Behold the fanfare that accompanied the May 1956 inauguration of the colossal General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich.: NBC broadcast the ceremony on national television; President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered an address on technological progress from the White House; and Life magazine hailed the project as the “Versailles of Industry.”
Five months earlier, then-GM president Harlow Curtice had been anointed Time’s “Man of the Year.” Then, in July, the magazine ran a cover story heralding the Tech Center, this time featuring the face of its architect, Eero Saarinen, superimposed over the 710-acre complex. (Hats off to GM’s public relations team for a stellar year.)
The aesthetic of the center for advanced research, design, and engineering was likened to the product at the core of the company: the car. Saarinen felt his design concept should be “based on steel—the metal of the automobile,” according to his wife, Aline, in her book Eero Saarinen on His Work (Yale University Press, 1962). “They don’t look like buildings [but] more like an exalted industrial product,” reads an early account of the complex in Architectural Forum (accessible through the National Register of Historic Places archive).
Nothing epitomized that sentiment quite like the Tech Center’s Design Dome, the shimmering, spiritual heart of the campus and, to a degree, the entire company. Clad with interlocking aluminum panels, the 185-foot-diameter, 65-foot-tall dome topped a 39,500-square-foot footprint that was embedded in the flatlands of the Detroit suburbs like a supersized silver marble. Since 1956, every GM product line has been presented to the leadership in the shadowless light of its interior display floor.
Sixty years later, the hemispherical form, modeled by Saarinen with a sliced tennis ball, remains perfect for its function. “Two years before I was born, they were using this building to evaluate the autos coming out of GM,” says Paul Urbanek, FAIA, vice president of design at SmithGroupJJR, the Detroit-based firm that served as the Tech Center’s original architect of record. “And they’re doing it the same way today.”
The technologies and systems inside the building, once hailed as the embodiment of the future, have not withstood the time with such grace.
Many architects regard the Tech Center as Saarinen’s finest work—a synthesis of modernist elegance and American dynamism. In his later commissions, as Alice Friedman has shown in her excellent book American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture (Yale University Press, 2010), critics contended that Saarinen slipped into what architectural historian Vincent Scully called “hollow exhibitionism,” with schemes that favored exaggeration, metaphor, and bombast.
Saarinen and GM were a good match in some ways. GM styling doyen Harley Earl, who hired Saarinen, said the two men had great synergy in addition to a busy working relationship. The architect, in turn, appreciated and leveraged the automaker’s technical expertise during the decade he spent on the Tech Center. At one point, he enlisted GM to develop a neoprene gasket to stop the water infiltration that plagued the Engineering Group, one of the first completed buildings on the campus. GM also financed the custom kilns to fire the double-glazed masonry, developed by Saarinen with the ceramicist Maija Grotell, that clads buildings throughout the campus.
Philosophically, the pairing was more complicated. Saarinen often imagined his work in a historical context, with a respectful sense of cultural continuity that set him apart from other modernists. Yet he was working for General Motors, a pioneer of planned obsolescence. According to architectural journalist Jayne Merkel in Eero Saarinen (Phaidon, 2014), Earl’s decorative flourishes “offended Eero so much that he special-ordered his Oldsmobile without any chrome.”
The contrast between architecture’s aspirations of permanence and the automobile’s built-in expiration date must have crossed Saarinen’s mind. Yet nothing indicates that he ever thought of the Tech Center as anything but a permanent home for GM.
Likewise, even as Saarinen’s dome began to show signs of age, it retained strong allies at GM. “I’m an automobile designer, but I’m also a fan of great architecture,” says vice president of global design Ed Welburn, who was closely involved in the renovation. “Far too often, people are way too quick to tear down great buildings and build a new one.”
Updating the Design Dome was like dissecting a Swiss watch, says SmithGroupJJR’s Urbanek. For example, the building’s mechanical systems, which required replacement, were tucked between the structure’s interior and exterior domes.
Still, the most serious impediment to the dome’s continued service was the one responsible for its success: lighting. “Very seldom does lighting design criteria guide the shape of a building,” says Rodrigo Manriquez, SmithGroupJJR’s lighting design studio leader. Saarinen enlisted Richard Kelly, the architectural-lighting genius behind projects such as Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater (then the New York State Theater) and Dulles International Airport, to create a shadow-free space where a car’s contours could be evaluated. The interior span, illuminated from a cove at the base of the dome ceiling by 1,000-watt, stadium-type, incandescent floodlights, cast its reflected glow over the display floor. “You use the entire dome as a resonance chamber, a visual mixing bowl,” Manriquez says.
In 1993, GM’s designers, wanting the ability to spotlight products in showroom fashion, had a 30-foot-diameter lighting ring hung from the dome’s center. Its jumble of spotlights was controlled manually; if the designers needed to adjust the light, away went the prototype vehicle on the show floor, and out came the ladders and the lifts. This cumbersome process made regular product reviews an ordeal, to say nothing of the celebratory events held there from time to time.
For this renovation, Manriquez decided to deploy technology more commonly found at concert venues than in corporate America. “It was a no brainer: We turned to LEDs and DMX controls,” he says. His team replaced the lighting ring with a 40-foot version that, together with fixtures in the dome ceiling, contains 112 luminaires that can be remotely controlled to spotlight the floor display or create an ambience for a party. Dimmable RGBW (red, green, blue, and white) LED fixtures adorn the ring like miniature R2D2 robots, while other white-LED fixtures on the ring and in the ceiling illuminate display boards and secondary targets, like wheels or material samples. Every fourth fixture on the ring has the ability to project patterns.
To spike a hue complementary to the products on display, GM’s lighting technicians had used theatrical methods, such as affixing a blue acetate filter over a light source to highlight a blue car. But filtering reduces brightness, thus requiring more lights—and more energy—to achieve the same luminance. The new system relies on additive mixing, or varying the output of the different color LEDs, which lets GM fine-tune hues and achieve better color fidelity.
And because the lighting ring is now controlled from a control desk at the perimeter of the circular display-floor, the pace of activity is faster. The desk, redesigned by SmithGroupJJR with a profile modeled after the hood ornament of a 1940 Cadillac, allows a technician to toggle between event lighting and showroom-style spotlighting in a matter of seconds. It also commands a host of new audio/visual equipment—speakers, projector, and a 24-foot-wide projector screen—that has been slotted into the interstitial space between the building’s interior and exterior domes, as well as new spotlights and uplights integrated in the soffit along the dome ceiling.
Having their work displayed in the showroom remains a big deal for GM’s global design team. “The Design Dome is a very holy place for our designers,” Welburn says. “They have tears in their eyes the first time they see it.”
It would be handy to say that the Design Dome has retained its spiritual primacy for GM as a vessel of memory, even as age tempers its claim to the future. But that’s only half true.
With its sleek, renovated interior, the dome hardly looks dated—and the overall GM complex even less so. The suburban, self-contained, car-centric headquarters and campuses now being planned for today’s companies of the future, such as Facebook, Google, and Apple, make clear that Saarinen’s Tech Center still is where today meets tomorrow. And tomorrow, and tomorrow.