In the period 1919–22, two events catalyzed General Motors’ nascent dominance in the automotive industry: the company built a monumental headquarters in Detroit, designed by Albert Kahn Associates and located on what was then the periphery of the city; and a restructuring of the corporation was enacted at the behest of several newly appointed executives, including Alfred P. Sloan. In “Actual Center of Detroit”: Method, Management, and Decentralization in Albert Kahn's General Motors Building, Michael Abrahamson explores the conjunction between these events, arguing that both manifest a struggle with immense size. To cope with the bigness of buildings, corporations, and urban environments, GM and the Kahn firm developed strategies that set the agenda for architectural practice, corporate management, and urban development for the twentieth-century United States. Together, these strategies reveal the entwined forces that influenced the design of the General Motors Building.
An advertisement for office rentals in Detroit's General Motors Building (GMB), published in the 13 August 1922 edition of the Detroit Free Press, features a map of the city with manufacturing centers arrayed like pieces in a complex geographical chess game (Figure 1).1 At the map's center sits the GMB, near the intersection of Woodward Avenue and Grand Boulevard. Radial distances emanate outward from it at 1, 2, and 2.5 miles, indicating the site's convenience to industrial centers across the city. North on Woodward Avenue is Ford Motor Company's Highland Park plant, and to the east along Grand Boulevard are Dodge and Packard—all General Motors’ direct competitors. Several other automobile and parts manufacturers are included along the city's rail lines, but notably absent is Detroit's central business district, located just outside the frame where Woodward meets the Detroit River (Figure 2). This absence was no doubt intentional, as the ad asserts that the site for GM's monumental new headquarters was “chosen with the utmost forethought as to Detroit's business needs…. The fact is that today we find a new center for Detroit and for Detroit's industrial life.” The map makes an implicit visual argument that Detroit's financial and commercial interests—concentrated around Grand Circus Park and Cadillac Square downtown—no longer hold sway over the city's fortunes. Industry, with its tens of thousands of blue-collar workers, white-collar clerks, and managers, had become the dominant influence over Detroit's growth and financial fate; departing downtown, the GMB staked out a “new center” for Detroit.2 Because of the building's immense size, GM's gambit was successful enough that the district around the building is now promoted under the name New Center.3
The GMB is a steel-framed, limestone-clad behemoth that fills a full city block (Figure 3). While tall, it is not a skyscraper in the familiar sense. Its eight wings splay outward horizontally, covering a ground area of more than 3.5 acres. Seemingly at a loss for words to relate the building's size to its readers, the Free Press marveled at its 4 miles of corridors and nearly 1,800 individual offices, quoting World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker's remark that its roof seemed large enough to serve as a “small aeroplane station.”4 Even Francisco Mujica, author of the monumental History of the Skyscraper (1929), was flummoxed by the GMB; rather than a critical assessment, he offered a thorough statistical accounting, more impressive (though perhaps less relatable) than the metrics offered by the Free Press:
Fifteen stories and 220 feet high; ground area of building: 162,288 square feet; floor area: 1,321,202 square feet (30 acres); rentable area: 1,035,992 square feet; cubic contents: 20,411,000 cubic feet; total weight of building: 230,000 tons; 130,100 cubic yards of excavation; 15,000 tons of structural steel; 1,478 tons of reinforcing steel; 450,000 cubic feet of Bedford limestone facing; 8,790,000 bricks; 100,000 barrels of cement; 5,148 windows; population capacity: 6,000; 1,800 typical offices; 27 passenger elevators; 4 freight elevators; 4 boilers, 500 H.P. each; 5,000 radiators; 7,916 electric light fixtures.5
As Mujica's use of unconventional measurements like “total weight” and “cubic contents” illustrates, the GMB challenged qualitative methods of architectural assessment—other forms of measurement and documentation were required to make sense of it. At 1.3 million square feet, it was the world's second-largest office building, behind only Manhattan's forty-story Equitable Building, which had been completed in 1913 to the dismay of advocates for land-use zoning.6 These two buildings were in a sense siblings: both were developed in part by members of the du Pont family, and both functioned as brute financial instruments rather than as aesthetically refined works of architecture. Together, they illustrate how tall office buildings, to quote Manfredo Tafuri, were “real live ‘bombs’ with chain effects, destined to explode the entire real estate market.”7
Indeed, big buildings have big consequences, and they offer historians a methodological opportunity: to reveal through one work the intertwining of architecture, business, and urban development. As Rem Koolhaas has observed of large twentieth-century urban buildings, “Only BIGNESS instigates the regime of complexity that mobilizes the full intelligence of architecture and its related fields.”8 To mobilize architecture's “full intelligence” requires much more than aesthetic design; it also requires expertise in office management, client relations, and the economics of the building industry. Albert Kahn Associates—designers of the GMB and hundreds of other Detroit buildings—were renowned for exactly this kind of expertise. Between 1900 and 1920, they developed working methods that enabled them to deal with the size and number of commissions they received.
