Where magic happened.
Philibert Le Roy is credited with turning a backwater shooting lodge into a chateau fit for a king. Then, through a succession of architects along with an army of builders, the Sun King’s dream of the most opulent palace was made real. From small beginnings to a lavish labyrinth, the Palace of Versailles has borne witness to history.
Metaphorically and literally distanced from such overt flourishes lies an altogether different theatre of dreams. A place that too has borne change, seen careers grow to unprecedented heights, scarred many by its inner machinations and created millions of objects idolised the world over. Enter architect, Eero Saarinen (1910-61), creative inspiration for the somewhat bland sounding 1956 GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan.
Whereas Louis’ gaff had (amongst others) Salons to Abundance, Mars and Apollo (with a few added mirrors for good measure) the the GMTC had to make do with rather prosaic sounding studios such as Oldsmobile 1, Chevrolet 3, the VECT (Vehicle Engineering Centre Tower) and Manufacturers Buildings A and B. Modern thinking believes the Center to be Saarinen’s finest work.
Construction started in 1949, officially opening on May 16th 1956 to an address by President Eisenhower. With a build cost approximating $125M, Saarinen wished for the centre to be a symbol of future industrial design with buildings functional in as much beautiful. The architect convinced GM to fund a kiln to produce softly hued glazed bricks to “reflect the sun as autumnal leaves.”
Heavily landscaped, brimming with greenery and with a respectful nod back towards the original palace gardens, a huge lake (average depth seven feet) supplying a fountain that pumps out 6,000 gallons per minute to create a wall of water some fifty five feet tall – more than the French contingent.
Saarinen took stylistic references from the car. Hired by the original no-nonsense stylist, Harley Earl, automotive materials alongside assembly line construction methods were used for appealing effects; sealing gaskets used for windscreens incorporated into the window design coalesced with laminated panels of just two inch thickness. The Finnish-American designer courted controversy by placing the 140 feet tall water tower near the center’s front stating that “you can’t hide it so make it something worth talking about.”
Also to be found on this seven hundred acre site is perhaps architect Eero Saarinen‘s finest work, the Design Dome. Based on steel, “the metal of the automobile,” this building was designed to bring out the best of the American car once safely cocooned within this shining embodiment of a pioneering future.
Standing some 65 feet tall and 185 feet in diameter, this silver incurvation has shone as brightly to the exterior as many of the models revealed have within. The aluminium clad, interlocking skin is less than a centimetre in thickness. The 39,500 square feet of internal area being ideal to launch every single GM product since its mid-fifties completion to the current day.
At time of construction, the Dome was planned to offer a shadow free area for easy assessment when regarding a car’s contours. Using 1,000 Watt incandescent floodlights situated in a cove at the Dome’s base elicited perfect admiring conditions. 1993 witnessed a sea change, a 30ft circular ring of spotlights suspended from a false ceiling, deemed more attributable to showroom conditions. Should an adjustment become necessary, remove the car, grab the ladders and twiddle the bulb; multiple car changes or blown bulbs the source of much colourful language.
Neither time nor Michigan’s weather had been kind to the Dome’s exterior. Readdressing the use of light and the availability of advanced lighting techniques inside led to a 2016 refurbishment costing an undisclosed amount. “You use the entire dome as a resonance chamber, a visual mixing bowl,” says Rodrigo Manriquez, SmithGroupJJR’s lighting design studio leader, the contractor responsible for the work.
Turning toward, as the car industry has, LED’s, the new set up is geared up for almost anything. Spotlights, particular hues, dimmable RGBW (red, green, blue and white) the new system can almost paint with light, adding degrees of colour and luminescence to enhance whichever car is up for close scrutiny at the time. Or put on the show for top brass.
For as decadent a life that (the collective) King Louis’ lived, similitudes to GM design heads were rather close. From Harley Earl, the baton was handed to Mitchell, W.L, esq. Leading from the front, often by means of tyranny, fear, overbearing perniciousness or dogged sulks, Mitchell can’t have been all that bad, even for his omniscient ways. A nineteen year tenure spotlighted by the Corvette Stingray, Camaro, Buick Riviera and Cadillac Seville, naming but four of the models that helped GM sell over seventy million units.
Mitchell could be found in all manner of garb, dependant on occasion; a red suit for taking the latest model for a blast around the lake, clad in silver motorcycle leathers aboard his customised silver Yamaha or in slightly more sober greys for a critique within the Dome. Bill Mitchell (and Earl) had a liking for wandering the quiet design studios when everyone else had left for the evening, soaking up the zeitgeist. The next morning could mean personal admonition or approval, arguments or plan abatement. Maybe the Dome channelled some cosmic rays, brought him closer to the almighty in ways mirroring The Sun King himself?
The reawakening of the 2016 Dome was one of then VP of Design, Ed Welburn’s final tasks before his retirement. From the initial styling of Earl to Australian newcomer (five years VP after starting at Holden in 1983) Mike Simcoe, design has endured a torturous road. GM now has ten design studios in seven countries but only one Technical Center and Dome. Good authority mentions the echoes, sounds and smells within as being oddly reassuring.
Saarinen’s wife, Aline wrote in her 1962 book concerning her late husband’s work as “they don’t look like buildings, [but] more like an exalted industrial product.” Life magazine in 1956 hailed the project as the “Versailles of Industry.” The final quote comes from Ed Welburn, “The Design Dome is a very holy place for our designers.” What emanates from a palace can be difficult to define, but for many, there lies a strong presence, a supernatural force.