New book celebrates Eero Saarinen's GM Tech Center

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

It's the landmark in architectural history few Detroiters are familiar with -- hidden, as it is, behind a gate in Warren and off-limits to all but General Motors employees and guests.

Happily, Susan Skarsgard has lifted the veil with a spectacular new coffee-table book, "Where Today Meets Tomorrow: Eero Saarinen and the General Motors Technical Center" just released by Princeton Architectural Press.

The Styling Dome at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, designed by Eero Saarinen.

Got a GM designer, past or present, on your gift list? Here's the book for you.

Gregory M. Wittkopp, founder and director of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, said Skarsgard's book "tells a complete and nuanced story. It's a beautiful interweaving of insightful text with a range of images from blueprints to archival photos to contemporary photography by James Haefner."

Completed 63 years ago, the Tech Center -- which took about 10 years to build, is organized like a college campus and cost roughly $100 million -- became the template for the new research and office parks springing up nationwide, and underlined Detroit's industrial and design preeminence at the time. 

An aerial view of the GM Tech Center in Warren in the late 1950s.

"It's hard to recapture today just how profoundly revolutionary Eero Saarinen's General Motors Technical Center was when new," noted the authors of the authoritative "AIA Detroit" guide to the city's architecture. 

Indeed, the May 16, 1956 dedication was televised nationally, and included a personal appearance by Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower via closed-circuit TV to the hundreds of guests assembled on the new campus. 

For her part, Skarsgard -- recently retired, but a GM designer for 25 years and founder of the GM Design Archive & Special Collections -- isn't certain whether it can be called absolutely the first research park, "but in mid-century architecture," she said, "it certainly was the most significant." 

The New York Times called the Tech Center, designed in sleek, high International Style, one of Saarinen’s "modernist marvels," noting that the architect brought everything down to human scale with his groups of long, horizontal three-story buildings of glass and steel.

The cool, elegant entrance to the Engineering administration building at the GM Tech Center.

Fortune Magazine applauded the design as "modern but not freakish, functional but not barren, imposing but not overblown, clean and cool in line but with an underlying warmth achieved through a bold orchestration and notable architectural use of color." 

Indeed, the bold splashes of color throughout were virtually taboo in 1950s architectural modernism, and a stylistic gesture that Saarinen's lieutenant, Kevin Roche, struggled to accept. 

"He loved the overall design aesthetic," Skarsgard said, "but he thought the use of color was completely wrong – he said he almost had to turn his head away."

Later, Roche - who wrote the Foreward to "Where Today Meets Tomorrow" and died last March -- came around, seeing in the bright, glazed-brick building end-walls an indispensable, iconic design element.

"It's all very simple, these big walls of color all around," Skarsgard said, noting that the striking glazes in various hues were developed by Maija Grotell at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. 

"The glazed brick," she said, "really defines the campus."

Defining features are, of course, everywhere -- from the vast rectangular reflecting pool with its fountains and modernist water tower to the breathtaking stairwells that adorn several of the lobbies, particularly the "floating staircases" in both the Design as well as the Research & Development buildings. 

The lobby of the GM Tech Center's Research administration building with its celebrated staircase.

"Those are the two main design masterpieces," Skarsgard said, "but the stairwells throughout the entire campus, even the ubiquitous back stairways, are just elegant and lovely."

Virtually everything on the campus, she noted, was one-of-a kind and customized.

 "Every detail is prototypical – they didn't go off-the-shelf for anything," Skarsgard said, "whether trim work, door handles, and every bit of hardware and wall covering. – it’s all completely designed for that space."

Choosing Eero Saarinen -- an architect in his 30s at the start of the project with no major buildings to his credit -- was a daring move challenging the usual assumption that great corporations lean conservative. 

Initially, the commission went to Eero's father Eliel, best known for building Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills. But by the time things really got rolling in the mid-1940s Eliel, who died in 1950, was already ailing. 

Some, like GM executive Charles Kettering, argued for going with a tried-and-true firm like Albert Kahn Associates, which built the 1920 General Motors Building in the New Center. 

But GM's design guru, Harley Earl, was a risk taker, and "very much wanted the campus to reflect the future orientation of the company," Skarsgard said. "So he just waited till Kettering retired (in 1947), and then pushed hard to go with Eero." 

Skarsgard's book reflects the rising reputation of Eero Saarinen, who died in 1961 at 51, and was quickly forgotten by architecture's chattering classes.

"Eero was criticized until recently," she noted, "because his work was not seen as 'consistent.'"

The complaint, popularized by architectural historian Vincent Scully, was that because each Eero building looked completely different from its predecessor, they amounted to exercises in corporate branding rather than pure architecture. 

The entrance to the GM Tech Center shortly after its 1956 opening.

But the Tech Center's place in modern architecture also suffered, to some extent, from Detroit's long decline, and the eclipse for much of the past 50 years in Michigan's design reputation -- a slide halted by the two "Michigan Modern" books written by Brian Conway, the state's historic preservation officer. 

"Brian's mission to get the word out on Michigan's role in mid-century architecture influenced me, and helped make this book happen," Skarsgard said.

"One of the things about this state is that it's largely been ignored," she added. "It's not just the Tech Center. It's Michigan. This state arguably could be the most important in the development of mid-century modernism, whether product design, furniture or architecture."

It's an oversight Skarsgard's authoritative book goes a long way in correcting. 

The color-splashed cafeteria in the GM Tech Center's Styling building.

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'Where Today Meets Tomorrow: Eero Saarinen and the General Motors Technical Center'

By Susan Skarsgard

Princeton Architectural Press