GM Technical Center 40th Anniversary

General Information:

  • Designed by Eero Saarinen and Associates, the architect-engineering firm was Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, Inc. The general contractor was Bryant & Detwiler Co.

  • Construction began in 1949 and was completed in 1955.

  • The GM Technical Center was dedicated on May 16, 1956 before a crowd of 5,000 and over nationwide television with guest speaker President Eisenhower's voice transmitted by way of radio.

  • Saarinen's goal was to provide a symbol of tomorrow's industrial environment, where the surroundings would be beautiful as well as functional. Saarinen wanted to avoid an institutional look and symbolize with low, long and horizontal buildings.

  • The Tech Center was constructed at a cost of approximately one hundred million dollars - the equivalent of about a half-billion dollars today.

  • Landscaping is an integral part of the Tech Center, and Saarinen was meticulous in his placement design. More than 13,000 trees were planted, 3180 shrubs; 55,941 ground cover plants, and 155 acres of lawn. "Twenty years from now," it was said, "the Technical Center will be surrounded by a virtual forest, a greenbelt protecting it from encroachment of highways or buildings."

  • Eleven miles of road circulate through the 330-acre site. Tree-shaded pedestrian walks, as well as 1.1 miles of underground tunnels connect major Technical Center groups.

  • In 1986, the American Institute of Architects honored the Technical Center as the most outstanding architectural project of its era.

Points of Interest

  • Saarinen used automotive materials and assembly line construction methods. The interior walls were actually built at plants and assembled on site. To make the buildings as flexible as possible, Saarinen used a five-foot module or standardized measurement. This applies not only to the steel construction, but to the lighting, heating, ventilating and fire protection facilities, as well as to laboratory furniture, storage units, wall partitions and door units - all of which are keyed to it. The five foot module was chosen instead of the more popular (at the time) four-foot module because General Motors wanted larger (10 and 15-foot wide) offices for its employees. After the Tech Center was completed, the five-foot module was used as a model for industry.

  • Buildings at the Tech Center represented the first significant installation of laminated panels and the first use of a uniquely thin sandwich panel that is a complete wall in itself. Instead of walls constructed out of 14-inch thick masonry - that was a building practice for hundreds of years - the same heat insulating qualities were achieved with panels only two inches thick. This vastly increased usable space. The panel is a sandwich with a permanent-finish porcelain enamel steel skin completely bonded to a heavy Kraft paper honeycomb core - filled with granular insulation.

  • Ceramic glazed brick construction was undertaken especially at Saarinen's request after some experimentation. GM financed a large kiln to produce the bricks. Saarinen said he wanted the Tech Center to resemble autumn leaves reflecting the late afternoon sun, so he selected brick colors of crimson, orange, yellow, blue, and neutrals of olive, slate and black.

  • Saarinen took certain things from the auto industry. For instance, windows in the buildings were quite revolutionary for the time. Saarinen's design was based on the mechanical sealing gaskets used on car windshields.

  • Most buildings on the Technical Center site have large, open, lobbies. Saarinen wanted the capability to show off automotive products.

  • The Tech Center has enough parking space for 4,000 vehicles.

  • There are 480 kilowatts of special lighting. Red, blue, green and aquamarine lights are focused on the fountains.

  • Saarinen designed 26 original structures for the site and as need arose, additional buildings were added.

Research & Development

General:

  • The Metallurgy Building, located southeast of the Administration lobby, contains a full-working foundry.

  • The Administration lobby was designed as a flexible exhibition hall, with glass panels that slide to allow vehicles to be brought inside easily.

  • The cafeteria line is hidden behind a wall made of 21 different kinds of wood from all over the world.

  • The Administration Building roof houses 72 fans that remove exhaust fume from the laboratories.

External:

  • The water tower on the east side of the Research Administration Building is 140 feet high. It holds an emergency water supply of about 250,000 gallons. (Saarinen is supposed to have commented that it was ridiculous to think you could hide a water tower by putting it in the back section of the property - you might as well put it right in front and make it something people wouldn't mind looking at!)

  • The fountain just outside the R&D Center Administration building is a water-ballet designed by Alexander Calder. He named the various elements of the water ballet: Fantails, Seven Sisters, Scissors and Plops. This fountain uses 3,600 gallons of water per minute.

  • The R&D Center's Metallurgy Building was designed with a "soft" roof, permitting new stacks to be inserted as experiments changed.

Internal:

  • The circular staircase in the R&D Administration Building has been a favorite architectural highlight. Designed by Kevin Roche and nicknamed the "Floating Staircase," it is supported by thin cylinder rods, anchored at the top and bottom. Each stair is 3/4 of a ton of Norwegian granite - a total of more than 25 tons. Seeming to float in space, they are actually suspended on stainless steel suspension rods in the center of the spiral which form a converging cone held at the top and the bottom.