Likewise, executives at General Motors adopted progressive management techniques and experimented with development strategies to bring order to a business that would by midcentury be the world's largest corporation. When they commissioned the GMB, these executives found Detroit teeming with new residents drawn by employment in the automotive industry, and they used their huge headquarters to catalyze changes in the city's spatial and financial form. Because of its design, function, and location, the GMB is an effective illustration of these strategies; it also disrupts the priority given to Kahn's industrial architecture over the hundreds of residential, commercial, institutional, and civic buildings his firm produced. In turn, the architect's and client's thoughts and actions provide partial, imbricated explanations for the building's distinctive form. Working through progressively wider lenses, this article unpacks what was at stake in design and construction of the GMB for its architect, its client, and the city of Detroit.
Method: Architectural Eclecticism and Corporate Building
For many reasons…the Beaux-Arts method proved congenial to corporate practice. It allegedly opposed the “progressive” corporate design of the Chicago “commercial style.”…But was this really the case? Or were these parallel aspects of developments that…were driving American architecture toward corporate system and impersonality?—William H. Jordy9
Like many large institutional buildings of its era, the GMB depended for its appeal on a “familiar language of…size and display” drawn from an American strain of neoclassicism that may have originated with the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago but was derived from Beaux-Arts design principles and advanced by architects who trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.10 More than the adoption of elements from classical architecture, this style of building involved a method of composition that adapted motifs from historic precedents to new spaces, functions, and technologies. Over two decades, it was embraced by an idealistic class of U.S. elites as it became associated with Progressive Era cultural values. Above all, this architecture demonstrated the cultivated, genteel, and cosmopolitan view of history held by client and architect alike.11 Unlike the builders of Chicago's progressive “commercial style” skyscrapers, Beaux-Arts practitioners tended toward a measured horizontality and the careful selection of appropriate historical themes.
Despite or because of its association with a particular set of lofty cultural values, the Beaux-Arts method was also used by architects in the design of commercial structures like the GMB. By adopting this style of building rather than a more plain, commercial-style tower, GM asserted its status as both a corporate capitalist power and a pseudocivic institution.12 Elements and techniques developed to impart a monumental presence in low-lying civic buildings were used to lend that same gravitas to vertical commercial ones, thereby likening business to government.
Albert Kahn and his U.S. contemporaries dealt with style in a way that catered to this conjunction between corporate power and civic aesthetics. As Gwendolyn Wright has written, style for these architects was “meaningful in terms of actual effects rather than elegant abstractions.”13 Kahn similarly reported that when adapting Beaux-Arts design for commercial buildings like the GMB, he used decoration only “at important points,” where it would be most impactful.14 This pragmatic approach to ornamentation is characteristic of the designs for residences, offices, private clubs, hospitals, educational institutions, commercial showrooms, and religious sanctuaries that Kahn and his firm produced between the 1890s and his death in 1942. Such pragmatism meant that Kahn and the other members of his firm—known primarily for stripped-down concrete, steel, and glass factories—could also produce stylistically eclectic nonindustrial architecture without feeling that they had compromised their principles.15
As GM's Art and Color Section would later do, Kahn's firm transformed style into styling—a vehicle for consumer choice.16 The firm's method involved offering clients a “full line” of options akin to the stylistic variation among automobiles produced by GM's brands. The style Kahn used depended on budget and location but was determined primarily by building type. It was only with certain building types that the architects broke free from conventional ideas about stylistic appropriateness. Private buildings in the suburbs were almost always relatively faithful variations on the English country house, while small urban buildings adopted the Italian Renaissance or Greek revival styles. Larger buildings like the GMB, however, were designed with efficiency in mind and supplied with proficient but economical versions of neoclassical, neo-Gothic, or Sullivanesque organicism. In all these cases, the Kahn firm used a version of the Beaux-Arts method of design adapted for increased productivity.
The Beaux-Arts method divides design into stages that constitute what Reyner Banham called a “particulate” approach: designers begin with the selection of historical themes or motifs, use these to inform the arrangement of spaces into harmonious compositions, and proceed finally to small-scale detailing.17 The Kahn firm instead worked to accomplish all of these stages simultaneously by distributing them among specialized departments. Writing of the firm's design process, George Nelson reported that this fast-track approach allowed all aspects of a building design to be submitted for bids at the same time, enabling more accurate budgeting and streamlining the steps between design and construction.18 The Beaux-Arts method's middle stage presents the key difference. Whereas traditional Beaux-Arts designs were combinations of spaces tailored to specific purposes, the Kahn firm's approach instead involved subdividing functional spaces from within a bulk volume.19 Peter Collins compares the latter method, appropriately, to “the way an internal combustion engine is fitted into an automobile” and contends that it “favours an arbitrary external wrapping even more insistently than the techniques used by nineteenth-century Revivalists.”20 Such an approach, Collins argues, inevitably led architects into “styling.”
