Eero Saarinen designed some of the most iconic American buildings of the 20th century. The arch in St Louis? That was him. The TWA terminal at JFK airport? That was him too. And it wasn’t just buildings. Saarinen also designed the furniture that would define futurism of the 1960s, like the tables in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Eero Saarinen with a model of the new proposed US Embassy in London on 5 June 1956. (Getty/Ron Case/Stringer)
But one aspect of Saarinen’s life is largely skipped over in public memory, and that’s his time working for the precursor to the CIA during World War II. Based on documents I received this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed last year, Saarinen’s work for the agency was invaluable.
Founded in 1942, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) conducted espionage and sabotage during World War II before it would be named the CIA. And some unlikely public figures worked for it. There’s even an entire book about chef Julia Child’s work for the OSS.
Saarinen’s work for the spy agency mostly involved designing models of buildings and weapons that had yet to be built. He even worked on designs for the original war room in the White House. And the people at OSS claimed that he was so good at his job that he could not be replaced:
The wording used to describe Saarinen’s duties certainly raise more questions than they answer. For instance, “models of new weapons and devices” leaves a lot to the imagination.
We know based on the work of previous researchers that Saarinen designed a manual distributed to British soldiers about how to dismantle unexploded bombs. But again, the details remain sketchy.
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.
Honestly, this file just feels like the tip of a very interesting iceberg. As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, Saarinen would go on to work on the design of embassies. And I’m not saying that there’s any evidence that Saarinen helped the CIA bug embassies, as they were known to do around the world. I’m just saying I wouldn’t be surprised.
There’s clearly plenty of more work to be done investigating Saarinen’s relationship with the CIA after World War II, but that will have to wait. At this point we merely have hints of what he did after the war when it came to his old pals in the espionage business.
In the meantime you can read the entire file that I received below.