Eero Saarinen, Eduardo Catalano and the Influence of Matthew Nowicki: A Challenge to Form and Function
University of Washington College of Built Environments Seattle
WA 98103 USA
Matthew Nowicki befriended Eero Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy and was succeeded as Chair of the School of Design at North Carolina College of Design by Eduardo Catalano. Nowicki's influence is evident in subsequent work of these two architects. Themes of function, structure and humanism resonated differently in each. All three of these interconnected individuals were engaged in the same intellectual milieu, each manifesting his own architecture in a unique yet contextual way. Taken as a whole, their endeavors stand as evidence of the shifting understanding of what modern architecture was about.
During his life, he befriended the architect Eero Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy
and was succeeded as Chair of the School of Design at North Carolina College of Design
by Eduardo Catalano.4 Through the subsequent work of these two men, Nowickis
influence his personality, his inventiveness, his ideas about architecture can be seen.
Themes of function, structure and humanism resonated differently in each man, striking
different chords in their work. Together, these three interconnected individuals, with
great similarities and vast differences, were engaged in the same intellectual milieu, each
manifesting his own architecture in a unique yet contextual way. Their combined
endeavors, physical and intellectual, stand as evidence of the shifting understanding of
what modern architecture was about.
Matthew Nowicki was born in 1910, into a Polish noble family, the son of a
politically active Consul to the Polish State. He traveled extensively as a child, spending
much time in Chicago, and learning English before enrolling in architectural studies at
the Warsaw Polytechnic in 1928. Here he quickly demonstrated an incredible drawing
ability, a talent that would provide his most lasting legacy in his striking sketches that
remain. Instruction at the Polytechnic also strove to teach him to see things as
structures. To this end a drawing was built, with skeletons of structural lines exposed
[Mumford 1954a: 142]. Drawing for Nowicki was not just symbolic representation, but
an intellectual process of architectural and structural synthesis. Engineering and geometry
would always go hand-in-hand with his formal, architectural explorations. Nowicki also
met his wife, Sasha, while in school; a fellow architecture student, she was by all measures
his equal in drawing and design.
Inspired by Le Corbusier and Wright, Nowicki began his own professional practice in
Warsaw after graduation, also accepting a position as associate professor at the
Polytechnic. He built a number of churches, homes and sports arenas in Poland before
the German invasion in September 1939. The darkness of the war descended on Warsaw
as the mass destruction increased, and Nowicki and his family were forced to escape to
the distant mountain regions. After the war, Nowicki was involved in the planning to
rebuild Warsaw, but when the Polish government was taken over by Communist powers,
he decided to come to the United States [Brook 2005: 37]. He served as Cultural Attache
to the Polish Consulate in Chicago, was a visiting critic at the Pratt Institute, and served
a formative role as the Polish representative to the committee for the United Nations
The wartime experience drastically effected Nowickis outlook on life, and revised his
approach toward architecture. After the war he wrote:
The study of the well-being of contemporary man, which has been
introduced into the language of architecture, continues to be the
inspiration for our work but this time the quality is differently analyzed. It
is no longer the machine to live in that stirs our imagination. It is the
eternal feeling of a shelter to which we subordinate our creative ideas
[Mumford 1954: 148].
Nowicki invokes a more humanist approach to architecture, one that is sensitive to
emotional feelings as well as function.
His technical education at the Warsaw Polytechnic also rooted his architectural
theories in structural realities. Advancing technologies, as they changed over time, were a
crucial part of creating effective architecture. He stated:
...we now rely in our expression of the potentialities of materials and
structures. This interest in structure and material may find within the
building medium decorative qualities of ornament that are much too
involved for the purist of yesterday. The symbolic meaning of a support
For Nowicki, structure had become expression and he embraced the new potential
that emerging technologies suggest.6 A new type of expression was emerging from an
awareness of material and structure, one that was not rooted in a singular, formal
prescription but rather encouraged multiple investigations. He states, Art may be one,
but it has a thousand aspects. We must face the dangers of the crystalizing style... trying
to enrich its scope by opening new roads for investigation and future refinement
[Nowicki 1951: 279].