This is not to suggest, however, that Kahn was ignorant of architectural style's connections to what philosopher George Santayana in 1911 called “the genteel tradition.” He idolized Charles F. McKim (1847–1909) of the crucial Beaux-Arts firm McKim, Mead & White (MMW) and studied that firm's buildings closely as models for some of his early nonindustrial works.21 For Kahn, McKim was “the most important figure, undoubtedly,” and he “exerted upon the architecture of our country an influence for benefit which cannot be over-estimated.” Defending his idol against critics in 1931, Kahn stated that McKim's work “was never slavish copyism but a judicious adaptation of established forms with plenty of his own individuality incorporated”; McKim was “an artist in the finest sense of the word, one who…influenced so many to do better and finer work.”22 Kahn's opinion of McKim had likely been influenced by his friend and traveling companion Henry Bacon—once an associate with MMW—with whom Kahn spent several months in Europe studying historical buildings under a yearlong scholarship funded by the American Architect and Building News in 1891–92.23 During his travels with Bacon, Kahn developed his own catalogue of architectural references, to which he returned again and again during his subsequent career.
But the pace and scale of Kahn's practice challenged his ability to judiciously adapt established forms appropriate to each of his buildings. Instead, his firm tended to borrow design motifs from architects both historical and contemporary. In the design of the GMB, for instance, the Kahn firm's repertoire can be traced to the pages of an MMW monograph that was part of Kahn's library.24 Inspiration for the GMB's tri-arched entry portico (Figure 4) seems to have come from the Butler Art Institute in Youngstown, Ohio (1917–19).25 Kahn's designers gave this portico a stouter proportion, dressed it up with shallow reliefs, and topped it with a sculptural grouping similar to the one that caps MMW's State Savings Bank in downtown Detroit (1900). The GMB portico's stout arcade continues around the building's ground level (Figure 5) in a manner reminiscent of MMW's Gorham Company showroom in New York (1903–6). From this Stanford White design, Kahn and his associates also seem to have copied the two-story Corinthian colonnade that caps the GMB, albeit with an entablature and cornice that more closely resemble those of MMW's Manhattan Municipal Building (1908–16) (Figure 6).
This was not, however, the “slavish copyism” that Kahn himself disparaged; it was a pragmatic response to the difficulty of maintaining neoclassicism's “familiar language” when faced with new building types. Many architects and critics had likewise found that the immense scale and elongated proportions required by tall office buildings and factories were particularly difficult to reconcile with historical examples, and the result was a modest aesthetic crisis.26 This crisis strained the aesthetic agency of architects in a way best expressed by critic Montgomery Schuyler, who wrote that such buildings bear “the scars of a conflict, if not between the architect and the client, between the claims of utility and of art.”27
Nowhere is this conflict between utility and art more clearly illustrated than in tall buildings designed by MMW. These skyscrapers show the firm's reluctance to abandon Beaux-Arts methods despite proportional difficulties. The Municipal Building in New York, for example, has a tripartite composition that Leland M. Roth has recognized as a strong influence on the GMB design.28 Its lower story features a colossal colonnade with a triumphal arch at its center, opening onto a broad, shallow court framed by two wings of offices. At its top is a similar colonnade, a substantial cornice two stories in height, and a tower. These classical motifs yield a semblance of order, but the overall composition is loosened by the elongated, undecorated shaft in between. As a result, the Municipal resembles Chicago commercial-style buildings more than it resembles any previous MMW design.29 Another example, nearer to the GMB in size and form, is the Hotel Pennsylvania, built across the street from New York's Pennsylvania Station and completed in 1919 while the GMB design was under way (Figures 7 and 8).30 Designed after McKim's death, the Pennsylvania was nevertheless thought to be in keeping with his legacy.31 For this massive hotel, MMW's designers used a tripartite vertical composition similar to the Municipal Building, though with much shallower and more attenuated colonnades at top and bottom. Between these is an unarticulated redbrick shaft, split on its southward-facing side into four wings—by then a well-established strategy for providing access to daylight in hotel design. The Pennsylvania's construction budget mandated that earlier buildings’ more variegated surfaces be abandoned in favor of machine-age, proto-deco flatness. Here, utility seems to have trumped art.32
Because Kahn's business depended to a greater degree on factory and tall office commissions, one might expect that this conflict between utility and art would be even more evident in his buildings. Indeed, in his frequent remarks to Detroit's trade and arts organizations, Kahn often reflected on the difficulties presented by these building types. He summarized his attitude toward style in tall buildings in a 1927 lecture:
In the earlier treatments…architects were prone to apply forms adapted for lower structures, putting one building, as it were, upon another. This was obviously wrong. Today, the problem is handled differently, more logically. The best of the latest skyscrapers rise from the ground, from a proper base, carry up straight-forwardly (perhaps in accentuated verticality) and develop into a rational and pleasing finale. Such is architecture at its best.33
His description echoes both Louis Sullivan's call for tripartite compositions in skyscraper design and the approach taken in Eliel Saarinen's design for the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition—a design he greatly admired and imitated—but Kahn seems to have had his own firm's previous tall buildings in mind here.34 Kahn's designers were, he declared, unable to make skyscrapers conform to a Beaux-Arts order applicable only to lower-lying works.
