written by:
August 26, 2014
Originally published in Modern Across America
as
Metal of Achievement
Heralded as the “Versailles of Industry” when it opened in 1956, the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, remains symbolic of cutting-edge design.
Dome at General Motors Technical Center in Michigan

The Styling dome on the campus of General Motors’ Technical Center is 188 feet wide and 65 feet tall. At just three-eighths of an inch thick, the structure’s aluminum skin is proportionately thinner than an eggshell.

Courtesy of 
General Motors
1 / 9
General Motors Technical Center built in 1950s

When the Technical Center was built in the 1950s, it symbolized the core ethos of General Motors. "The initial idea to build a new technical center focused on advanced and innovative product development for General Motors began with Alfred Sloan & Charles Kettering," says Susan Skarsgard, manager of GM Design Archive and Special Collections. "Sloan was the long-time president, chairman, and CEO of GM from the 1920s through the 1950s—decades when concepts such as the annual model change, brand architecture, and automotive design (styling) transformed the automotive industry in America and throughout the world. Charles Kettering, the celebrated American inventor, engineer, businessman, and the holder of 186 patents, headed up research for GM from 1920 to 1947."

Courtesy of 
General Motors
2 / 9
General Motors Technical Center with steel, aluminum, glass

The campus features low-slung buildings oriented around a lake. Steel, aluminum, glass curtain walls, and colored glazed brick end walls make up the campus's material language.

"Sloan approached Kettering in 1944 with the idea to build a new product development campus, but initially they did not have any preconceived ideas about the architectural design of the campus," Skarsgard explains. "However, the influential chief of GM Styling, Harley Earl, engaged a reticent Sloan and Kettering to consider this project as an opportunity to do something significant with the architectural design of the project."

 

Courtesy of 
General Motors
3 / 9
General Motors Technical Center building with orange wall

"Earl convinced them that the architecture itself should reflect the importance of style and advanced engineering at GM," Skarsgard says. "Kettering argued that he wanted 'solid, functional buildings that don’t detract from what we do inside them...we don’t need fancy.' Earl responded 'Ket, I don’t want fancy, I want significant....we are going to be the guys who shape the future. I think these buildings should give out that feeling to the press and the customers and to our employees. Don’t put ‘em in a bank, Ket!'"

Courtesy of 
General Motors
4 / 9
General Motors Technical Center lobby with dramatic staircase

Saarinen designed the interior spaces with flexibility in mind. By avoiding the use of many interior columns, he allowed GM to easily adapt and change the buildings' layout to accommodate changing needs. In the Research building's lobby, a dramatic staircase—one of Saarinen's specialties—provides the architectural focal point.

Courtesy of 
General Motors
5 / 9
General Motors photograph

As the manager of the GM Design Archive and Special Collections, Skarsgard has been collecting ephemera from the history of the Technical Center. She's amassed an incredible array of photographs, newspaper articles, and marketing materials from when the Center first opened in the 1950s. The caption accompanying this image reads: "A view of the patio and pool contributes to precision engineering"—a statement that reflects GM's desire to provide inspirational surroundings for its employees. Saarinen considered every element of the project in is design, including the machinery's color when planning the interior schemes.

Courtesy of 
General Motors
6 / 9
General Motors cafeteria with black columns

The cafeteria in the Research building was outfitted with furniture of Saarinen's design.

Though the center was completed over 50 years ago, it remains symbolic of what the company strives to stand for today. "Since the opening of the General Motors Technical Center in 1956, this campus is still, and again, the place where the future products of this company are being invented," Skarsgard says. "And just as we are continually influenced and inspired by the undeniable legacy of General Motors in the history of American design, this campus and everything it symbolizes, lays a fertile ground for future innovation and discovery."

 

Courtesy of 
General Motors
7 / 9
Archival image of the Chevrolet design studio

This image depicts the Chevrolet design studio.

"It’s a testament to the vision of Eero Saarinen, that his architectural design continues to provide an environment supportive of innovation, exploration and pride for so many of us who are aware of the privilege to work at such an important and beautiful facility," Skarsgards says. "There is a strong commitment by our leadership to maintain and carefully renovate the almost 60-year-old campus, in a way that modernizes its function, but retains its aesthetic integrity."

Courtesy of 
General Motors
8 / 9
General Motors lobby with suspended stairs

"Walking past the suspended stairs in our lobby at GM Design, or seeing the giant 'wall of water' on the lake for the first time in spring, or the blue skies over the colored brick in the evening...it's a daily reminder that good design is important and impactful and lasting," Skarsgard says.

Courtesy of 
General Motors
9 / 9
Dome at General Motors Technical Center in Michigan

The Styling dome on the campus of General Motors’ Technical Center is 188 feet wide and 65 feet tall. At just three-eighths of an inch thick, the structure’s aluminum skin is proportionately thinner than an eggshell.

