General Motors Technical Center
The General Motors Technical Center was conceptualized by General Motors’ Chairman of the Board of Directors, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. The existing General Motors facilities, which were located throughout Detroit, were outdated, and growth and activities of the company surpassed the capacity of the existing space. Sloan and the General Motors executives agreed that it was necessary to create a new space that could bring together all of the GM staff working at different locations in order to further the work of the highly specialized GM scientists, engineers, designers, and technicians” (National Register of Historic Places Report). In March 1944, Sloan approached the General Motors Research Vice President, Charles Kettering, with the idea of relocating the entire General Motors staff outside of Detroit, and creating a space large enough to accommodate the needs of the corporation’s activities. On December 13, 1944, Sloan received support from GM’s Board. Only a few weeks later, a 326-acre site of farmland was chosen in Warren, Michigan, twelve miles north of Detroit.
Vice President of GM Styling, Harley Earl, insisted that the new General Motors Technical Center not only create the facilities necessary for a world-class corporation, but also, it must exude the visual identity of one as well. While some on the Board, including Charles Kettering, thought that the Technical Center should be a purely functional, utilitarian expression designed by a local architect with experience in building large industrial complexes, such as Albert Kahn. Earl won out and selected the internationally renowned firm Saarinen and Swanson.
Saarinen and Swanson, in conjunction with landscape architect Thomas Church, designed a modern complex composed of a central, seven-acre irregular-shaped laek with five groups of connected buildings surrounding it at an estimated $20 million. GM was impressed with the design and gave the commission to Saarinen and Swanson on September 19, 1945. At the time of its groundbreaking on October 23, 1945, it was considered by Architectural Forum to be the largest project in the United States.
Post World War II, consumer demand for automobiles drastically increased, and General Motors needed to use funds for the Technical Center to meet the demands of the consumer, thus terminating construction of the center. In 1948, when they resumed plans for the construction of the Technical Center, their needs had grown: the facility would now cost $60 million (and would end up costing $100 million at its completion). Saarinen and Swanson had changed names to Saarinen, Saarinen and Associates, and the firm had entered another contract with GM on December 3, 1948 (as did Thomas Church). Eero Saarinen led the project, and his designs included some 1945 features, but instead of connected buildings, there instead would be six main facilities that would be nearly uniform and outfitted similarly: steel, aluminum, and glass curtain walls, with colored glazed brick end walls. They were also planned around a large lake. The six main buildings included: a ten-story office building; four buildings to house GM staff; and a Service Section building to maintain the center. Each complex was composed of wings according to their function, and usually attached to the main building by glass enclosed corridors or pedestrian skybridges. The office tower was ultimately edited out of the design to save money.
The interiors of nearly all of the buildings were designed as flexible interior spaces to accommodate changing office and technical needs. This was achieved by avoiding the use of interior columns. Saarinen explicitly wanted to create buildings that would not have to be significantly altered so to “avoid usual slum-like appearance of factory buildings.” Saarinen also incorporated the machinery into the interior space, even considering the color of the machines when planning the interior.
The landscape design of the Technical Center significantly changed in the redesign, evident in its high-style modernist arrangement of shapes. In 1950, there was already a need to expand the current plan, and GM purchased more land, bringing its land ownership from 326 acres in 1944 to 813 acres in 1954. Saarinen was a consultant on plans for new buildings on the new property; the largest expansion was to occur on the east side of railroad tracks the divided the original planned center and the expanded center. The east side plan included five new building, the complex to be named the Chevrolet-Fisher Body Engineering Center: engineering facilities for Chevrolet and Fisher Body; an office tower (similar to Saarinen’s original plan); and a restaurant (similar to Saarinen’s Central Restaurant). Saarinen had wanted to play a larger role in designing these structures, but some GM executives thought his construction methods had previously been too costly, and his predilection towards more human scaled industrial buildings would not serve the growing needs of the complex.
While the General Motors Technical Center today is recognized as a singular, unified campus, it can also be understood as having an original plan, which was expanded by numerous later additions. The original master plan of the campus, designed by Eero Saarinen with landscape architect Thomas Church, was 320 acres and comprised twenty-five buildings. Today, it is 640 acres with thirty-seven buildings.
The original General Motors Technical Center was designed around a 22 acre lake that contains four islands, its rectilinear shape defining the shape of the original campus. Five Saarinen-designed building complexes surround the lake: one at each end, and three lining the eastern side of the lake. The complexes are low, one- to three-story structures with metal and glass curtain walls and colored glazed brick end walls. Eero Saarinen designed five primary facilities. Each of these consists of wings articulated according to their function and attached to one another by slender, glass enclosed corridors or elevated bridges. While maintaining an overall horizontality, the differing heights of parts of buildings also create variety. Their setting in a highly ordered, classical landscape effectively extends the geometry of the buildings directly into the open space. Saarinen also designed a 115’ long and 50’ high fountain to sit in the place of a ten story office building which was part of the original design, but was not constructed. An additional 132’ stainless steel fountain was built in the northeastern corner of the lake to provide further height variety.