Despite Kahn's progressive rhetoric, the work of his firm has often been likened not to Sullivanesque designs but, as Henry-Russell Hitchcock later wrote, to “finely designed and skillfully assembled machine[s].”35 Hitchcock intended this as a slight, but Kahn was proud of his firm's reputation. Elsewhere in his 1927 lecture, he stated that the value of architecture and architects “lies in proper analysis of the problem—minute care in meeting the requirements to the end that the building function properly and meet business requirements with greatest efficiency.”36 To enable this, his firm provided architectural, structural, mechanical, and electrical engineering services under one roof; aesthetic design was treated as one among many tasks that needed to be coordinated among these various departments. But the design method evident in the GMB—incorporating elements from various sources into a composed, symmetrical whole—indicates that style was not considered subordinate to function.37 Kahn viewed the “minute care” he took in meeting the requirements of his clients as compatible with his firm's Beaux-Arts approach to architectural style. What Kahn saw in MMW's work may have been a readily emulated system of design that could expedite his firm's production. To use a machine analogy, Kahn's method aimed to reduce the friction between utility and art.
This meant his approach differed in important ways from the more idealistic outlook of architects like McKim. As Richard Guy Wilson has argued, American Renaissance architects such as McKim closely allied themselves with the ideals and values of past eras and sought an intellectual—rather than merely aesthetic—understanding of architectural design informed by historical context.38 Their focus, according to Richard Longstreth, was on “aim, method, and origins, not style”; they were interested in “fostering the art of design through a scholarly knowledge of the past.”39 Kahn had a much more tenuous attachment to the “aim, method, and origins” of the historical idioms he adopted, but he was nevertheless comfortable with refashioning both stylistic motifs and compositional methods for his firm's use.40 His firm treated style as something comparable in importance to a building's structural system instead of allowing it to take priority over such practical concerns. The eclecticism of Kahn and his associates allowed them to make expeditious use of historical themes that tied decorative design directly to clients’ needs.41 Given the size of the firm's operations, this eclecticism was a pragmatic approach adopted out of necessity.
Management: Corporate Structure and Architectural Organization
Remember, General Motors is not a one man organization. We have many operations, each headed by the best man we can find for the job, and he is charged with the full responsibility for the success of his organization. We are all partners in the management of General Motors working together with executives who do not rule as much as they cooperate.—Alfred P. Sloan42
Construction of the General Motors Building required the relocation of an existing Kahn-designed building, completed only four years earlier, in 1915, for the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company. Hyatt was by 1919 a subsidiary of GM, and its former president, Alfred P. Sloan, found himself a GM vice president.43 Over several weeks in the summer of 1919, Hyatt's concrete-framed building was lifted from its foundation and rolled about 300 feet to a new location across West Milwaukee Street (Figure 9). Clerical labor taking place inside the building was deemed so essential that during the relocation process, the occupants were supplied with uninterrupted electric, gas, and telephone connections so their work could continue. As reported by the Free Press, Hyatt's “clerical force” was undisturbed, “despite the fact the building was moving down the street at a slow pace.”44 This episode illustrates the increasingly essential nature of such a “clerical force” for the success of organizations like GM. By the 1920s, white-collar workers were considered as important as their colleagues laboring on the company's assembly lines, if not more so.