In an article titled Origins and Trends in Modern Architecture, Nowicki clearly
stated what many architects had begun to feel regarding functionalist architecture:
In the growing maturity and self-consciousness of our century, we can not
avoid the recognition ... that the overwhelming majority of modern design
form follows form and not function. And even when a form results from a
functional analysis, this analysis follows a pattern that leads to a discover of
the same function, whether in a factory or a museum [Nowicki 1951:
Striking to the heart of the proclaimed objectivity of pre-war modern architecture,
Nowickis statements resonated with many architects of his generation. From Paul
Rudolph [1986: 153] to Colin Rowe [1976: 130], Nowickis statements provided a
springboard for a new line of architectural thinking, causing, in 1962, the critic Allan
Temko to call Nowicki the spokesman for young Modernists [Temko 1963: 43]. For
the emerging generation of architects, function influenced but did not dictate form. For
Nowicki, Catalano and Saarinen, post-war architecture would engage the mutual
dependence of function and form.
Nowickis theories can be seen in his sketches for the State Fair Livestock Judging
Pavilion (later the Dorton Arena) in Raleigh, North Carolina. His death during the
design process left architect William Henley Deitrick, working with engineers
SeverudElsted-Kreuger, to complete the project. Despite the intent to do everything as Matthew
would have wanted it [Parabolic Pavilion 1952: 137], substantial design changes due to
budget and construction issues altered the building to the point where some questioned if
Nowicki would have been pleased with it (North Carolina Dean Henry Kamphoefner
quoted in [A radical settles down in Raleigh, NC 1980]. But Nowickis intent is
evidenced through his sketches, and is indicated in the built work.
The sketches (and the building itself; fig. 1) are structurally bold, consisting of two
intersecting parabolic arches. The sweeping, mathematically-driven forms are angled to
the horizon, and on this account, trace the plan of the arena in the area between them.
The roof consists of draped cables strung between the two arches. The cables
dependence on the geometry of the arches, coupled with their own catenary behavior,
creates a warped roof surface displaying a curvature in both lateral and longitudinal
directions. This is clearly a geometrical investigation of shapes in space, a mixing of
elevation and plan, but it is also underlined by a structural logic.
The two parabolic arches were made of concrete, and act in pure compression, with
the roof cables hung in pure tension. The force-imbalance of the canted arches was to be
ideally counteracted by the thrust of the roof cables, freeing up the curtain wall below to
provide only stability. In the final building, construction methods had not advanced
enough to support these intentions, and the exterior curtain wall became load bearing.
These structural innovations have been widely cited by people such as Frei Otto 
as innovative and suggesting a new field of architectural form. The Livestock Pavilion
displayed a material logic employed through the mathematics of complex geometry.
Fig. 1. Matthew Nowickis State Fair Livestock Judging Pavilion (later the Dorton
Arena) in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photograph by Yoshito Isono, reproduced
courtesy of Nicholas Janberg and Structurae
These structural forms also provided an expression of the function of the building
and shaped the space within. As a single great room the livestock show floor and
surrounding grandstands mirror the structure above, providing axiality and a center of
focus (Paul Rudolph quoted in [The great Livestock Pavilion complete 1954]).
Architectural Forum stated:
Nowicki was seeking first of all not for a unique structure but for a unique
space. The remarkable warping of the space upward, the exact reverse of a
dome, would guarantee maximum daylight admitted from the two sides to
the central arena. This labile kind of curvature of enclosed space marks a
new epoch in architecture [Parabolic Pavilion 1952].
The innovative, three-dimensional aspects of the Pavilion indicated a different means
of enclosing human experience, a new spatial relationship within architecture. The roof
provided shelter and also engaged the questioning mind.
Nowickis theories of humanist expression through structure are in play here. He is
demonstrating a navigated position between the human experience, structural rationality
and the functional demands of the building. Although not without shortcomings,7 in this
single work he has embodied many different strands of the architectural discourse of the
time. Paul Rudolph described a sublime experience, and stated that this new space
helped man forget something of his troubles. He also claimed that it satisfied our need
for more expressiveness to emphasize our places of worship, meeting places of governing
bodies, and centers of recreation [The Great Livestock Pavilion Complete 1954: 132]. It
embodied a basic soundness and high spirited boldness that indicated a new direction
for modern architecture [The Great Livestock Pavilion Complete 1954: 134].
After Nowickis death, his position as chair of the North Carolina State College,
School of Design was soon filled by Dean Henry Kamphoefner, with Eduardo Catalano.
Catalano, an Argentinian-born architect who trained at both the University of
Pennsylvania and under Walter Gropius at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, was
keenly interested in advanced geometrical forms in architecture. Prior to coming to
North Carolina, he had co-written a book on the mathematics of geometrical forms and
the use of perspective [Crivelli, Nery and Catalano 1940]. His un-built auditorium
project in Buenos Aires used a thin shell structure to enhance acoustics, and he entered
several competitions for pre-fabricated housing solutions, utilizing a modular approach to
building [Arts and Architectures Second Annual Competition 1945].
