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Modern in Moline - John Deere World Headquarters in Cor-Ten steel, by Eero Saarinen. "Nothing rusts like a Deere."

by Edward Lifson (noreply@blogger.com) last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:44 AM
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by Edward Lifson (noreply@blogger.com) last modified Sep 13, 2010



 

 


John Deere World Headquarters
Eero Saarinen
Moline, Illinois.  Opened 1964

Eero Saarinen's John Deere World Headquarters looks better and better as the years go by; as do all of Saarinen's works.  The approach is carefully choreographed as you rise up out of a valley, and first see man-made lakes.  Saarinen created a working monument that glorifies with dignity industry, technology and craftsmanship, all in balance with nature.  The building is in, of, by and for the land- the land which is this building's reason to be.  Thomas Jefferson would be proud.  The offices seem to be satisfy the workers needs for light, calm, and dignity.     

The Deere brochure says,

John Deere and Eero Saarinen, the Finnish-American architect who designed the building, both created masterpieces in steel. Deere used steel to forge the plow that tamed the prairie; Saarinen used it to build a structure that reflected the character of the company that bears Deere's name.

Deere's plow had to be strong enough to till Midwestern soil.  The building is not of shiny steel like many office buildings of the day, but rather, rugged Cor-Ten® steel, made to rust.  Cor-Ten dated to 1933 and was developed for the railroads.  John Deere World Headquarters was the first use of Cor-Ten in such a major architectural application.  Over the years here it has picked up ever more hues of the Land of Lincoln, and of the all important oak trees, among which it nestles.



Saarinen's large "universal space," half-buried in the earth like a plow digging in; the exhibition space where they display the John Deere combines, tractors and plows.



This elegantly detailed glass box is the fanciest farm shed in the world.  Since the late 1930's John Deere has hired industrial designers to make their products aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.  With the building, as with the products, one marvels at the design and engineering.

In the showroom you will also find one odd wooden bench, I saw just one.  Its oddness recalled for me the prow on Saarinen's Ingalls hockey rink at Yale, though I don't know if Eero Saarinen had a hand in designing this bench.  It is sculpted as if over time human bottoms have polished indentations into the wood.  One seats one's bum in it, in this natural material, much as the building itself is embedded in the land.  



I was surprised to learn that Saarinen's first proposal for John Deere headquarters was an inverted pyramid.


Saarinen sketches for John Deere headquarters, 1957-63

This struck me as I've recently returned from the Shanghai World Expo where the national pavilion of China is an inverted pyramid.  I'm glad Deere didn't go with that, it would have likely dominated the nature, and created too much space where the sun don't shine.  As built, the John Deere building has an Asian feel to it with a harmony, equilibrium and delicacy that especially when the lights are on can remind one of the Golden Temple in Kyoto; in the end this is a fine American work- rugged and right for the frontier - its "sticks" and "logs" of steel stacked, fastened, and demonstrating its will to endure.

The critic John Jacobus places the John Deere headquarters in "a particular American pictorial vision of a metallic industrialized building style set in an ordered, uncluttered landscape - the vision of Sheller, Demuth and Hopper."

The surrounding landscape by Hideo Sasaki and associates is as brilliant as the building -  balancing structure and building art with land, water, trees, brush, sky, water and air.  Sasaki's mid-century works are American masterpieces; often better than the acclaimed "land art" created by "land artists" in the following decades.

Sasaki knew Illinois, he had studied at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 1946 (Sasaki and his firm have done design and landscape work there for decades). He later worked at the Chicago office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill.  (I regret that it was a Sasaki landscape that was brutally ripped from the earth earlier this year at the campus of Michael Reese hospital in Chicago.) John Deere had begun to make smaller tractors for lawns and gardens just before work on the headquarters building began in 1955, so it's appropriate that much of the landscaping is well-trimmed lawn.  

Alexander Girard composed the huge mural on the display floor with memorabilia from company history.

Even if I hadn't just seen proud and optimistic China, re-visiting John Deere reminds me of the  American commitment to greatness, pride and belief in the value of creating a place of beauty, when corporate America had the fortitude to create such a showplace as this pilgrimage temple to agribusiness.  Such work strengthens us, shows us we are made of, and what we are capable of as a nation.  I know that spirit still exists here. Maybe we just have to dig around to find it.

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"Nothing runs like a Deere" says the ad, but I try.  I leave what is wrongly called the "rust belt," and until I stop again: well, if John Deere is where rusty Cor-ten steel architecture started, see here where it has gone.  I leave Moline, and cross the Mississippi. 
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