Born in a small town on the southern coast of Finland, Eero Saarinen emigrated to Michigan in the 1920s and was raised by his father Eliel, an architect, and mother Loja, a textile artist. Educated in Beaux Arts architecture at Yale, he worked closely under his father for years.
In 1949, leading into the Cold War, MIT dean of students and Unitarian minister Everett Moore Baker called on the school to construct a small chapel on campus. It was part of an effort to rebrand the college and integrate the social sciences and humanities into a very technically-minded campus. Because of this, the chapel needed to be non-denominational, and the plan would eventually expand to encompass an auditorium as well for discussions, conferences, and performances.
The MIT Chapel was conceptualized in many forms including a rectangle, a triangle and a pyramid, though Saarinen ultimately chose the cylinder for his design. The baroque style drum is made up of a double shell, both shells consist of brick, while the interior ring is undulating for to increase the quality of acoustics, as well as to blur the geometry, softening the atmosphere. Along the lower part of the wall are a periodic series of brick grilles that are designed to reduce echoes and improve speech acoustics. In this particular design, the play of light comes from the outer walls, rather than through the typical stained glass windows. A pool encircles the building where light reflects off the water and up into the interior of the chapel through small openings at waist level. The chapel is also lit from above by a large oculus situated directly beneath a sculptural spire designed by Theodore Roszak and directly above the white marble altar.
Through the oculus, light reflects off a sculpture designed by Harry Bertoia that consists of cables and rectangular metal blades suspended above the altar. The effect of these two combined light sources was inspired by Saarinen’s own personal experiences: “one night on my travels as a student… I sat in a mountain village in Sparta. There was a bright moonlight over head and then there was a soft, hushed secondary light around the horizon. That sort of bilateral lighting seemed best to achieve this otherworldly sense.”
The second structure and compliment to the chapel is the Kresge Auditorium. In creating this design, Saarinen first assigned a set of questions in regards to the standards that this nation amongst others have set forth for auditoriums, and whether or not they should apply. He questioned if there was a better way of bringing the audience and the speaker together into “more intimate contact.” He also questioned whether there was a defined relationship between form and function, and what might it mean if he were to break that relationship? The auditorium would be the nation’s first large-scale concrete shell building. It is 1/8 of a sphere, which sits atop three points of heavy abutments. This created gaps between the corners of the dome that would be capped by glass walls with additional supports that would aid in supporting the dome. The exterior structure was both competitive in cost and strong in structure, as the shell is the strongest form that can be obtained with the least amount of material. Saarinen managed to create a completely column free interior, fifty feet tall at its highest point. While Saarinen wanted the ceiling of the auditorium to remain exposed, the issue of acoustics created a risk, and required assistance from acoustical engineers: Bolt, Baranek, and Newman. They decided on white-painted panels that are suspended from above which served efficient as these panels contained ventilating shafts and lighting as well.