!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Alfred Sloan's Memoir IX: The Technical Center

Friday, February 26, 2010

Alfred Sloan's Memoir IX: The Technical Center

Three cheers for Alfred Sloan that he decided to hire top architectural talent — Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero — to design the General Motors Technical Center, which opened in Warren MI in 1956 (by which time Eero was the main architect, his father having died in 1950). As Sloan explains in Chapter 14 of My Years with General Motors, there was some disagreement over the "architectural and aesthetic standards" that should be set for the Technical Center.

Staircase, designed by Eero Saarinen, in the Research building of the General Motors Technical Center
(Critical Detroit)

... Harley Earl had contended from the beginning that we should engage an architect of stature, and aim for a center that would be distinctive. Several others felt that any emphasis on high aesthetic standards might be detrimental to the practical operations of the center, and so they wanted General Motors itself to design and plan the project. At about the time this argument was in progress, I happened to visit the Ethyl Corporation laboratores in Detroit, which had just been completed. These handsome facilities made an excellent impression on me, and so I inclined to Mr. Earl's point of view more than I might have otherwise.

Among those who expressed some concern about the effects of an aesthetically oriented center was Mr. Lammot du Pont. He felt, quite properly, that he would not be fulfilling his responsibilities as a director unless he was satisfied, on certain points. I wrote to him on May 8, 1945, arguing the advantages of retaining an outside architect, and on May 17 he replied that he was satisfied on the point. His letter said, in part:
The whole layout and the description of its preparation gave me the impression that the matter of esthetic treatment, or as I would style it, "dressing up the place," had been an important factor from the beginning. I questioned whether the matter of appearance was of any importance in a project of this kind, the sole object being to get technical results. It was with this thought in mind that in offering my remarks, I started out with the layout which had been made by an architectural firm, whereas according to my line of thought, it would have been more appropriate to have had the layout made by an engineering firm or General Motors engineers.

I gather from your letter that it is not the intention to allow the appearances to interfere with the technical possibilities or to add substantially to the cost of the project. With those two assurances, my only remaining question with respect to the project would be answered.
We asked Mr. Earl himself to find the right architect for the center. He visited a number of leading architectural schools and sought out the opinions of others who were knowledgeable in the field, and he found in the end that virtually everyone made the same recommendation. The selection of the Saarinens was not a difficult choice. [The landscape architect was Thomas Church.]

General Motors Technical Center
Warren, Michigan

(Michigan State Historic Preservation Office)

[The General Motors Technical Center] is located on a 900-acre site northeast of Detroit, about twelve miles from the General Motors Building. At the center of the site is a twenty-two acre artificial lake surrounded on three sides by clusters of buildings. On the north side are the Research Laboratories. To the east are the Manufacturing Staff and the Engineering Staff buildings. To the south are the Styling Staff buildings, including a distinctive domed auditorium in which fairly sizable groups can gather for showings of the staff's work.

[pp. 259, 262-263, 1990 edition]


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