Designed by architect Eero Saarinen and landscape architect Thomas Church, the 320-acre General Motors Technical Center campus initially featured 25 buildings. The most visually arresting and technically challenging of these is the aluminum-clad Styling dome, an auditorium and exhibition space. Harley Earl, GM’s chief of style at the time, believed that the center’s architecture should reflect the automaker’s emphasis on advanced engineering and design, and persuaded the company’s leadership to be ambitious and bold when commissioning the concept, says Susan Skarsgard, manager of GM Design Archive and Special Collections. More than a half-century later, the center is still GM’s thriving creative hub where designers, engineers, and craftspeople develop prototypes and technologies—and the architecture continues to inspire. “Seeing the giant ‘wall of water’ on the lake for the first time in spring, or the blue skies over the colored brick in the evening—it’s a reminder that good design is important, impactful, and lasting,” Skarsgard says.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

two of a kind padua italy matching family homes facade green roof doors color
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to interiors , we visited homes from Haiti to italy. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
April 30, 2016
houseofweek
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
April 30, 2016
W House living room
Our best reader reactions this week.
April 29, 2016
Vineyard house illuminated at night
Rammed-earth construction fuses this Portuguese house to the environment.
April 29, 2016
vintage Scandinavian furniture Kathryn Tyler
In southwest England, interior designer Kathryn Tyler built her home around her ever-expanding furniture collection.
April 29, 2016
steel facade home Seattle
On the sandy shores of Fauntleroy Cove in Seattle, renowned firm Olson Kundig Architects crafts a subtle home with striking steel accents.
April 29, 2016
seperate piece renovated guesthouse eames storage unit cork floor tiles living room
An architect and an interior designer put the tools to the test for this impressive renovation.
April 29, 2016
Ceramics by WrenLab
Manhattan doesn’t get to have all the fun during NYCxDesign. Brooklyn is set for the return of BKLYN DESIGNS at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint from May 6-8, 2016. Here are just a few exhibitors we are excited to see this year.
April 29, 2016
n0a6974 dxo
Architect Diego Revollo refreshes an apartment with a standout kitchen.
April 29, 2016
img 8652 1
The city of San Francisco has been eagerly awaiting the reopening of SFMOMA for years—and as the May 14th opening approaches closer everyday, the anticipation continues to build for art enthusiasts both near and far. This morning, we were given the opportunity to explore the newly expanded space before the crowds roll in. After a series of speeches, remarks, and tours, we left the grounds feeling thoroughly inspired and excited to share what we discovered.
April 28, 2016
gramercy 1 ar53319
A family doesn’t have to travel far for a private oasis away from the busy city.
April 28, 2016
Renovation of 1967 Hamburg apartment with Vipp kitchen.
In our April issue, we showcased an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with a striking, matte-black kitchen from Vipp. The 77-year-old company became famous for its iconic pedal trash can before venturing into kitchens and other tools for the home. This isn't the first time that the Danish company's products have graced our pages, and here we've gathered additional examples from our archive that show how the brand's minimalist black kitchens are always a win in modern interiors.
April 28, 2016
Zafra residence living room.
A man and his wife make an emotional return to an apartment building he loved as a kid.
April 28, 2016
the garden inside concrete dining pavilion indoor outdoor custom cabinets thermador dishwasher refrigerator
A skylit conservatory doubles as a verdant dining parlor in Sonoma County, California.
April 28, 2016
Details of the Calico collection.
Calico Wallpaper founders Nick and Rachel Cope showed us through their home in our March Issue, now step inside their studio.
April 28, 2016
william krisel pow 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
April 27, 2016
Dwell on Design and designjunction at ArtBeam
It's all part of Dwell on Design + designjunction's three-day event, featuring a program of talks chock-full of leading figures in design, architecture, urbanism, and beyond—coming up May 13-15 at ArtBeam in New York.
April 27, 2016
seattles mariners floating house prefab facade exterior fiber cement panels
A prefabricated floating home drops anchor in the Pacific Northwest.
April 27, 2016
royan treatment living room stone fireplace vintage new furnishings
French designer Florence Deau effortlessly mixes the old with the new.
April 27, 2016
modern netherlands 13 noordeinde schoolhouse parquet herringbone floors stove
Take a lesson from this school-turned-home.
April 27, 2016
The sidewalks of Copacabana in Rio De Janero, Brazil, designed by Roberto Burle Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York City takes it outside with a celebration of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
April 26, 2016
Waterfront home in Belvedere, California
A 1960s home infested with powderpost beetles had to be sacrificed before this this Zen-inspired house could happen.
April 26, 2016
dialogue house
At the base of Echo Mountain in Phoenix, a geometric home by Wendell Burnette opens up to the surrounding desert landscape.
April 26, 2016
street smarts kitchen full view
A creative couple transforms an old Toronto storefront in Dundas West into a home and studio.
April 26, 2016
hald strand
This architect thinks of everything for his summer escape, pizza oven included.
April 26, 2016
gans turin residence living room
Thanks to a contemporary interior that she’s been updating for a decade, modern architect Abigail Turin has learned to love her traditional 1925 San Francisco home.
April 25, 2016
131
Johannesburg-based design studio Counterspace was founded in 2014 by young architecture graduates Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers, and Amina Kaskar. Their projects are collaborative, research-led investigations into possible futures and ideas of otherness in Johannesburg.
April 25, 2016
through living room
A second-story addition and a new indoor-outdoor focus revive a nondescript house in L.A.
April 25, 2016
Modern living room with Flexform sofa and Jens Fager candelabra
An Antwerp home blurs the boundaries between art and design.
April 25, 2016
hillside haven  1
This backyard is its own modern retreat in the Berkeley Hills.
April 25, 2016