Eero Saarinen and the Development of the General Motors

Eero Saarinen and the Development of the General Motors Technical
The 1940's were a time of industrialization that stemmed from the ending of the
WWII. During this time, General Motors sought the opportunity to expand their empire
and build a factory that would serve as a research complex as well as testing facility. The
overall project was very broad at first, but later became a reality with the help of Eliel
Saarinen and Eero Saarinen. These two architects innovative concepts were extremely
brilliant and highly futuristic. Together, the Saarinens ideas, mainly Eero's, came to
fruition and that launch the beginning of the General Motors Technical Center.
Background to the development of the General Motors Technical Center
The initial scheme for the GM Technical Center was created in 1945. This
scheme suggested that GM would get both Cranbrook and the Unfolding house, two
previous designs that Eliel Saarinen spearheaded. The design incorporated many of the
elements drawn from the Piazza San Marco that Eliel had used at Cranbrook that
included the use of trapezoidal space, the off-center tower and an entire central area filled
with water. Of course, the scale of the Tech Center was many times larger than any of
these precedents; therefore, a number of other features were added to make it appropriate
to the age of the automobile.
The Owner's and their varying ideas about the Project
Initially, the varying executives were against hiring an architect for the
commission. Charles Kettering, who was head of engineering, thought it should be a no
frills project designed in house and not terribly different from a typical GM factory. But
Harley Earl, head of the styling section of GM, had higher aspirations. Earl convinced
GM's president to conduct a national search for the appropriate architect.
The search ended with the hiring of Eliel Saarinen and his firm. Preliminary studies were
done in 1945 that were highly similar to the organization of Cranbrook. GM wanted a
place that could be seen as one of the only stopping places of its kind in the heartland of
the United States. The project was delayed until 1948 because of Eliel Saarinen
increasingly old age. At this time, Eero Saarinen moved to the forefront and was clearly
the lead designer. GM reactivated the project in 1948 because of a tremendous swell of
unprecedented post-war sales. The project was now on a munificent scale, growing from
a 20 million dollar contract to one worth 100 million dollars. With this increased budget,
Eero Saarinen took control of the largest and most opulent commission ever awarded to a
modern architect up to that time.
Eero Saarinen Effect on the Project
Eero Saarinen convinced GM that the Tech Center should be an expression of a
high precision, mass production and metal industry instead of just another Cranbook.
Once the corporation grasped this concept, its technological resources were placed at the
service of Saarinen's firm. Saarinen decided that his design would be based on the
repetitive grid because it was a more accurate reflection of mass production.
Saarinen wrote that "General Motors is a metal-working industry; it is a
precision industry; it is a massive production industry. All these things
should in a sense be expressed in the architecture of its Technical Center.
Thus, the design is based on steel-the metal of the automobile. Like the
automobile itself, the buildings are essentially put together, as on an
assembly line, out of mass-produced units. And, down to the smallest
detail, we tried to give the architecture the precise, well-made look which
is a proud characteristic of industrial America (Louchheim, 267).
Saarinen's influence for the GM Tech Center came from observing the work of
Mies van der Rohe who had been steadily been creating an uncompromising modern
environment for the Illinois Institute of Technology. Saarinen's influence is made clear
by the first view of the GM Tech Center's composition. All the structures, except for a
low, shining dome on the south, compose an assemblage of overlapping bright and
neutral planes, which cannot be taken in one glance, but compel the eye to travel over
water and lawns, from end to end of ht 3000-foot-long composition. Altogether, Saarinen
designed over twenty-five buildings at GM between 1948 and 1956, but the most
influential of these was the first one he designed which was the Engineering Complex in
Saarinen expanded on his father's initial designs to make the complex more
symbolically, technically and economically sound. Eero stretched Eliel's densely
integrated group of buildings because of his conviction that just as automobile speed
vastly exceeded walking speed, so should automobile distances vastly exceed walking
distances. Eero also reworked his father's plan by clearly separating the basic elements.
Saarinen arranged the entire composition around a ten-story office building springing up
from a 22-acre lake. Eero later scratched the office building and replaced it with a 132 ft
tripod water tower and a 50x100-ft water wall.
Prevalent Methods of Construction
Like Mies, Saarinen desired to express the structure, preferably by exposing it,
but his fundamental concepts of detailing were quite different. Eero favored the
multifunctional and perhaps ambiguous element rather than the functionality and
redundant elements. Miesan buildings all distinguish clearly between structure and
curtain wall or between skin and bones. Sometimes this separate articulation of elements
is carried further by distinguishing between the structure that supports the glass and the
structure that supports the floor. The GM Technical Center is much more integrated in
that what appears to be the major window mullions are indeed the window mullions, but
are also the structural columns of the building.
Along with wider column spacing, the buildings had another important change.
The idea of architectural glazing a traditional wet system was administered to account for
the failure of heavily caulking curtain walls. This system used the neoprene gasket,
which solved the problem of leakage, and remarkably easy and economical to produce,
install, and maintain. This innovation is the origin of the structural glazing gasket in
architecture and one of the many innovations the Saarinen office developed and
Another of the Tech Center's technical innovations was the use of glazed brick
end walls. Glazing the bricks had the effect of sealing the surface. The primary role of
the different color bricks was to give a separate identity to each individual building and
All of the technological innovations of the GM Technical Center were
monumental. Saarinen worked to make the interior space unique as well. Eero designed
a staircase that was highly sophisticated and highly articulate. This design featured
wooden stairs hung from steel wires to support the stairs structurally and add to the
dematerialization factor of the entire project.
GM Tech Center Overall Influence
The GM Technical Center will always be remembered as one of the first major
triumphs of the new architecture in this country. The Tech Center was the only building
one could see industrial technology brought to the forefront so innovatively with the
many pressures and problems of contemporary design. Saarinen and his associate's
precedents of the neoprene gasket, porcelain spandrels of sandwich construction, and
various innovations of curtain wall design were truly remarkable. General Motors had set
a new standard for industrial architecture and Eero Saarinen was the pioneer behind the