The Palace Of Versailles, Michigan

Where magic happened. 

GM Technical Center. architectmagazine

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.

architectmagazine

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.

architectmagazine

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.

architectmagazine

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.

architectmagazine

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?

architectmagazine

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.

Data sources: architectmagazine.com, media.gm.com 

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

12 thoughts on “The Palace Of Versailles, Michigan”

  1. Saarinen’s dates are 1910 – 1961 (not 1951 as the text has it). His later buildings include the TWA terminal at New York’s JFK airport.

    1. I’ve just realized who the architect is – he did the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Well worth a visit, if you’re in the area – you can travel up it. I must say that one of the (many) things that the US does well is exhibitions and monuments – I think it must be a cultural thing, where they’re not afraid of scale.

      https://www.gatewayarch.com/

    2. My thanks to Peter Morris Dixon for his kind correction – the text has been amended to correct the typo.

  2. Thank you Andrew. I love the water tower – it’s an iconic feature and was used as visual shorthand in articles about GM’s R&D capabilities.

    Here’s a short film about the Center’s inauguration (from 1:40); it also features Firebird 2, as featured here, recently.

  3. Thank you Andrew for this wonderful insight in this impressive building; in my brochure collection I have a piece by Cadillac dedicated specifically to the inauguration of the GM Tech Center; it shows the building in the context of the day with the cars and fashions of the period which is interesting:

  4. A very interesting article on a remarkable building, of which, I must confess, I was previously unaware. Thank you.

    Bruno’s addition of the brochure shots is also fascinating for the contrast between the modernity of the building and the baroque styling of the cars. It reminds me of seeing Soviet era shots of Eastern European modern architecture with contemporary Ladas, Skodas and the like parked outside.

  5. Thanks, Andrew, for your salute to a delightful piece of modernist architecture.

    There really was an extraordinary disconnect between contemporary architecture and automotive design in the 1950’s. The cars look remarkably regressive against the cool, clean minimalism of the building. I wonder if any of the contemporary art critics picked up on this contradiction?

    1. Daniel, that topic has intrigued me for eons. I think the answer may be that cars especially have an anthropomorphistic component, or a zoomorphistic component which is related to their function replacing horses. Although the jet age is certainly a motivator behind the rise of fins in the 1950s, there is also a more primal connection to birds.

      We can certainly notice animal names given to cars in almost every era, Stutz Bearcat, Swallow Sidecars, Jaguar, Corvette Sting Ray, Humber Snipe, VW Käfer, Stout Scarab, Mangusta, Alfa-Romeo B.A.T.

      Architecture on the other hand, has been driven by its need to serve as an environment for humans, we don’t live inside animals, that is perhaps until the space age ushered in the idea of planet earth as an organism herself. I think that is why Saarinen’s TWA terminal is so important because it marked a paradigm shift in modern architecture where organic forms could be re-introduced in a new abstract way which “broke” the parallel and perpendicular “international” style typified by van der Rohe, and ultimately leading to the likes of Frank Gehry. FLW sort of straddles these schools, being known for his many very linearly oriented buildings as well as organic ones such the Johnson Wax headquarters and the New York Guggenheim Museum.

      I think that in cars we can see at the beginning, the carriage trade produced very architectural designs, and those were superseded by streamlining in the 1930s. A movement back to architectural forms was exemplified, I believe by Pininfarina’s Lancia Florida, and the 1961 Lincoln Continental. These are not the kinds of designs that one would expect from Harley Earl. Looking again at anthropomorphism, Earl’s cars became increasingly Rubenesque, sort of like Goya’s paintings. I think that goes some way toward explaining the discrepancy you have noticed. It is really a topic large enough for a book, I cannot do it proper justice but I hope I have helped here.

  6. Well done Andrew for producing such an interesting article which I knew nothing whatsoever about. Thanks also to gooddog and brrrruno for the extra information.
    As a minor point of interest the GLA building on the south bank of the River Thames in London has an even longer “floating staircase” than that shown above. Maybe that was where they got the idea from.

  7. During my university days I wanted to write my thesis about cars and architecture. The GM technical center would have played a role in it for sure, but my professor decided against it. Good to see it featured here on DTW.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.