Saarinen's dazzling corporate campus is on claass HAUS today.
Eero Saarinen's sprawling design for the General Motors Technical Center, the company's main facility for advanced research, engineering, and product design, is a modern icon, a careful synthesis of Miesian elegance and the dynamism of postwar America. Marking Saarinen's emergence as an influential architect independent of his visionary father, the Technical Center helped set a new standard for corporate facilities in the United States, its campus model leaving an indelible mark on a generation of corporate showcases.
Here are ten things you should know about Saarinen's Technical Center.
1. First planned by Eliel Saarinen (Eero's legendary father).
Between the end of 1944 and the summer of 1945, the Saarinen firm (consisting of Eliel and his partner J. Robert Swanson) produced the first design scheme for the large GM complex. Presented during a luncheon at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria, the early design (similar organizational premise but more Streamline Moderne in styling) was hailed as a vision of corporate promise, a center of industry that would meet the needs of America's postwar future. After material shortages, inflation, and the United Automobile Workers strike led GM to pause the project in 1946, Eero took a more prominent role when planning restarted a couple of years later (Eliel died in 1950).
2. Opened in 1956 to rave reviews.
In front of a crowd of 5,000 people, GM dedicated the Technical Center on May 16, 1956. The ceremony (with a special White House address from President Dwight D. Eisenhower) was even transmitted via television to 20,000 GM executives and guests across North America. Public acclaim was immediate. Architectural Forum dubbed the complex an "Industrial Versailles," while TIME ran a (now iconic) cover story featuring an image of Saarinen superimposed over the Technical Center's rectilinear plan.
3. Saarinen and his collaborators created a masterful total environment.
In many ways, the unique collaborative relationship between architect and client defined the Technical Center with Saarinen working with GM "co-creators" (not to mention a number of other designers like landscape architect Thomas Church) to complete a complex indicative of GM corporate identity. Providing corporate cues, GM Executives Alfred P. Sloan and Charles F. Kettering along with automotive and industrial designer (and head of GM's Styling Section) Harley Earl worked directly with Saarinen to translate the automotive industry's products and processes to architectural form.
4. A vast suburban complex, the Technical Center is best experienced by (wait for it)- the CAR.
Situated in suburban Detroit (Warren, Michigan), the expansive site is composed of nearly 30 buildings of steel, glass, and colorful glazed brick. Asymmetrically arranged around a 22-acre lake, the self-contained and car-centric complex is intended to be viewed from an automobile, its horizontal circulation pattern unprecedented for the time.
5. Organized using Modernist principles.
GM's center for research, design, and engineering, the complex epitomizes the company's sleek, automotive product. Laid out using the principles of modularity, horizontality, planarity, and uniformity, the rectilinear plan unites corporate architecture with the landscape, its unified vocabulary of modern materials, rectangular volumes, and floating planes offering an underlying sense of the geometric grid.
6. Unmistakably Miesian.
Exploiting the vocabulary of Miesian Modernism, Saarinen replicated the shiny materiality, strict horizontality, and gridded geometry of the Bauhaus master, placing the recognizably "Modern" style into a purely American setting. A more "Americanized" version of Mies' campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), the midcentury office icon with its streamlined forms and brightly colored surfaces is a deliberate synthesis of European Modernism and American industry.
7. Established America's "corporate campus."
Based on the organizational pattern of the small college campus (re: Eliel Saarinen's Cranbrook and Mies' IIT), the suburban complex helped to establish the corporate campus model, a trend that continues today (think Google, Amazon, Facebook.)
8. Fulfilled the promise of GM's Futurama.
Five million people visited the Futurama at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Sponsored by GM and designed by famed industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, the exhibit envisioned a model "city of 1960," its network of highways leading to peaceful suburbia. A realization of the Futurama's suburban dream, the Technical Center design reshaped the landscape in its own corporate image, a symbol of America's postwar prosperity and the power of its industry.
9. The famous dome was recently updated.
Maybe the most iconic building on the property, the Design Dome, clad with interlocking aluminum panels and covering almost 40,000 square feet, is embedded in the flat Michigan terrain like a glittering marble. Still used for its original function- a showcase for new designs- the dome recently underwent considerable renovations, including extensive rewiring, the replacement of mechanical systems, and landscape restoration.
10. Listed as a National Historic Landmark in 2014.
You can read the nomination here.
Honestly, the GM Technical Center can't really be boiled down to ten things (I didn't even mention the interiors!). So go ahead and read more about it if you must. And Happy Wednesday!
Image at top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. General Motors Technical Center, Warren, Michigan. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2011631234.
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