There were also several other notable design elements. A nearby cafeteria had orange vinyl flooring, something that I hadn’t seen in years. There were also orange banquettes, giving the eating area a personalized, intimate feel, while retaining the eccentric color coordination. The nearby executive dining room had a bold blue design, with a stunning hexagonal wood ceiling and an excellent lakefront view.
The crown jewel of the nearby Research and Development building is its circular staircase, designed by the architect Kevin Roche, a prominent Saarinen collaborator. The staircase gets its structural support from thin rods that are anchored at the top and bottom, creating another “floating” effect. The hallways leading to offices are generally long and narrow, but remain vibrant spaces since the design enables frequent sightings of co-workers.
Walking out on a patio at the Research and Development building, the blazing sun was contributing to an unbearable heat index. However, I got a great overview of much of the G.M. center, one that further revealed its carefully planned, linear layout.
The center originally contained 25 buildings, which were mostly built of curtain wall construction, with beams exposed on the exterior and glazed brick that deviated from the standard industrial look. Currently, there are 38 buildings across 710 acres. From Engineering to Design to Research and Development, with other departments in between, the G.M. center continues to thrive.
“It is amazing that General Motors is using buildings more than 60 years later for the same purpose,” Ms. Skarsgard said. “The entrance canopies pull you into the buildings, and they’re simple, clean and inviting.”
Next year, the company is slated to expand the General Motors Design studios, constructing a new building that will surround the Design Dome, along with a new parking garage. I couldn’t see the interior of the silver-topped dome since it is still hosts internal events, but it has a storied history. Many G.M. vehicles have been tested, inspected and approved at the dome, featuring models as old as the 1957 Chevy Bel Air and 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. The column-free interior was designed to be a grand showroom during a time when American automotive companies dominated the market share.
Saarinen was accomplished by the time his first few buildings opened at the G.M. center. Here was evidence that he wasn’t resting on his laurels, that his vision had kept him on the path to his goals. Saarinen sought to design at the highest levels while retaining creative control, which is why one of his last projects resonated with me so deeply.
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Drive roughly an hour west of Warren and you’ll arrive in Ann Arbor, filled with quirky shops and collegiate charm. Eero Saarinen temporarily served as a design consultant for the North Campus development at the University of Michigan there and designed the Earl V. Moore Building, which opened in 1964 and houses much of what is now the School of Music, Theater and Dance.
When I approached the building, I was struck by the peacefulness of the surrounding area. I had driven past the bustling main campus closer to South State Street, but the North Campus was much quieter. I walked through the William K. and Delores S. Brehm Pavilion, the modern addition to the Moore building, and noticed several undergraduates taking their instruments into performance spaces and auditoriums. In the Saarinen-designed section, the wooden doors, well-placed brickwork and large clocks signaled his imprint: they are hallmarks of his architectural style.
Through a door left slightly ajar, I could see the sun starting to set, and hear the crickets starting to chirp. The Moore building, on hilly terrain and overlooking a small pond, inspired me to meditate. Saarinen wanted to connect people to nature, and I was proof of that.
Eero Saarinen fell ill while his university building was being constructed, and passed away in 1961 at only 51 years old. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor just weeks before his death and didn’t get to see the completion of the flight center, Dulles Airport, the Gateway Arch or the John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, Ill., among his other high-profile projects.
Today, the Saarinen imprint in Michigan continues to be widely revered. His works will continue to be models for future architects and designers. Eero Saarinen gave the world visually-stunning works that influenced modern design and challenged conventional wisdom, a legacy that’s well worth exploring.
If You Go
The Saarinen House (39221 Woodward Avenue, Bloomfield Hills; www.cranbrookartmuseum.org/tours/saarinen-house; 248-645-3323) at the Cranbrook Art Museum offers public tours from May through November, with a select number of private tours available from November through April. Regular admission is $15.
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