Presented in a more traditional documentary format, this film features interviews with her long-time collaborator Patrik Schumacher, architects Eva Jiricna and Nigel Coates, urbanist Ricky Burdett and engineer Hanif Kara.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Antwerp Port House, 2016, reimagined a disused fire station as a sculptural object. Photo by Lieven Van de Vel.

Related Content

View more