In the mid-1940s, General Motors (GM) wanted to expand its research and design operations, but needed more space than downtown Detroit could accommodate. Led by Harley Earl—the first automotive executive to hold the title of Vice President of Design—the company laid out ambitious plans for its new Technical Center, purchasing 710 acres of farmland in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan.
They hired the firm lead by Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen to design the campus. When he died before the design was complete, GM decided to stick with the relatively small firm, now under the leadership of Eliel’s son, the young and unproven Eero Saarinen.
Earl wanted a designer that would represent GM as a forward-thinking company. He got that and more with Saarinen, who designed the 1.1-square-mile campus in the International Style, distinguished by rectilinear buildings, smooth surfaces, and more than 19,000 employees.
The campus is an architectural masterpiece, and it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2014 by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since the grand opening in 1956, however, the campus has remained largely closed to the public due to the secretive nature of researching and designing the next generation of GM automobiles.
“When you consider the enormity of this campus and its importance to architectural history, it’s not a very well-told story,” said Susan Skarsgard, design manager at GM.
In May, GM began a $1 billion dollar renovation of the Technical Center, rescuing architecturally significant features from flood damage from 2014—the very year that the campus was designated a national landmark. GM will also build a new IT center to accommodate 2,600 new employees, among other upgrades, over the next three years.
Saarinen believed in total design cohesion, that everything should be built for its next larger context—a chair for a room, a room for a building, a building for a complex. This concept is elegantly instituted through modular design around the campus, resulting in a geometry that every space and object abides to or at least acknowledges. Buildings, offices, windows, desks, the steps of a staircase, ceiling panels, and even the main lake all conform to a five-foot module.
Beautiful irregularities stand out against the hard geometry of rectangles. Many of the complex’s walls are made out of eye-catching glazed brick, which has both a machine-like sheen and a handmade touch as countless small blemishes create variations in color. Saarinen also commissioned numerous works of art, such as Harry Bertoia’s Textured Screen, made of bronzed sheet metal, and Gwen Lux’s Power and Direction, an abstract sculpture reminiscent of the Buick Y-Job, designed by Earl as the industry’s first concept car. Kevin Roche’s spiral staircase in the Research & Design Administration Building is a wonder of physics. Built from Norwegian granite slabs totaling over 25 tons, the staircase appears suspended, somehow held together by the tension of thin, stainless steel spokes connected at its base.
The eye never tires at the Technical Center, whether it settles on any of the inviting lobbies with canopies extending over plazas or the Design Dome, an auditorium whose aluminum exterior is thinner than an eggshell.