Eero Saarinen, MIT Chapel

Eero Saarinen

MIT Chapel, 1954


Eero Saarinen was born in Kirkkonummi, Finland in 1910 and emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1923. He studied sculpture at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiére in Paris in 1929-30 and architecture at Yale University, graduating in 1934.

After traveling in Europe on a scholarship, he returned to the U.S. to teach at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. In 1937, he collaborated with Charles Eames on a series of prize-winning furniture designs. He worked in the architectural office of his father until Eliel Saarinen’s death in 1950, when the firm became Eero Saarinen and Associates. In addition to Kresge Auditorium and the Chapel at MIT, Saarinen’s outstanding designs include Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, D.C.; the TWA Terminal, JFK Airport, New York; and the Gateway Arch, St. Louis. The last three projects were completed by Saarinen’s his partners, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, after his death. Eero Saarinen died in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1961.

Building Number: W15

Accession Number: 5000.21

Audio Transcript

Built In the 1950s, the MIT Chapel and Kresge Auditorium just across the way were part of MIT's response to the aftermath of World War II. Associate Dean of MIT School of Architecture and Planning, Mark Jarzombek.

MIT was concerned that its scientists were too limited and that the future required scientists who knew something about the world and who could, in fact, see the technological as a cultural product just as much as a question of innovation. MIT created a humanities program, but they also commissioned Eero Saarinen to design this nondenominational chapel and an auditorium as a place where one could go to reflect on life and communicate to each other about the realities of the age.

The Finnish-born Saarinen was a prolific architect whose commissions encompassed the high symbolic, such as the St. Louis Arch to the modernist aesthetic, such as the TWA terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. The chapel synthesizes both approaches. Its cylindrical form echoes ancient pantheons, but is distinctly modern as well.

From the outside, the chapel is a simple, windowless brick cylinder set up on arches and placed inside a moat. It's a mysterious building. How do you enter it? What do you do inside it? If you didn't know that it was a chapel, you might think of it, perhaps, as some sort of industrial experiment.

The textured brick endows the modern building with a historic feel and contrast with the thin-shelled concrete structure of Kresge Auditorium.

He wanted his building not to be just seen as a functional element, but as something elevated. And indeed, the two buildings are elevated literally about 3 or 4 feet over the surroundings. He wanted to sort of make sure that people understood that this area was special and set off from the general academic world of MIT.

To hear more about the chapel's interior, altarpiece and spire as well as Kresge Auditorium, please refer to nearby signage. 

Audio Transcript - Interior

Stepping inside Eero Saarinen's MIT chapel is an unexpected experience.

The contrast between the outside and inside is what makes this building so brilliant. Instead of being circular, which is, of course, what one sees on the outside, one discovers that the walls on the interior have undulations in them that, like waves, ripple around the room, changing what would be a centralized space into a longitudinal space, making the space seem not round, but perhaps even oval.

The interior lighting was inspired by a moonlit night Saarinen spent in the Greek mountainside. From above, light cascades down Harry Bertoia's golden altar piece. From below, light filters up through the moat, enhancing the chapel subdued and contemplative atmosphere. More information about the chapel's exterior, its altar piece and spire, as well as Kresge Auditorium, is available on the List's website.