The primary building built around the lake include: the Research Center (to the north; Manufacturing B, Manufacturing A, Central Restaurant, and Global Portfolio Development Center (east), and the Design Center (south). All of these original buildings are one to three stories. They are organized by function, and most include an administration wing and a one and a half story shop or laboratory in to the side or in the back, connected to the main building by a glass covered corridor. The automobile was an obvious source of inspiration for the Technical Center. Nearly all of the original twenty-five buildings were curtain wall construction: the structural I-beams were expressed on the exterior, visible in standardized intervals, with clear and opaque glass, as well as enameled steel panels, set into the aluminum frames. The end walls of most buildings feature colored glazed brick to lighten the industrial aesthetic. Additionally, the buildings were all prefabricated, each piece built in a factory elsewhere and assembled on site. Short, long buildings (none were over three stories tall) took a cue from Albert Kahn’s factory design in Detroit. Many of the interiors of the main buildings were decorated with walnut wall paneling, travertine floors, and an iconic spiral granite staircase suspended by steel tension rods. The exception is the prominent Styling Auditorium (located in the Design Center complex) which is defined by its shiny dome. It is 65’ wide and 185’ across. The Design Center is, “one of the most distinctive complexes at the Technical Center” (NRHP). Some differences in the design from the other buildings include: the Administration building (in the front of the complex) was supposed to elevated onto concrete pilotis (though it was not due to the need for space) and it also had an interior gold leaf “grotto” as well as an executive dining room called the “blue room” because of its blue plastic laminate and blue fabric wall paneling; the one-story circular garage glad in yellow glazed brick also contained a color studio ontop of it (was destroyed in a fire in 1979, but was rebuilt later); and the Design Auditorium (then called the Styling Auditorium), which featured an aluminum clad dome which sits on a one story black glazed panel base. A Design Fabrication Building was built by Argonaut in 1968 in back of the studio. Another building of note is the 1954 Central Restaurant, for which Saarinen won an AIA honor award in 1955. It is a one and a half story structure with a flat roof and overhanging eaves on three sides of the building. Three of the facades are curtain walls, and there is a black glazed brick wall on the other side.
Saarinen and Church created roadways lined with trees that framed viewsheds seen from the car; “the placement of roadways highlights distinctive building facades, artwork, fountains, and other elements of the campus” (NRHP). They also planned a series of expansive lawns that reinforced the rectilinear nature of the original campus. Parking lots have since taken over many of these lawns. Other structures include three Saarinen-designed gate houses (one was demolished), a water pumping plant and sewage treatment plant, and a test track.
Buildings on the west campus which are not original include the Research Engineering Lab North (1952, Saarinen consulted on it); the Research Chemical Laboratory (1953/Argonaut); another Research Chemical Laboratory (1977/Argonaut); the Facilities Operations Building (1969/ Argonaut); a Wind Tunnel (1953/Argonaut); the Research Safety Health and Environment Building (1977/Argonaut); and the Aerodynamics Lab (1979/Argonaut)
The original center (also known as the west campus) is separated from the slightly newer east campus by a railroad track that runs though the land north to south. The east campus was designed largely by Argonaut Realty, with some direction by Saarinen. It emulates some of the Saarinen/Church landscaping features, such as tree plantings around parking lots and roadways. However, the planning of the east side was far less successful: it has no formal border and need for space necessitated a smaller lake (11 acres) and less trees. There is also a disjuncture in architectural styles as well as formal arrangement, as additions were added in a piecemeal fashion.
The east lake is surrounded by two buildings: the Powertrain Engineering Center (1953-55/Argonaut) to the west, and the 1953-55 Vehical Engineering Center (featuring the new addition) to the south. There is parking lot and the Chevrolet Central Office to the north of the lake. These buildings were not built by Saarinen, though the earlier buildings on the east side were influenced by his design: although much larger, the arrangement of their functions was similar, as was the exposed I-beams and bands of white brick and enameled steel panels. The Vehical Engineering Center is the largest complex with 1.7 million square feet of floor space.
Other buildings on the east side include: the Vehicle Eningeering Center West (1953-1955/Argonaut), Primary Switch House and Hazardous Waste Building (1953-55/Argonaut), Chevrolet Central Office (1959-62/Argonaut), GM Management Training Center (1965/Argonaut); Emissions Building (1970/Argonaut); Cadillac Headquarters (a radical departure from the surrounding buildings, built in 1980/Argonaut); 7000 Building (also inconsistent, built in 1978/Argonaut), Service Technology Building (1979/Argonaut), and the Worldwide Purchasing Building (1985/ Argonaut).