Many of the era's labor reforms, however, applied only to manual laborers working for hourly pay, meaning that despite its relative comforts, white-collar work could still be far from enviable. According to a Washington Post editorial of 1920 proposing the unionization of office workers like GM's, such employees were “all too often…not heedful of the eight-hour law,” returning home with “aching brains and burning eyes from the strain of the day's labor.”45 At the time, stenographers, clerks, and salespeople numbered around ten million in the United States, and a significant percentage of them were women.46 Their work lacked “the romance which the poet throws about labor,” and they therefore received little attention, let alone what the Post's editors saw as the “coddling care” afforded to their blue-collar colleagues.47 Nevertheless, the rising importance of such corporate workers pointed to a significant cultural shift. According to historian Olivier Zunz, U.S. corporate capitalism formed both “a new work culture and an altogether new outlook on life” as the transition from a predominantly mercantile to a capitalist economy spurred changes in attitudes and mores.48 Through its search for rational systems to organize an increasingly segmented society, corporate capitalism altered not only the workdays but also the goals and ambitions of the American middle class.49
By building the GMB, General Motors signaled its participation in this cultural shift. The company sought to facilitate interdepartmental communication by consolidating its white-collar workers in a single location. If Henry Ford's Highland Park plant and its assembly line together constituted an efficient new machine for manufacturing, the GMB—along with the corporate management policies enabled by and enacted within it—was an equally efficient device for processing information.50 Both assembly line and management structure were adept at coordinating things and people toward the growth of corporate enterprise. Moreover, each seemed to spur ever-increasing rates of productivity. It was appropriate, therefore, that the GMB's architects be Albert Kahn and his firm, who were also behind the design of Highland Park and other automotive factories. As already discussed, Kahn had found success with buildings that prioritized utility over art.
The built environment's part in organizing this new culture of work was considerable. Gwendolyn Wright has highlighted the key role architecture played in management practices of the early twentieth century, noting that by “bringing order to the vast empires,” design practices made managerial power visible through “efficient spatial organization and the subordination of office workers as well as those in factories.”51 Zunz has observed that the allocation of interior space in tall office buildings had to balance efficiency with demands for prestige and public relations; his study of the Metropolitan Life building in Manhattan demonstrates that the way in which various departments were hierarchically distributed across many floors was meant to streamline the flow of paperwork.52
Such careful choreography took place within work spaces that were largely homogeneous, architecturally speaking. As Carol Willis has explained, environmental requirements for clerical operations were codified as “rules” for commercial real estate as early as the 1880s and 1890s.53 In this regard it is important that most tall office buildings were built as speculative investments; in order to protect their clients’ margins, therefore, architects had to follow established expectations in terms of daylight access, floor layout, ornamentation, and building amenities. Accordingly, Daniel Bluestone has argued, the interior design of entries, lobbies, and elevators was crucial to the appeal of tall office buildings and “compensated for the occasional austere exterior.” Echoing Kahn, Bluestone concludes that the architects of such buildings used “judgment about where [ornament] would prove effective.”54
Both Zunz and Willis have critiqued the simplistic explanation of skyscrapers as pure corporate symbols, and both authors have similarly emphasized the office rental market's regulation of building designs. Yet the GMB's peculiar form is only partly explained by the real estate rules these authors discuss, because GM expected to occupy the entire building eventually. The GMB was therefore intended more as an embodiment of one company than were many other large-scale buildings of its time. When the building was completed, GM already occupied most of the ground level and all of floors 8 through 15. Renters occupied only floors 2 through 7.
Daylighting did, however, have an important influence on the design: the size of the GMB's courts meant that offices on the building's four southward-facing blocks had greater access to light and more isolation from adjacent offices than did the offices in earlier courtyard buildings. At 52 feet wide, the upper floors corresponded to commonsense daylighting standards. Displacing structural columns from the center of the eight blocks permitted small 15-by-20-foot office units along double-loaded corridors.55 The building's indented plan meant that every office had ample light (Figures 10 and 11).56 What distinguished it from earlier U- and H-shaped office towers was the spacing of its blocks to allow greater light access. Earlier buildings included only very slender light courts, but the GMB's courts were nearly double the width of its office blocks. This allowed a relatively equal light access that aligned with the shallow hierarchy developing at GM. The growing ranks of middle management necessitated a much larger number of offices that could accommodate these workers’ needs for moderate privacy and adequate daylight.
While at least half the GMB was broken up into small office units for renters and lower-level workers, the area allotted to GM's executive functions adopted a variety of other layouts. Photographs documenting these spaces show boardrooms, lounges, clerical pools, and a top-floor cafeteria overlooking the city (Figures 12–16).57 The interior designs and furniture in these spaces betray their occupants’ places in the company's management hierarchy. Work space was distributed to permit managerial supervision over pools of workers at the heart of each north–south block while affording privacy to sensitive administrative functions between the blocks and at each of their ends. A revealing aspect of the design is that it allowed for as many as two hundred corner offices, affording prestige to a large number of administrators and managers. If, as historian of science Stuart Leslie has argued, corporate headquarters can “bring the organization, and the organizational chart, to life, both symbolically and pragmatically,” then the GMB and the corporation that occupied it had an analogous relationship not lost on executives: the building revealed their management style through its plan type and interior arrangement.58 With its eight blocks and six courtyards, the GMB presents a literal formal analogue to a corporate structure with multiple divisions and several levels of hierarchy.
