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Newsmaker Interview: Donald Albrecht

November 2009

By Beth Broome

Donald Albrecht
Photo © Laurie Lambrecht

Donald Albrecht is the curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York. In recent years, he also has served as curator of the traveling exhibition Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, the first-ever retrospective of the influential Finnish-American architect.

The exhibition was prompted by the 2002 donation of the Eero Saarinen and Associates office archives to the Yale University School of Architecture. Since opening in Helsinki in the fall of 2006, the show has been presented in Oslo, Brussels, Cranbrook, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, and St. Louis. It lands in New York City this week, where it will be on display at the Museum of the City of New York through January 31, 2010.

The exhibition features never-before-viewed sketches, models, photographs, furnishings, and a specially commissioned documentary film. The retrospective has been seen as something of a comeback for Saarinen, who was arguably the most important architect in the U.S. (having designed iconic buildings for some of the most powerful corporations and clients of the time) when his career was cut short by his death in 1961 at the age of 51.

Organized by the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York, the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki, and the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., with the support of the Yale University School of Architecture, the exhibition will make its final stop at Yale University in the spring.

Architectural Record recently spoke to Albrecht about the exhibition’s debut in New York City, home to several Saarinen landmarks.

TWA Terminal, New York International (now John F. Kennedy International) Airport, New York, circa 1962.
Photo © Balthazar Korab

TWA Terminal, New York International (now John F. Kennedy International) Airport, New York, circa 1962.

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Architectural Record: How did the exhibition come to the Museum of the City of New York?

Donald Albrecht: I work at the Museum of the City of New York three days a week, then I have other institutions I work for. This is an exhibition I was hired to do by the organizers. We were looking for a New York venue, so I proposed the Museum of the City of New York. It’s a bit of a weird situation: I’m basically installing my own show here.

AR: How is the exhibition in New York different from its other venues?

DA: We’ve enhanced certain components. Of course, when we were organizing the show, one option would have been to put all the New York projects together. But the show is organized by building type, so that would have gone against the organization. You find New York work in almost all the categories. Instead of pulling it out, we highlighted it in each of those sections.

We have a set of fantastic photographs by Robert Damora, who recently died. He worked closely with Florence Knoll, photographing interiors of Saarinen’s CBS Building [on 52nd Street]. We’re featuring six of those photos, which are unique to the New York venue. We also borrowed a model of the building from Kevin Roche [former principal design associate to Saarinen] that was not in the traveling show.

We have given a greater focus to Saarinen’s second wife, Aline, a New York Times art critic who went on to become a T.V. personality. She has the connection to the New York City media. Previously she weaved her way through the exhibit; now she’s featured in her own section.

We also increased coverage of Lincoln Center: Saarinen designed the Vivian Beaumont Theater with Gordon Bunshaft [of SOM, who designed the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts], and worked with theater designer Jo Mielziner to design its interior. The Museum of the City of New York Theater Collection has drawings of the project.

We added material on the TWA terminal. Peter Brandt was hired by Beyer Blinder Belle to photograph the terminal when it was closing, so we have a monitor showing these images. It provides a photographic essay of how the building looks today. You can see additions and levels of wear—photos that had not been taken before.

Another thing we did is group together the three New York area corporate campuses: the 1952 Time, Inc. Headquarters in Rye (that was never built), Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey, and IBM in Yorktown Heights. You can say different things with the groupings of projects and objects. We can talk about Saarinen’s role in the migration of corporations out of the city.

AR: What were some of the challenges of curating the show in New York?

DA: At the Museum of the City of New York we have two galleries connected by a corridor, so we had to make the exhibition flow. Parsing it out to make it make sense was a challenge. Down the corridor we have the section on Aline. At end of corridor, we created an ante gallery—that you encounter before the big gallery—and devoted it to the TWA terminal. We located the New York projects at the access points and focal points.

AR: Your audience at the Museum of the City of New York is less focused on architecture than the other venues’ audiences. How did you deal with that?

DA: We have an audience that is interested in architecture, but not dedicated to it. In response, I’ve taken some photos out of show and made them into projections. Wendy Evans Joseph, the architect who designed the installation [Michael Bierut/Pentagram did the graphic design for the New York installation as well as the traveling exhibition], proposed a mini theater with a slide show of Saarinen’s work. I’ve focused the slide show on his interiors as a way of engaging a public that’s not used to seeing architectural work and working drawings. I added an experiential moment the other venues did not have.

AR: You co-edited the catalog with Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, associate professor at the Yale School of Architecture. Tell us about that.

DA: We ended up working with lots of students from Yale. Much of the research done by scholars and students for the catalog was used in the exhibition. We used the book as the grounding for the show. We built up a biographical chronology of Saarinen’s life in the book, which was useful in terms of sorting out his life and inserting various aspects of it into the exhibition.

AR: What effect do you think this exhibition has had, or will have, on Saarinen’s legacy?

DA: It brings it back. And it opens up new questions about Saarinen, which is one of the goals of any scholarly enterprise. It is the first serious effort to catalog Saarinen’s work. And we tried to contextualize him through this documentary and interpretive exercise. In the exhibition we examine his engagement with the media, his relationship to theater design, and his relationship to his clients—the movers and shakers of the time. Henry Luce famously said, ‘whatever the end of the war produced, it would certainly be the American Century.’ Saarinen gives us an opportunity to look at the architecture of that time, because he is the architect of Luce’s American Century.

 

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