There is also another section of the Technical Center, located south of 12 Mile Road. There are four buildings here: Central Mail Building (1958/Arognaut), General Storage Building 1 (1961/Argonaut), Parts Fabrication Building (1951, Argo), and General Storage Building 2 (1970/Argonaut).
The initial period of construction was between 1949 and 1956. Detriot-based Smith, Hinchman and Grylls were the engineers on the project and managed the general contractor, Bryant and Detwiler. The main buildings were completed by 1955, with all of the remaining structures completed in 1956. Assembly line construction: modular units were made off site and then assembled easily on site, Saarinen’s design. The foundations were concrete, the roofs were asphalt, and the walls were generally steel, aluminum, glass, brick, and concrete.
The General Motors Technical Center is located in Warren, twelve miles north of downtown Detroit. Warren has grown to be Michigan’s third largest city. Many corporate headquarters can be found in its suburban environment. Daimler Chrysler’s Dodge City manufacturing complex is also in the proximity. The city prides itself in its “Small town lifestyle, big city commerce.”
Eero Saarinen faced the problem of constructing modern curtain walled buildings during an early period in the development of this type of architecture and method of construction. He was assisted by GM’s engineers; they developed innovative solutions to a number of technical problems together. Among the most innovative building techniques employed at the Technical Center were rubber mountings, or gaskets, used to make the seals around the glazed and porcelain enameled steel panels in the curtain walls watertight. This technique was developed after caulking applied to the windows of the first buildings constructed at the Technical Center failed, allowing water to leak into the interiors. Neoprene rubber gaskets used for this purpose had been developed by GM’s Inland Manufacturing Division for the installation of automobile windshields, and, through a collaborative effort between the architects and GM, were adapted for use in the construction of the Technical Center. Another new technique was used in the production of glazed brick for the distinctive end walls of various structures in the Technical Center. After consultation between the architect and GM’s AC Spark Plug Division, which used ceramics in the manufacture of its products, a glazing compound was produced that allowed the bricks to retain their color. The bricks were then made on site in a special kiln. The prefabricated metal panels used, along with glass, in the curtain walls of the Technical Center were also innovative because they employed a honeycomb patterned paper core sandwiched between two porcelain enameled sheets of steel to provide insulation. This technology was borrowed from the aircraft industry. At the Technical Center, Saarinen was among the first architects to employ these panels for building construction. In addition to GM engineers, the Styling Staff assisted Saarinen with the Technical Center, helping develop the first completely luminous ceiling through the design of modular molded plastic pans that allowed no reflections or shadows to be produced. These were used in the Styling Staff’s drafting studios to assist in the design of new automobiles. The architects and building engineers working on the Technical Center also developed innovative construction techniques independently of GM’s engineers. The most significant of these was the prefabricated aluminum extrusion frame used in the curtain walls. In order to hang the curtain walls from the steel frame of the buildings, exterior steel columns were wrapped with extruding aluminum to which the other materials in the curtain walls were attached. This would eventually become a common building technique. Perhaps the most remarkable new construction methodology occurred at the domed Styling Auditorium, which was designed to allow the viewing of new car designs under a variety of lighting conditions. Standing 65 feet high, with a span of 186 feet, the concept for this self-supporting aluminum clad dome was derived from the pressure vessel industry, which manufactured industrial metal tanks. Constructed of aluminum plates, the stressed metal skin of the dome was attached to the base of the structure by a tension ring, which also supported an interior acoustical dome serving as the auditorium’s ceiling. (Evaluation from the National Register for Historic Preservation Nomination.)
The General Motors Tech Center was the world's first campus of buildings designed with the specific function to support a corporation's technological research and development. When inaugurated, seventy-eight newspapers covered the event and an unprecedented broadcasting by NBC transmits it to all parts of the nation. Hollywood stars were invited to attend and unveil the glistening titanium Firebird II (presented together with the Tech Center). An address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower was broadcasted via radio from Washington, D.C. on May 16, 1985. The event was reported as symbolic of the promise of technology in postwar America. General Motors’ progress echoed the excitement and confidence 1950s America had in itself. Many innovations in the automotive industry have been carried out in the Technical Center. Soon after the first GM personnel relocated to Warren, they started work on the advanced research and engineering projects the campus was constructed to facilitate. A prime example was the Isotope Research Laboratory, which was part of the Research Staff facilities. The Styling Staff studied human measurement data in order to develop a system for designing car interiors contoured to the human body. The advanced computer facilities of the Engineering Staff allowed GM to devise GMR DYANA, a new computer programming language that facilitated the use of computers to answer engineering problems. At the laboratories of the Research Staff, work on the oxidation of automobile exhausts carried out in the late 1950s played a role in the development of the catalytic converter, which reduces harmful emissions that produce smog. The ultimate goal of the innovative work of the Technical Center was to allow GM to improve its production methods and manufacture new and better automobiles. As was often the case in the automobile industry, innovations did not mean the production of entirely new automotive technology but incremental changes in products over the course of several years. These constant innovations resulted in automobiles that improved over time, such as the Chevrolet Corvette, recognized as one of the great American automobiles. (Evaluation from the National Register for Historic Preservation Nomination.)