The company's history reveals that this analogy was far from accidental. Incorporated in 1908, GM began as a holding company that acquired controlling stock in publicly traded auto companies. In fits and starts, its founder, William C. “Billy” Durant, collected an impressive number of manufacturers (referred to as “divisions” after their acquisition) during the corporation's first decade, even unsuccessfully attempting to purchase Ford Motor Company in 1913. As chief executive, Durant permitted GM's divisions to operate nearly independently. This meant that their operations lacked coordination, and at times they even competed with one another. According to business historian Alfred D. Chandler, Durant's authority was stretched to a breaking point because of his company's lack of a clear hierarchy, meaning that as GM grew through acquisition, ever more executives were reporting directly to Durant for decisions from the mundane to the momentous. Over time, Chandler argues, GM's bigness became increasingly difficult for Durant and his team to manage without greater coordination.59 In what amounted to a moment of crisis for Durant, an influx of capital from the Du Pont Corporation just after World War I yielded a massive expansion in GM's production capacity; this forced Durant to consent to reorganization at the same time more experienced executives were being brought into the GM fold. These included Pierre S. du Pont, who would eventually succeed Durant as GM's chief executive, and John J. Raskob, du Pont's protégé from his time as head of the family business.60
One of the fruits of this expansion was the GMB. Du Pont and Raskob were both strong advocates for its construction. Tasked with chairing GM's new finance committee beginning in 1918, Raskob found that his enthusiasm for the GMB led him into conflict with Durant, who saw real estate as an unnecessary and doomed investment for GM.61 Despite Durant's reservations, Raskob moved the project forward by incorporating the General Motors Building Corporation to mortgage and manage the GMB. Although it was a subsidiary of GM, this new corporation would have isolated the parent company from financial liability if the building project had failed.62
A third new GM executive was Alfred P. Sloan, who came to have a formative influence on the corporate structure. During the summer and fall of 1919—his first year as a GM vice president, and while the steel frame for the GMB was rising—Sloan prepared a thorough “Organization Study,” outlining a plan for restructuring and coordination. This study, which proposed the formalization of the relationship between GM and its semiautonomous divisions and the establishment of a “line of authority” through the executive hierarchy, was based on two essential principles: first, that the chief executive of each division must maintain full responsibility and control over his or her division; and second, that certain functions must be centralized in order for top executives to maintain “development and proper control.”63 The success of Sloan's proposal depended on each division's maintaining its semiautonomy; this would both encourage competitive innovation and prevent lagging divisions from getting by on the success of others. One of the key changes Sloan proposed was that only a small number of division executives would report directly to the corporation's president, a major change from Durant's structure. Overall, this kind of reorganization meant “decentralized control as to operation and administration with centralized control as to determining and adopting policies to govern the operation and administration.”64
Seen in a different light, when Sloan's changes went into effect, GM's top executives and their administrative staffs concerned themselves only with company-wide policies and finances. They had no reason to see or hear of the actual manufacturing that the divisions undertook—there was a distinct separation of manufacturing from administration, blue-collar workers from white-collar workers. Du Pont summarized this state of affairs by stating that “the primary object of the corporation” would thereafter be to make money, not cars.65
Sloan officially submitted his “Organization Study” to the GM Executive Committee in December 1919, as the final rivets were being struck to complete the GMB's steel structure. Sloan's restructured corporation and the GMB's architecture are similar on an organizational level. Among the documents Sloan prepared for his study was a rudimentary organizational chart showing proper lines of authority between executives, committees, and manufacturing divisions. The chart depicts the near autonomy of each division, along with the isolation of executives from the everyday practice of manufacturing. Illustrated in this way, the hierarchy, from chief executive to low-level manager, bears a resemblance to the GMB's multiwinged plan (Figure 17).66 Moreover, this moment of corporate coordination is analogous to the design process followed by Kahn's employees for the GMB, which likewise required the establishment of a coordinated hierarchy—or, in architectural terms, a composition—among several semiautonomous parts.
