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

abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016
amaroso40040
When a garage damaged by termites had to go, a studio emerges.
June 19, 2016
the blue lagoon iceland geothermal spa hotel water visitors
The famed geothermal spa outside Reykjavík, Iceland, is entering a major new phase—paving the way for the area’s first five-star hotel.
June 19, 2016
heaven on earth maya lin topography what is missing california academy sciences wood video
A new monograph by Rizzoli explores the memorial project by the renowned artist.
June 19, 2016
gable game austin texas cantilevered home facade windows upper level car port
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to indoor/outdoor living. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
June 18, 2016