Motor City

Thanks to Eero Saarinen’s flexible plan and General Motors’s commitment to design, the original GM Technical Center is still a model corporate campus.

For close to 50 years General Motors’s Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, a dozen miles from Detroit, has embodied the company’s vision of the future by looking forward without forgetting its past. Dubbed the “Versailles of Industry” after it opened in 1956, the center—designed by Eero Saarinen and considered one of his masterpieces—consisted of 25 buildings sitting on 320 acres. Today it has expanded to 37 buildings on 640 acres, but Saarinen’s buildings remain the physical and spiritual core of this elaborate home to GM’s engineers, researchers, stylists, designers, and other specialists.

Wayne Cherry, vice president of design at GM, still remembers the first time he drove onto the Technical Center campus, when he was 24 years old. As he steered his ‘55 Chevy through the main gate, a dramatic curtain of water from the fountain in the lake greeted him. The glistening steel water tower, manicured landscape, and contemporary glass-and-steel architecture seemed an embodiment of everything GM stood for. “It had been my life’s dream to design cars for General Motors, the most forward-thinking company in the world,” he says. “Coming to work at the Tech Center was like stepping into the future.”

That future was the result of a design collaboration between Saarinen and the automotive company. Together the team brought a research approach to the design process, treating the buildings as industrial products. They developed concepts like the movable wall panel, tested new techniques like central air conditioning, and built mock-ups as if they were designing a car. “The thoroughness of their thinking was amazing,” says Larry Faloon, GM’s former executive director of communications and industrial design. “To have realized that to get to our exhibition dome from the studio required an underground tunnel system, because of inclement weather and security, is amazing.”

Today the Technical Center is on the National Register of Historic Places, and GM’s long-term planning vision includes a visitors’ center, which the company hopes to open in a few years. This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of GM chairman Alfred Sloan’s collaboration with designer Harley Earl to create the Art and Color studio, the first design department at any major car company. “When you come here you understand the heritage of the company,” trend and color designer Chris Webb says. “Sloan really instilled the vision that GM products could be differentiated from others through the use of design.” To celebrate the occasion, on June 22 GM will give the public a rare opportunity to tour the campus and view an exhibit of nearly every concept car created since Earl’s arrival.

As many corporations abandon midcentury Modernist buildings or transform them beyond recognition, GM has managed to strike a healthy balance, adapting to modern needs and technologies while maintaining and preserving an architectural masterpiece. The GM Technical Center’s long life is a testament to Saarinen’s innovative and flexible plan, but also to the company’s commitment to good design.

(pictured: Wayne Cherry, vice president of design)

While Saarinen designed the executive offices in most of the buildings on the campus, Harley Earl enlisted the talents of his staff designers to create his own office. The room is designed more like an automobile than an office. “The first thing that strikes you about the space is that it is not a traditional rectangular shape but rather a series of sweeping curves, flowing forms and surface transitions,” says its current inhabitant, Wayne Cherry. “The eye flows around the room in the same manner it would flow around a vehicle.” The automotive visual cues are carried throughout the design of the office. The built-in sofas and desk—constructed of wood that had been machined, sanded, and laminated—suggest the wooden block models used in car development at the time. The wood paneling on the walls is treated with an automotive-like finish; polished metal accents highlight the edges. Even the glass table is on a hydraulic system that lowers to coffee table height or rises to conference table height.

(pictured: Chris Webb, trend and color designer; Helen Emsley, chief designer, Color and Trim; and the staff of the Color and Trim studio)

GM fastidiously maintains the Tech Center interiors, keeping the original design whenever possible. The cafeteria, for example, still contains the original Knoll chairs, recently recovered in white upholstery. As a designer, Chris Webb finds Saarinen’s entire complex inspiring. “As you go around the building there are obviously many areas that highlight Saarinen’s major design interests,” he says. “Also you have original pieces of furniture by great designers like Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, and Florence Knoll still being used, which offers a certain inspiration.” He sees the building as evolutionary, like the design process itself. “It’s a beautiful environment, but it wasn’t built with all the technology that we have today,” he adds, explaining the difficulty of managing computer cables while being careful not to take away from the appeal of the space. “This building really mixes the best of the old and the new.”

The circular Color and Trim studio, where designers work on paint colors for GM brands, was carefully rebuilt after a fire in 1979. Connected to the studio is an outdoor patio over a garage: trees, grass, and other plants all live in soil just three feet deep. “Attention to design details like that is really nice,” Webb says. “What’s more, natural daylight is the most important light to review colors, so we do color reviews out there and will even roll scale vehicles onto the patio.”

The dramatic circular staircase in the R&D Administration Building, nicknamed the “Floating Staircase,” acts as a large-scale sculpture for the lobby space. The steps seem to hover in space, held from above and below by stainless-steel suspension rods, while the banisters are built in place, with expensive alloys and teak.

The dome’s floor can be set up as an auditorium for an audience of more than 1,000 or used as an exhibition hall. Multiple lighting settings allow designers to study cars under all sorts of conditions and appraise their appearance in a variety of lights. The outer dome is 65 feet high with a span of 188 feet and is made of an aluminum shell three-eighths of an inch thick—thinner in relation to the dome size than an eggshell is to an egg.

To make the buildings as flexible as possible, Saarinen used a five-foot module, or grid, throughout the plan for placing lighting, movable fittings, and mechanical services like plumbing and heating. At the time a four-foot module was standard, but GM wanted larger offices for its employees. The module is visible in the grid of the ceiling panels, which are five feet wide. To this day the crisp lines of the panels help sculptors and designers evaluate surface development on concept cars: the reflection of the grid in the shiny surface of a model will reveal imperfections like warping.

Instead of using old-fashioned window caulking, Saarinen set the large-scale thermopane panels into their metal frames like car windshields, using Neoprene gasket weather seal, the result of a collaboration between Saarinen’s firm and GM. Even today if a window is damaged, the new one is installed in the same fashion.

Nicknamed the “teacup,” the white fiberglass receptionist’s desk in the lobby of the Design Center administration building is one of Saarinen’s more playful gestures. It is currently being restored as part of the company’s ongoing effort to maintain even the smallest original details of Saarinen’s design.

Saarinen punctuated the campus landscape inside and out with colored brick walls, providing a vital contrast to the Machine Age aesthetic of the steel-and-glass industrial buildings. For the ceramic glazed brick Saarinen chose eleven intense colors—crimson, scarlet, tangerine orange, lemon yellow, chartreuse, royal blue, sky blue, tobacco gray, brown, black, and white—to resemble autumn leaves reflecting the late afternoon sun. The glazes were conceived in the ceramics program at Cranbrook Academy of Art.

The GM Technical Center’s 140-foot elliptical stainless-steel water tower, holding an emergency water supply of about 250,000 gallons, rises prominently out of a 22-acre man-made lake. The lake was designed, in part, as an economical measure to cut down on landscaping costs. The lake, lawns, trees, and two lesser pools—all designed by Thomas Church—are arranged to keep the spaces between buildings interesting and human. In 1998 GM hired landscape architects and environmental specialists from Hargreaves Associates and Ove Arup to apply sustainable design ideas to the re-masterplanning of the Technical Center.

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