But it all appears to come together for Catalano once he arrives in Raleigh. Along
with the continuing construction of the Livestock Pavilion, Nowickis presence was still
felt through the curriculum and education system he had initiated. His pedagogical
approach to teaching architecture emphasized a merge of the technical requirements with
a humanistic awareness. Influenced by Le Corbusiers Modulor, Nowicki emphasized
designing around Man as the unchanging module of of scale and proportion and the
role of technology and structure as a means to satisfy changing human demands
[Mumford 1954b]. This legacy is digested and synthesized by Catalano, filtered through
his own experiences and disposition, in a unique way.
Catalanos work focused on geometrically advanced forms, investigating new means
of spanning space. He worked primarily with hyperbolic paraboloids, investigating
geometrical surfaces with curvature in two longitudinal directions (e.g., saddle shapes)
forms like Nowickis Livestock Pavilion roof. But Catalano extended this form, coming
up with a modular system to create these shapes using individual, linear elements.
Drawing on his experience with advanced geometry, Catalano developed a system where
new shapes could be generated by simply modifying parameters of the design. His project
Structures of Warped Surfaces explored various combinations of hyperbolic paraboloid
forms with a variety of supports, searching for new ways to provide an over-head surface
[Catalano Gubitosi Izzo 1978: 55-70]. In 1953, three years after Nowickis death,
Catalano was quoted stating:
Following the research begun by Nowicki, our work at North Carolina has
gone far beyond the Raleigh Pavilion in the study of both space structures
and repetitive spatial structural systems ... these have led to interesting
structures (comment by Eduardo Catalano, in [Is this Tomorrows
Structure? 1953: 160]).
Catalano also utilized war-related technologies of aluminum and plywood in
experiments with these forms, stressing innovation tied to industrial production.
His work at North Carolina State College culminated in the construction of his own
house in the woods outside Raleigh. Known simply as the Catalano House (1953-55,
fig. 2) it consisted of a single hyperbolic paraboloid, made up of three layers of laminated
timber. Spanning 90 feet between supports with a total thickness just over two inches,
this house was celebrated as a structure that is all skin and no bones, reflecting the
most advanced engineering know-how of the time [Why are People Talking about this
House? 1955]. The functions of house take place then beneath the shell, with full height
glass curtain walls defining the interior space.
Fig. 2. Eduardo Catalanos Catalano House
But Catalanos house was recognized as an experiment, an attempt to utilize
advancing skin technology in architecture [Why are People Talking about this House?
1955]. Given his approach to design, he was faced with the awkward challenge of fitting
an architectural function to the forms he had developed through mathematics. The
majority of his warped surface sketches contain no indicator of relation to the human
scale, nor to which functions or building types they would be most suited. Nowickis
work clearly influenced his explorations, but Catalano has placed new emphasis on
geometrical purity and advancement in structural engineering without direct ties to a
specific architectural program [Catalano 2009]. His warped plane roof became famous
with both avant-garde aestheticians and building technicians [A New Way to Span
Space 1955]. It is a shape like a potato chip but is also mathematical, geometrical, and
analytical: a universal shape for covering.
The parallel work of Eero Saarinen reveals a different aspect of Nowickis influence.
Saarinen and Nowicki met at a symposium in February 1948, and in the summer of
1949, Nowicki was appointed Visiting Professor at the Cranbrook Academy.8 United by
a propensity for drawing, the two were fast friends and shared a fruitful summer
designing the campus plan for Brandeis University [Merkel 2005: 105]. Their sketches
show heavily sculptural forms, with undulating walls and domed spaces, which, though
not without precedent, mark a formalistic departure from Saarinens previous work, like
the GM Technical Center. With Nowicki by his side, Saarinen is able to merge his
sculptural interests developed in furniture with the architectural humanism of Nowicki.
Though their plan for Brandeis went unrealized, their sketches reveal many hints of
Saarinens future work.
