GM Technical Center 40th Anniversary
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
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
There are 480 kilowatts of special lighting.
Red, blue, green and aquamarine lights are focused on the
Saarinen designed 26 original structures for
the site and as need arose, additional buildings were added.
Research & Development
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.
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
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
The floor is Roman travertine.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
The shop area was developed to have a factory
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.