The General Motors Tech Center was the pioneer of the American suburban/corporate campus of low-rise, curtain-walled pavilions in a park-like setting. Its arrangement of International Style facilities around a rectangular lake was inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s design for the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Instead of making it a pedestrian campus, Saarinen drew inspiration from GM’s principal product: the automobile. As Saarinen stated: “The Center was, of course, designed at automobile scale and the changing vistas were conceived to be seen as one drove around the project.” Saarinen was the first to translate Mies van der Rohe’s austere purity into a sleeker, more American package. The Modern Movement’s architectural forms became thinner, slicker, and more geometrically classicizing than they were before. GM’s principal need was the provision of flexible interior spaces that would allow for the regular rearrangement of office and technical areas. Saarinen had to eliminate interior columns to create large open areas, using moveable partition walls to delineate offices and shops. Utilities and mechanical equipment were installed within this modular framework to facilitate alterations. Another of GM’s main requests was to avoid the usual drab appearance of factory buildings. The sleek, modular design was articulated on the exterior through exposed I-beams that were placed at regular intervals, usually every five feet. Attention to design is apparent in the machinery within shop and technical areas, even the color of such equipment was carefully considered. This mix of design and technology is most evident in the Dynamometer Building at the Engineering Center. Here exhaust stacks that carry emissions from the dynamometers that test engines become the iconic image of the building. (Evaluation from the National Register for Historic Preservation Nomination.)
The importance of Saarinen’s achievement has continued to receive recognition (in 1985 when the AIA awarded the Technical Center its 25 Year Award for enduring significance in the development of American architecture). Saarinen won an AIA Honor Ward in 1955 for the Central Restaurant. Architectural historians have recognized the significance of the GM Technical Center as well: Henry-Russell Hitchcock considered the Technical Center “a major example of American industrial building raised at the behest of a corporate client into the realm of distinguished architecture,” and Saarinen “one of the leaders of post-war architecture in the United States....” Allan Temko saw the Technical Center as one of the first significant examples of the International Style in the post-war United States, and said that Saarinen’s design was “one of the first major triumphs of the new architecture in this country. Where else, in the early 1950’s, could one see industrial technology brought to bear so imaginatively on so many vexing problems of contemporary design?” Several architectural historians have commented that, at the Technical Center, Saarinen created an American interpretation of the International Style. The Technical Center remains a preeminent corporate research and development center, the site of some of GM’s most important technological advances, it is architecturally significant as one of the most influential examples of International Style Architecture in American Corporate developments, and is an outstanding example of Eero Saarinen’s work. The success of its original design can be attributed to Saarinen’s ability to achieve a work of architectural art while at the same time satisfying GM’s need for a functional, flexible workplace that could respond to the changing needs of technology.
Fortune magazine hailed the Tech Center as “one of the century’s notable contributions to an integrated industrial architecture,” Architectural Forum said that the Tech Center is “an architectural feat which may be unique in our lifetime.”
Saarinen designed four more corporate facilities after the General Motors Tech Center: IBM’s Thomas A. Watson Research Center (Yorktown, NY, 1961), the Bell Telephone Research Laboratories (Holmdel, NJ, 1962), and the John Deere and Company Headquarters (Moline, IL, 1963), and the CBS Building (NY, NY, 1965).
(Evaluation predominantly from the National Register for Historic Preservation Nomination.)
The General Motors technical Center is historically significant as one of the preeminent corporate research and development centers constructed in the United States in the period following World War II, as the site of some of GM’s most important technological advances, and as the site at which some of the most renowned American automobiles were designed. The Technical Center is architecturally significant as one of the earliest and most influential examples of the application of the International Style to American corporate architecture and as an outstanding example of the work of internationally prominent architect Eero Saarinen. Using a specific design vocabulary, Saarinen and Church created a rectilinear plan that produced a unity between the landscape and Saarinen’s distinctive modernist buildings. With its large open spaces and wide vistas, Saarinen and Church created a classical landscape that effectively extended the geometry of the buildings directly into the landscape. It is no accident to call the campus the “Versailles of Industry.” (Evaluation predominantly from the National Register for Historic Preservation Nomination.)
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