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The Versailles of Industry

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General Motors Technical Center, inaugurated in 1956 and designed by Eero Saarinen is America’s largest corporate building ever. Its cost at the time was $125 million, the equivalent of over $800 million today. Otherwise known as the “Versailles of Industry”, this post-war complex is “a reflection of car industry’s consumerist pitch” according to architect Robert A.M. Stern.  Some of its distinctive features are the water tower (pictured above) designed to re-circulate water for the center’s air conditioning system, and the Design Dome (last picture, below) an auditorium and exhibition space of 188 ft diameter width and which is covered by an aluminum skin thinner than an egg shell. With the GM Technical Center, Eero Saarinen pushed technological and architectural boundaries. He used automotive material and assembly line construction methods and also experimented with ceramic glazed brick that were fired in a kiln specifically built on-site by GM. 26 glaze colors were developed in collaboration with the nearby Cranbrook Art Academy.

When the Technical Center opened its doors in the 1950′s, GM published a souvenir guide entitled “Where Today Meets Tomorrow”.  The opening foreword by the company’s president mentions the post-war challenges lying ahead and the rapid technological progress made in the first half of the 20th century. The Technical Center is also referred to as a physical incarnation of GM’s vision “in creating the new and useful (and) in filling the needs and desires of millions of people (…) by applying the best talent, the best equipment and the best facilities available to molding Tomorrow”. Perhaps, by looking at its past, GM can finds a few answers for a more sustainable future.

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In 1986, the GM Technical Center was named the most outstanding architectural project of its era by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In 2000, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the State Register of Historic Sites in 2002. Talks of opening a visitors center have been mentioned in the press but have not yet materialized.

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The Design Center (pictured above) boasts an impressive lobby staircase designed by Kevin Roche. The staircase is made of suspended terrazzo slabs that are overlapping each other over a water fountain. Various paintings (including portraits of past presidents and vice presidents) as well as sculptures are displayed inside and outside of the center’s reception area.

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