For about a decade, I was the principal programmer and lead designer of the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, a building that is now a factor in the sale of the corporation as the American car industry bailout take place.
As programmer, I lead a team of architects and engineers in the identification and definition of the technical—space and systems—requirements for the organization to do its job in its rejuvenation. As designer, I coordinated with a team of more than 100 architects and engineers to give shape to the places and spaces in which Chrysler’s designers, engineers and technicians would transform their company, and the industry, at the end of the century.
There are so many interesting stories about that heady time, when Chrysler was emerging from bankruptcy with a big government guaranteed loan, and leaving the dregs of older industry in Highland Park, emerging as a powerhouse of innovation and productivity in the American industry.
Here are a couple stories, roughly recalled. There is much more to each of these stories, in the sense of how architecture and planning enables the work of the organization, but I offer these short versions in context.
Build it and they will come
When you consider the early days of this project—designing and constructing the largest building in the world—you might also consider the technology of the time, or its absence. I think we may have just then been beginning, in darkened rooms, using the earliest generations of CAD programs. There was no such thing as a laptop or notebook computer. If there were mobile phones, we may have called them car phones, and they were, effectively, a briefcase with a conventional full-size hand set and a big and heavy battery…but these were extremely rare. The fax machine was the instrument of “instant” communications.
I began my days heading into the office to check the faxes that morning. The CM, on behalf of Chrysler, published a list of scheduled meetings by fax to all the firms involved in the project. What a marvelous communications and management device! I’d check the subjects of meetings to determine those that I or others who worked with me might contribute to, and then made the mad dash about 20 miles away to the construction building to meet, present designs, debate values, plan strategies, etc. Back in my office at noon, I’d check the fax again to determine which meetings I’d have to head out to again in the afternoon.
In those days, a meeting was attended by at least 30 people from different design and consulting organizations, all attempting to catch up on the subject, the ongoing construction, the financial status, the latest concepts for engineering and production.
I remember the delight of the optimism of those days. The building concept—a cross of four wings of engineering offices and labs—allowed a construction strategy of phased development. Each meeting involved some element of challenge to the construction of the next wing —why should this be built? Each meeting, however, had a Chrysler executive proclaiming that if they built it, they would find a use for it. So design and construction moved progressively from 2 to 3 to 4 to 5 million square feet.
At one point we did a short study to answer the question of “how big is too big?” We had planned fo about 5,000 people on site, but imagined, if I recall correctly, the potential of 10,000.
What do we do with it if they don’t come?
At the core of the WSJ article is the potential reuse of the facility if Chrysler is sold or folds. Early in the project, we helped prepare data for scenarios for the potential re-use of the facility of Chrysler were to go under at that time, the late 80’s.
One key meeting took place down in Boca Raton where Chrysler execs, including Lee Iacocca, met to plan for the sustainability of the company, and to consider alternatives for the ongoing plans.
In the brainstorming that took place before, and during, the event, were considerations of its use as a shopping mall, community college, and other uses. I recall that this may have fed considerations by Deutsche Bank at the time for their potential role as principal financier/owner of the facility. I wonder of these are now part of the considerations for the future of the facility in the bailout, or the once-rumored merge with GM?
Decision making on the tower
The WSJ article incorrectly describes the complex as two towers. It is actually composed of more than 3.5 million square feet of a low-rise, four story building, and a connected 13-story headquarters tower with a low-rise amenities wing. This differential typology was a significant factor in the evolution of the master plan for the site.
The headquarters was a late addition to the program. Chrysler had bought 500 acres for the main complex. They had at one time had an option for 500 acres more, across Galloway Creek, on otherwise adjacent property. We had begun to imagine headquarters there, remembering Chrysler as a more diverse company (finance, missiles, mass transit, etc.) and more than just an auto company, and therefore with a headquarters appropriately separate from the automotive technology center.
When this was not to be, we began to study alternative planning. We were influenced by two key ideas from two key corporate leaders. Bob Eaton, then CEO, wanted a headquarters undifferentiated from the technology center, reflecting a belief that corporate leadership was just another member of the team. Bob Lutz, the legendary product leader and with a tenure at Chrysler before his move to GM,, argued for a change in the “topography” of the site, and for a headquarters that had a form different than the “plant” typology then under construction.
I designed a 20-story cylindrical headquarters for Lutz. I designed an SOM-inspired, low-rise, courtyard-studded complex for Eaton.
The facilities leadership was concerned. “How tall was GM headquarters?” they asked. Thirteen stories. “How tall was Ford headquarters?” they asked. Thirteen stories. “Design a thirteen-story headquarters!” they demanded.
I presented the options to the Chrysler Executive Committee on a huge model of the 500-acre complex. After my presentation, Bob Eaton picked up the 4-story insert and placed it on the model and explained his concept of team. Then Bob Lutz placed his 20-story insert on the model and talked about the future of the company and the importance of landmark. After some back and forth between them, Eaton pulled up the 13-story insert, placed in on the model, and said, “Then that’s it!” and everybody immediately turned and left the room.
That generated the picture that leads off the WSJ article.