Eliel Gottlieb Saarinen was born on 20 August 1873 in Rantasalmi, Southern Savonia. Saarinen’s parents were vicar Juho Saarinen and Selma Saarinen (nee Broms). Eliel Saarinen took his matriculation examination in 1893 and began his studies at the Polytechnical School of Helsinki and the Drawing School of The Art Society of Finland the same year.
Eliel Saarinen established an architecture office together with fellow architecture students, Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren in 1897, the same year they received their diplomas of architecture. The Exposition Universelle 1900 in Paris was the breakthrough for the architect trio. The Grand Duchy of Finland had its pavilion at the exposition, designed by Gesellius, Lindgren and Saarinen. The National Museum of Finland, based on the winning entry of the architecture competition in 1902 and completed in 1910, is the office’s main work,along with the atelier home Hvitträsk.
In the early years of the 1900s, Gesellius, Lindgren and Saarinen designed and built an atelier home Hvitträsk to Kirkkonummi, 30 kilometres west from Helsinki. Hvitträsk was completed in 1903, but the architect trio’s collaborative practice lasted only two more years. In 1905 Armas Lindgren moved out of Hvitträsk, and the office was laid down when Saarinen’s and Gesellius’ private lives got turbulent. Eliel Saarinen separated from his wife Mathilda Saarinen (nee Gyldén) in 1904. Mathilda Saarinen went on to marry Herman Gesellius, and Eliel Saarinen married Gesellius’ sister, textile artist Minna Carolina Louise “Loja” Gesellius, with whom he had a daughter Eva-Lisa “Pipsan” in 1905. Their second child, son Eero, was born in 1910. The two architects continued to live in the atelier home with their families, but they had separate practices. After Herman Gesellius’ death in 1916, Eliel and Loja Saarinen claimed the Hvitträsk for themselves.
In 1922 Eliel Saarinen won second place in the architecture competition of the Tribune Tower in Chicago, Illinois. The Saarinen family moved to the United States in 1923 in the hope of new working opportunities. In 1925 Saarinen got a commission to design the campus of the Cranbrook Educational Community, intended to be an American version to the Bauhaus. Saarinen even became the president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1932. Eliel and Loja Saarinen lived in Cranbrook for the rest of their lives. Eliel Saarinen became a professor at the University of Michigan’s Architecture Department and received the AIA Gold Medal in 1947. The Saarinens’ son Eero Saarinen became one of the leading American architects of the mid 20th century.
Eliel Saarinen died at the age of 76 on 20 August 1950 in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, USA. He is buried in the Hvitträsk estate together with Loja Saarinen. Hvitträsk is a museum, dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Gesellius Lindgren Saarinen office.