Saarinen would later acknowledge the influence of their brief time together, which
lasted only a few months. In a letter, he declared Matthew Nowicki to be the third most
significant influence on him after his father, Eliel, and his life-long collaborator Charles
Eames [Saarinen Pelkonen and Albrecht 2006: 332]. In Nowickis obituary in
Architectural Forum, Saarinen stated: If time had allowed his genius to spread its wings
in full, this poet-philosopher of form would have influenced the whole course of
254 Tyler Sprague Eero Saarinen, Eduardo Catalano and the Influence of Matthew Nowicki: A Challenge ...
architecture as profoundly as he inspired his friends [Mumford 1950]. Through these
statements, we can see that Nowicki had a profoundly different effect on Saarinen than
After his experience with Nowicki, Saarinens work is defined by his formal
expression, in such work as the MIT Chapel and Kresge Auditorium, and the TWA
Flight Center and Dulles Airport Terminals [Serraino Saarinen and Gssel 2005]. The
structural logic of his architecture is often complicated by his attempts to create a
meaningful form, one that communicates as well as functions [Pelkonen 2006]. Inspired
by seeing Nowicki as a poet-philosopher of form, Saarinen was not interested in pure
structure or engineering, like Catalano, but in linking architectural form to context and
broader, humanist theories. Geometry alone was not enough; it needed energizing if it
was to serve the spatial-structural-spiritual totality that he wished to express [Temko
1962: 43]. This is architecture that engages Nowickis ideas of the multiplicity of art.
Fig. 3. Eero Saarinens David S. Ingalls Ice Rink at Yale University, New Haven, CT. Photograph
by Yoshito Isono, reproduced courtesy of Nicholas Janberg and Structurae
Nowickis influence is most clearly seen at Saarinens Ingalls Ice Rink (fig. 3). With a
program similar to the Livestock Pavilion, Saarinen gives expression to the Ice Rink as a
single room with a central rink surrounded by grandstand seating. A single, long
concrete arch swoops over the long axis of the rink, with catenary cables running
perpendicular to either side, forming the roof surface. But in an artistic and functional
move, Saarinen does not terminate the main arch at its support, but reverses its curvature
and cantilevers an additional portion to serve as an awning over the building entrance.
This extended curve gives the building an undulating quality, making it a graceful active
presence on the north side of the Yale University campus [Yales Hockey Rink 1958].
Exposed on the interior, the smooth concrete arch contrasts with the wood plank finish
of the roof, coming to its peak over the hockey rink below. Commonly called the
dinosaur or likened to a Viking ship [Yales Viking Vessel 1958], the building has
personality and engages people spatially and intellectually.
Not only did Saarinen use a structural system similar to that of the Livestock Pavilion
(as well as hiring the same engineer) but he captured a similar dynamic movement that
can be seen in Nowickis sketches. His structure dominates the form, serving the purpose
of providing enclosure and supporting function, but clearly standing as a unique, artistic
creation. The Ice Rink was criticized as not sensible because it spanned the arch over
the long dimension (rather than the short axis) but it highlights the fact that Saarinen
was not interested in a prescribed, logical approach to structure; the central spine
served more than just a structural purpose.9 He was not interested in the geometrical
warping of overhead space as an isolated experiment, but in its inclusion, modification
and distortion in the overall architectural experience.
The work of Eduardo Catalano and Eero Saarinen reveals different themes in
postwar architecture. Ranging from systematic, geometrical form-finding to expressive,
artistic architecture, these architects display different directions following their experience
with Matthew Nowicki. The sketches, writings, and built work of one man were
simultaneously described as the investigation of spatial structures, and the work of a
poetphilosopher, spawning different yet related directions in post-war architecture. This study
indicates the nature of modern architectural discourse - as the action of neither isolated,
autonomous individuals nor a unified group. Nowickis influence does not at all indicate
a lack of originality or innovation on the part of either architect, but serves to show how
architectural discovery is often contextual and interrelated to broader discourses. By
discussing the milieu of theories and shapes, functions and forms, this comparative study
reveals the changing landscape of ideas about how to design modern architecture in the
Lewis Mumfords comments following Nowickis death in 1950 appear prophetic yet
misleading. A friend and proponent, he stated that Nowicki
bore within him the seed of a new age. In his designs, spontaneity and
discipline, power and love, form and function, mechanical structure and
symbol, were united. What he left undone through his death must now
call forth the creative efforts of a whole generation [Mumford 1950: 201,
Not simply completing Nowickis work, Catalano and Saarinen forged their own
ways forward, inevitably leaning on their own experiences and influences, on the paths to
creating their own unique architecture.
Tyler Sprague is a doctoral student at the University of Washington, Seattle. He has a background
in structural engineering and continues to study architecture and engineering in the post-war
period. He would like to thank Meredith Clausen and Alex Anderson for their guidance, and
acknowledge support from the University of Washington Victoria N. Reed Endowed Student