Unlike Durant—who was known for regular visits to GM's plants and for testing the company's products personally—Sloan put forward a corporate structure in which executives depended exclusively on information passed to them by their subordinates. Likewise, the GMB's clerical and managerial workers—many of whom were previously based in office suites at their divisions’ plants—had almost no reason to visit GM's manufacturing facilities. Sloan's remarks in a later GM promotional film show that the company recognized this limitation: “In this widespread organization…it is difficult to visualize the activities of other members or branches of the family. Even when we are close together in terms of distance, we are unfortunately limited to a very narrow horizon of observation.”67 This was how Sloan wanted things. Drawing GM's divisions together through a clear executive hierarchy, he not only distanced and isolated the blue-collar workers from what Siegfried Kracauer called the “salaried masses” but also narrowed executives’ own “horizons of observation” in ways that limited their ability to empathize with the corporation's lesser employees.
This shift had important implications for GM's labor relations. Because of the design and layout of buildings like the GMB, white-collar workers were isolated in ways not possible for those working side by side on an assembly line. Moving up the ranks from a tightly supervised clerical pool to a private office and perhaps one of the GMB's coveted corner units, GM's managers became ever more distinct from their colleagues and subordinates. The company's partitioning of employees by class was emphasized not only through the layout of buildings but also through the use—and eventual disuse—of architectural ornament on the building types they occupied. By the time the GMB was completed, all nonessential decoration had in fact already been eliminated from Kahn's industrial building designs.
While the physical separation of administration from operation was already well established at numerous manufacturing companies before Sloan's intervention, GM's broad geographical spread and the diversity of its operations made the rupture more complete. Du Pont, Raskob, and Sloan, for example, all chose to keep their primary offices at the company's small financial branch in New York rather than at the GMB. Yet a photo of Sloan taken in his New York office, presumably sometime during the 1920s, shows an illustration of the GMB on the wall behind him, suggesting that the building was an important symbol, even at a distance of several hundred miles (Figure 18). Sloan's aloof and dour expression in this portrait communicates the seriousness with which he treated his work and distinguishes him from temperamental entrepreneurs such as Billy Durant and Henry Ford.68
The GMB's symbolic importance was cemented in a 1923 advertising campaign that introduced the company as a “famous family” whose Detroit home represented the permanence, strength, and resources of its 66,000 stockholders, 100,000 employees, and 12,500 dealers. As Roland Marchand has observed, the ads aimed to assuage fears about the intimidating size of General Motors through a “feeling of friendliness.”69 Executives hoped that comparing GM to a family and the GMB to a large house would make the company recognizable as “more than the sum of its parts.”70 This image was reinforced by the formal analogy between headquarters building and organizational chart.
Earlier companies had built large office buildings to separate executives from production work and the laborers who conducted it, but none had imagined that the stakes were so high in doing so. Sloan believed that his interventions saved GM from collapse at the hands of Durant, enabling it to rise to a position of dominance in the automotive industry. The GMB therefore helped to bring about the culminating step in the separation of white- and blue-collar workers in the U.S. automotive industry.71 Under Sloan's supervision, GM differentiated itself from its competitors through its superior management structure, symbolized by the GMB. In contrast to earlier manufacturers who pushed workers to the background by placing their companies’ products front and center, GM's divisional structure meant that automobiles manufactured under its aegis were associated not with the parent company but rather with its car brands. To avoid putting one division's products above those of another, GM cultivated a corporate image behind its white-collar employees and the GMB.72 Accordingly, GM's executives imagined their company as a geographically distributed bureaucracy with its heart in their new Beaux-Arts monument in the “actual center” of Detroit.
Decentralization: Urban Development and Architectural Form
The principles of organization…for the modern General Motors [tend] toward a happy medium in industrial organization between the extremes of pure centralization and pure decentralization.—Alfred P. Sloan73
Although the exploits of GM's early executives in the fields of management and finance are the subjects of volumes of scholarship, the urbanist principles these men espoused have been little studied. Readings of GM's impact on urban development have been limited to a focus on the corporation's mythic advocacy for improved automotive infrastructure at the expense of public transportation.74 But the stage was set for these actions by GM's decentralization of its home city through the placement of its headquarters. The impact of GM's efforts was felt not only in Detroit but also in other major U.S. cities. The GMB was only the first of two major development gambits by du Pont and Raskob, and GM's decentralized model of production meant that the corporation's parts suppliers and assembly plants were strategically spread across the country. The GMB's direct descendants include the Empire State Building—du Pont and Raskob's second development of this type—similar in that it was built at a distance from any rental demand commensurate to its size, though dissimilar in that it was never intended to be anchored, let alone owned, by a single major tenant.75
Popular narratives of skyscraper history have it that construction booms in New York and Chicago followed rising demand for rentable floor space, with architectural design subsidiary to real estate calculations.76 By this logic, skyscrapers were a natural expression of upward market pressure, their size determined by rental demand, engineering formulas, and, later, zoning envelopes to maximize profit. In the early twentieth century, commentators similarly saw natural corporate growth as following a “vertical” pattern in which a company grew as its products were produced with increasing efficiency and delivered to growing numbers of customers. Unnatural corporate growth, on the other hand, happened “horizontally,” through mergers and acquisitions.77 The GMB's bigness is in these terms doubly unnatural: the kind of real estate pressures that had “naturally” given rise to skyscrapers in more congested urban areas had little influence on its size, and the company that occupied it had grown “horizontally,” largely through acquisitions.
