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The GM Tech Center Cradles The Brand’s Electric Future

Eero Saarinen’s mid-century design is pushing to bring new electric vehicles to market faster…

By Casey Williams

Finnish-born Eero Saarinen (1910–1961) was a master of modern design and architecture, creating the iconic Womb and Tulip chairs for Knoll as well as buildings like New York’s JFK TWA Terminal, the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the Washington Dulles airport terminal. Saarinen’s greatest accomplishment, however, is a living, working automotive monument to the modern age that he created for General Motor’s first design chief, Harley Earl.

Modernist wonder
Constructed from 1949 to 1955, the General Motors Technology Center in Warren, Michigan, is perhaps the greatest collection of modernist architecture in the world. Facilities for design and engineering are laid in a planned arrangement with a rectangular lake, fountains and stainless steel water tower as focal points. Glazed bricks reflect autumn colours and each lobby has its own unique stairway, usually of suspended terrazzo slabs. Windows use seals based on windshield gaskets. It’s like a real-world version of Disney’s Tomorrowland. I visited 10 years ago – an incredible experience.

The sanctuary of the Tech Center is its silver Design Dome, where stylists review upcoming products with top executives. The ’55 Chevy Nomad, ’59 Cadillac Eldorado, ’63 Corvette and all-electric semi-autonomous 2023 Cadillac Lyriq crossover were all shown here. To display vehicles in natural light, an outside patio is large enough to contain a division’s entire product line, with showpieces rotating on turntables built into the pavers.

Automotive atelier
Across the patio is the Design Center, where stylists find inspiration in their surroundings. It is easy to imagine Harley Earl holding court in the terrazzo-floored lobby or Bill Mitchell (Earl’s successor as design chief) reviewing Corvettes from his “bat cave” office. Today, designers can view proposed models on a wall of screens during video conferences with studios across the globe.

Individual studios were created with luminous ceilings to eliminate shadows and reflections. A special colour and trim room has a skylight so designers can view materials and colours in natural light. Flexible walls allow the building to easily adapt to new requirements. If you could pry off the roof and look inside, you’d see GM’s transition to electric vehicles taking shape.

Saarinen’s attention to detail included furniture and the colour of machines. The lobby – including the famous suspended staircase, Mies van der Rohe couches and white fibreglass “teacup” reception desk – remains unchanged. Even the 20-ft. bronze sculpture by French artist Antoine Pevsner still sits outside.

While less glamorous, much of GM’s advanced engineering occurs on-site, too. New buildings continue to be built, but fit into Saarinen’s original plan.

Architectural significance
It’s difficult to imagine The Tech Center is 70 years old, even if it is listed on the (US) National Register of Historic Places and was designated Most Outstanding Architectural Achievements of its Era by the American Institute of Architects. Buildings are more congruous with tomorrow’s self-driving wonders than the tailfinned behemoths that once fronted them. It’s where GM created the future during the middle of the last century, and where it will debut all of the amazing models that shall define this one.

To learn more, read Where Today Meets Tomorrow: Eero Saarinen and the General Motors Technical Center (2019) by Susan Skarsgard.

CASEY WILLIAMS is a contributing writer for Gaywheels.com. He contributes to the New York-based LGBT magazine Metrosource and the Chicago Tribune. He and his husband live in Indianapolis, where Williams contributes videos and reviews to wfyi.org, the area’s PBS/NPR station.

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