I have long been fascinated by great architecture and Detroit is a great place to study the work of masters like Albert Kahn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Minoru Yamasaki. I live a few blocks from the Fisher Building, otherwise known as the world’s largest art object, a distance that lends itself well to the occasional sight-seeing trip. A month ago, I had the opportunity to wander the Penobscot Building downtown and view the city from atop its roof. The Guardian Building is another one of my favorite places to explore.
Our city skyline is a unique blend of historic Art Deco structures a block over from excellent specimens of post-modern design. While people occasionally refer to Kahn as the architect of Detroit, the architect who did the most to turn the world of design on its head was Eero Saarinen. He is the same architect who designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
His design of the General Motors Technical Center (Tech Center) can claim several firsts. It was his first major building design. When the Tech Center opened on May 15, 1956, people gathered for the grand opening were treated to President Eisenhower addressing them via the first closed circuit telecast from the White House. The “Damsels of Design” were among the first women hired to engage in product design for any major United States company. The Tech Center was also one of the first corporate “campus” built in the US, and it inspired companies like John Deer and IBM to follow suit.
When I was asked if I could join a tour of the Tech Center campus, I canceled my plans for the afternoon and responded with an enthusiastic yes. I was among students from the College for Creative Studies, Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan. All of us learned a ton of history about the man and his design from Susan Skarsgard. Her official title is GM Designer-GM Design Archive and Special Collections, but what her title fails to mention that she also wrote a biography of Saarinen and documented the full history of the Tech Center campus in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the grand opening.
That history started with his father, Eliel, who created the original design for the property when it was purchased as farm land in 1945. A labor strike one month after purchasing the required 330 acres forced GM to delay starting construction until 1948. That strike by the UAW established the first cost of living wage adjustments in the automotive industry.
As planning for construction began, Eero took over for his ailing father and modified the initial design. While the project was slated to cost between $25-$50 million when it was finished, the total cost exceeded $100 million. As you might expect with such a large cost overrun, no detail was spared.
That is what impressed me most, the attention to detail. A special glazing compound was created for the colored bricks on the exterior walls of each building on campus. The initial design of the Tech Center called for a building to be placed in the middle of a man-made lake in the center of campus. The building was designed out and fountains were put in the middle of the lake to replace the vertical visual element. The aluminum shell of the Design Dome is only 3/8 of an inch thick, which is thinner than an eggshell.
In addition, Eero started his career designing furniture, and the furniture he designed specifically for the Tech Center is still in use.
Innovative solutions to building challenges were used, too. The window design was impossible to build using the materials of the day, so rubber gaskets used to seal windshields were used to create the wall of windows. The luminous ceiling structure was completely modular, making modifications easy when necessary. The first known use of paint on stainless steel was used for a mural. Each stairway has some special detail to it, from a cantilevered spiral staircase that greets you in the Research and Design Building to a staircase with a reflecting pool underneath the stairs. Conventional building standards at the time called for a 4-foot module design, Eero used a 5-foot standard of measurement to allow for more flexibility in the use of space. After the Tech Center was completed, this 5-foot module measurement became the standard.
The history of the Tech Center is impressive. So, too, is the company’s commitment to preserving the integrity of the Saarinen design. I can only hope more people have the chance to observe this impressive complex so it can inspire generations of architects and design enthusiasts for years to come. Detroit is certainly the design capital of the US.
Video and still photo cameras were not permitted during our tour. I even kept my camera phone holstered, so the staff at General Motors deserves all the credit for the pictures and video featured in this post.