  • An oil painting which hangs in the R&D Center's Executive Conference Room was painted by Charles A. Sheeler, one of the United States' outstanding artists. (Observers can recognize the floating staircase as well as the Dodrill heart pump, developed by Research for the first open heart surgery.)

  • The floor is Roman travertine.

Design Center

General:

  • The Design Center Lobby is 100 feet long and 30 feet wide.

  • The Center was designed with many separate design studios, each essentially a large drafting room with space for clay models or actual vehicles.

  • The Design Center (then called Styling), was the last of the first main buildings to be completed.

External:

  • The fountain located just west of the Design Center Lobby is the work of James McCormick, Jr., who worked at the Design Center in the 1950s. It is called "Impetus."

  • In front of the Design Center stands a 20-foot sculpture in polished and oxidized bronze, created by the French sculptor, Antoine Pevsner. It came through US customs under the title, "Flight of the Bird," but many people refer to the sculpture as "Lines in Motion."

  • The Design Dome's 188-foot diameter floor can be set up as an auditorium for an audience of more than 1000, or used as an exhibition hall. The outer dome is 65 feet high with a span of 188 feet, and is based on pressure-vessel construction. The aluminum shell is 3/8 of an inch thick - thinner than what an eggshell is to an egg.

  • A special patio is located adjacent to the Design center, behind the dome. The outdoor display area occupies 73,000 square feet of space and is paved with specially developed dark brownish-red hexagonal brick.

Internal:

  • Designed by Kevin Roche, the Design lobby staircase is made of 7-foot, 4-inch terrazzo slabs which overlap each other. They are actually "suspended" from above. Each tread is caught in tension between pencil-thin stainless steel rods. The handrail is made of teak.

  • A fire in 1979 destroyed the original color room. The room was rebuilt keeping the same basic principles.

The Lake

  • The lake is man-made, 22 acres. The average depth of the lake is 7 feet.

  • The two major fountains pump more water than all the great fountains in Versailles.

  • The main fountain, located on the west side of the lake pumps 6,000 gallons of water per minute to create a 115-foot wide, 55-foot high "wall of water."

  • Four islands decorate the lake, with weeping willows gracefully hanging down.

  • The lake has several varieties of fish, which help keep algae down. GM employees are allowed to fish, but for catch-and-release only.

Engineering Buildings

General:

  • The Engineering Buildings were the first ones completed on the Tech Center site.

  • Not only is the Engineering Building a test lab for vehicle innovation, it was also the building that brought the architectural players together for the first time.

  • The attic heating and ventilation leaves the main floor completely clear for test operations.

External:

  • A reflecting pool is located between the North and South buildings.

  • The special truss and exterior wall columns permitted the use of the full width of the buildings without any obstructing columns.

Internal:

  • The lobbies of the Engineering North and South Buildings were redesigned last year. Planners took great care to maintain Saarinen's open floor plan and general look.

  • The building was designed to have a "countertop" arrangement. This construction provided additional desk space along the windows with files accessible to office workers when they are in a seated position.

  • The buildings were arranged to provide exceptionally good lighting. Elevators, stairwells and rest rooms are located on the south side of the building to provide the maximum northern light for the drafting rooms.

The Central Cafeteria

  • The dining room is raised to allow a better view of the grounds.

  • The screen that divides the dining area from the entrance is made of sheet steel and is a Harry Bertoia original. Its golden surface is made up of plaques of enamel steel coating with metals applied in the molten state. Occasionally there are clusters of much smaller squares for variation. It is 36 feet long and 10 feet high.

  • The dining area seats 425 people.

  • The floor at the entrance level is pale tan Roman travertine; at the dining level it is black terrazzo. The ceiling is white, mineral, acoustic tile.

  • In contrast with the "automobile scale" of the rest of the Tech Center, the Central Restaurant court, with it's lawn and large trees, was designed especially for the pedestrian.

Manufacturing Centers

General:

  • The auditorium seats 242 people. It is so acoustically successful that amplification is often not necessary.

  • The receptionists' desk is approximately 11 feet in diameter.

External:

  • The Manufacturing A Building is 365-feet long.

  • Manufacturing B Building is home to the Main Medical facility.

Internal:

  • The shop area was developed to have a factory character.

  • Construction includes wide, column-free spaces for maximum flexibility.

  • The Manufacturing Center A lobby has three glass walls projecting from the facade, making it one of the most attractive on the site.

  • The floor is pale cream color travertine; the back wall is of light gray porcelain; three travertine cantilevered steps lead up from the lobby.