Tips on choosing an architect, and Eero Saarinen on the purpose of architecture

In the October 1963 issue of Mississippi Architect, Bob Henry’s editorial gives some helpful tips about choosing an architect that are still relevant today. Also worthy of note in this issue is a short clip from Eero Saarinen‘s December 1959 speech to Dickinson College in which he expounds his view of the role and purpose of architecture.


The only Saarinen-designed building I’ve ever been in is Dulles Airport, and unfortunately it was under major renovation when I was there, so I really didn’t get any sense of it. As you may recall from the post about miniature furniture a few weeks ago, Saarinen also designed the Tulip Chair, famous for its role in the second-best television series of all time–the Battlestar Galactica remake of course clearly the best–the original Star Trek.


Choose With Care

The office of the Mississippi Chapter, AlA receives frequent calls asking for a list of architects who specialize in the design of a particular type of building. It is impossible to furnish such a list without being presumptuous.

The successful design of a school, for instance, will almost always lead to other commissions to design schools. If it develops that the architect designs more schools than any other building type, he may very well come to be known as a “school” architect. Although there are a few who wish to be known as specialists, most architects prefer the challenge of a diverse practice that affords the opportunity to design as many different kinds of buildings as possible.

Creative ability needs to be constantly challenged. The same trained talent that produces a good school, will produce a good industrial building, church, bank, office building, shopping center, hospital, or residence. While this in no way negates the value of experience, it does indicate that there are other equally valid considerations in the selection of an architect.

We proffer the following check list without suggesting that it is at all comprehensive:

1. Character, Integrity, and Professional Standing

  • Check with the architect’s former clients, with other architects, and with reputable contractors.

2. Design Ability

  • Look at complete projects

3. Formal Training and Experience

  • Ask the architect for his brochure. It will give such information on him and his personnel.

4. Organization

  • Visit the architect’s office and ask to be shown through. How he conducts his own business may offer some clue as to how he will conduct yours.

Select your architect with care and the process of building should be a rewarding experience.

–Bob Henry


Architecture’s Scope, Purpose

I think of architecture as the total of man’s man-made physical surroundings. The only thing I leave out is nature. You might say it is man-made nature. It is the total of everything we have around us, starting from the largest city plan, including the streets we drive on and its telephone poles and signs, down to the building and house we work and live in and does not end until we consider the chair we sit in and the ash tray we dump our pipe in. It is true that the architect practices on only a narrow segment of this wide keyboard, but that is just a matter of historical accident. The total scope is much wider than what he has staked his claim on. So, to the question, what is the scope of architecture? I would answer: It is man’s total physical surroundings, outdoors and indoors.

Now, what is the purpose of architecture? Here again I would stake out the most ambitious claim. I think architecture is much more than its utilitarian meaning–to provide shelter for man’s activities on earth. It is certainly that, but I believe it has a much more fundamental role to play for man, almost a religious one. Man is on earth for a very short time and he is not quite sure what his purpose is. Religion gives him his primary purpose. The permanence and beauty and meaningfulness of his surroundings give him confidence and a sense of continuity. So, to the question, what is the purpose of architecture, I would answer: To shelter and enhance man’s life on earth and to fulfill his belief in the nobility of his existence.

-Eero Saarinen
From an address at Dickinson College, December 1, 1959


This article is reprinted from the October 1963 issue of the Mississippi Architect, with permission from the Mississippi Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. View the full October 1963 issue of Mississippi Architect in a digitized format, or for other articles in this ongoing series, including the pdf version of each full issue, click on theMSArcht tab at the top of this page.

Categories: Architectural Research, Books, Modernism

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