We admire many midcentury heroes for their work, whether they created products that improve our lives, buildings that beautified our skylines, or furniture that made our homes more enjoyable. Yet in more than a few cases, some of the most famous names of the 20th century also supported questionable—sometimes, downright awful—ideas and organizations during their careers. Designers are human, after all.
The latest of such architects is Eero Saarinen—the iconic midcentury designer of the iconic Tulip chair, the St. Louis Arch, the General Motors Technical Center, the TWA terminal at JFK Airport, Bell Labs, and inventor of the conversation pit. After filing a Freedom of Information Act request last year, Gizmodo writer Matt Novak this week reported that Saarinen moonlighted as a weapons designer for the CIA (then known as the OSS).
According to the information Novak received, which dates from around 1944, Saarinen worked on the design and construction of military schools, situation rooms, equipment for conferences, and pilot models of new weapons and devices. He points out that the information was very vague (it doesn't look like there are any specific weapons mentioned or illustrations. "Since the OSS was involved in counterespionage and sabotage, the word 'devices' could mean a great number of things. But unfortunately, the file doesn’t elaborate," he writes.
WWII, and the years leading up to it, were very challenging times for designers and architects in general—many fled war-torn Europe for safer ground in the United States—and "the war effort" was something that affected nearly every American. That said, I certainly hope that Saarinen didn't actually design a weapon that was ever deployed.
Saarinen is not alone in having political clients or affiliations that have been largely lost to history until recently. In fact, several of his most famous midcentury peers have lesser-known stories akin to Saarinen’s.
Another famous midcentury name whose suspect political affiliations have often been overlooked? Philip Johnson. We know the architect and writer as being instrumental to introducing the International Style to the United States as MoMA's first curator of architecture and design. A disciple of Mies van der Rohe, Johnson created some of the most famous modern buildings—like the Glass House, the Four Seasons Restaurant, the Sony Tower, and the New York World's Fair Pavilion—though his contributions as a critic were more influential than anything he built.
Yet Johnson was also a Nazi propagandist. Novak—who clearly has a nose for the seedier side of design history—reported (also for Gizmodo) about how the late architect founded fascist organizations, wrote numerous articles for far-right publications, and even traveled with the Nazis through Poland. "You simply could not fail to be caught up in the excitement of it," Johnson once said.
Then there's Le Corbusier, who theorized about the future of cities, created his own system of measurement, and created some of the most significant buildings of the 20th century.
He also leaned to the right politically, and was involved with fascist publications and wrote in personal correspondence about his support for Nazism and fascism. In 1934, he accepted Mussolini's invitation to lecture in Rome. In 1936—soon after the Italo-Ethiopian war, which resulted in military occupation of Ethiopia—Le Corbusier offered his services to Mussolini to redesign Addis Ababa using his Radiant City theories and commented on how the cities of Africa Orientale Italiana—i.e., the Italian colonies—should be designed.
Le Corbusier also exhibited some mighty bad behavior outside of politics: He painted murals—without invitation—inside and outside of Eileen Gray's house, E 1027, after Gray's former lover invited him to stay there. A documentary about the house speculated that he did so out of jealousy for the house's design. Interestingly, it was those murals that saved the house from demolition as they were considered valuable works from an artistic genius, never mind Gray's experimental design for the structure.
History has lionized these figures—and depicting them as heroes has often involved ignoring their flaws, intentionally or not. When their contributions to architecture and design are discussed, it's usually in the context of how they've impacted the field, not necessarily their personal lives, which begs the question of how much do we look into their actions outside of their professional realm? How many indiscretions can we sweep under the rug? Johnson himself recognized the wrongs he committed and started an anti-fascist group at the Harvard Graduate School of Design when he was a student in an effort to scrub his own record clean. For decades that may have worked, but some writers aren't so keen on omitting what history has seemed to forget. Now, that's changing. You can read Paleofuture's full report on Saarinen here.