This unnatural skyscraper was a speculative project on the fringes of a boomtown, occupied not only by GM employees but also by renters culled from elsewhere in Detroit's office rental market. Despite GM's rapid growth, its main competitor, Ford—led by exactly the kind of dictatorial entrepreneur Sloan abhorred—controlled more than 40 percent of the automobile market between 1913 and 1926. GM's massive headquarters was therefore a speculative wager on the future growth of the corporation and the city of Detroit. Choosing a site away from the city's central business district, General Motors hoped to catalyze a new commuter-driven sector. Instead of further stretching the city on an east–west axis along the Detroit River, GM's executives wanted to bring about a new city form whose center was located to accommodate automotive travel while de-emphasizing circumstances like river or railroad access.78 Aiming to decentralize the city's infrastructure and rationalize its form, they were driven not only by a search for order and efficiency but also by the desire to spur construction of a new road network appropriate to the city's increasing automobilization and catering to white-collar commuters. This strategy distinguished GM's planners from Progressive Era urbanists: instead of pursuing a more humane, well-ordered urban environment through a carefully arranged hierarchy of civic functions and infrastructures, the GMB introduced a jarring change in the form of the city and forced Detroit to be redesigned to better accommodate cars.79 As landscape historian Louise Mozingo has put it, “Decentralization was a logical, and self-serving, end to GM's long-standing promotion of the automobile.”80
GM's idea of decentralization was not only geographical but also social, active not only in Detroit but everywhere the company built plants. Instead of concentrating production in one location as Ford had with its River Rouge Complex (which could put incredible pressure on cities’ social services and housing markets), GM preferred to spread its influence over many states and municipalities. The corporation's leaders hoped that decentralizing production facilities would reduce the price burden on employees who needed to rent or buy homes close to their workplaces and alleviate some of the challenges that were thought to arise with excessive population density.81 But their intentions were hardly pure altruism. As historian Thomas Sugrue has written, such locational decisions were “the result of corporate policies to minimize union strength, to avoid taxes, and to exploit new markets.”82 Decentralization also allowed the corporation to experiment with factory design on modestly priced land outside metropolitan centers.83
As a result of GM's decentralization policy, by 1920 Detroit could no longer be called the center of the company's manufacturing operations, although it did remain the administrative hub. Following World War I, the corporation had increased production capacity through the construction of new plants, grown its product line through the acquisition of even more manufacturers, and opened new markets through export. By 1922, GM had built plants across the United States and was in the process of expanding its production abroad.84 Despite the company's geographical spread, Detroit remained the undeniable center of the automobile industry, and GM needed a presence there. Gone were the days, however, when one need only stake out a spot at the bar of the Hotel Pontchartrain to keep track of competitors and suppliers.85
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Detroit grew not only in population and industrial capacity but also geographically. The city tripled in size between 1900 and 1920, to nearly 80 square miles, while adding close to a million inhabitants.86 Drawn by employment opportunities in the automotive industry, new arrivals found an urban environment increasingly divided by class and race. In contrast to the late nineteenth century, when ethnic enclaves tended to bring residents of different classes together, the massive increases in Detroit's wealth and social inequality during these later decades became visible in the city's development patterns. As industrialists and professionals moved into palatial mansions in idyllic pockets, vast areas of the city came to be dominated by ethnically diverse yet racially homogeneous white neighborhoods of small single-family workers’ houses. The city's black population—only 4.1 percent in 1920, but increasing substantially as the Great Migration gained steam—was largely confined to a racially segregated but economically diverse enclave in the Lower East Side called Paradise Valley.87 Because these class- and race-driven development patterns continued beyond Detroit's edges, it was difficult to see where the sprawling city's neighborhoods ended and its suburbs began.88
Meanwhile, the number of cars in Detroit soared, and commuting times—particularly along the primary north–south artery, Woodward Avenue—became so intolerable that by 1920 a network of limited-access highways was proposed to alleviate congestion.89 Sloan reported that the GMB's northern location would save employees an hour's commute each day, while sparing the final two miles of Woodward further congestion.90 This suggests that Sloan expected many of the GMB's users would commute by car—a cohort that the company could only have hoped would increase. With regard to congestion, siting the GMB along Grand Boulevard was a savvy decision. The street had been completed in 1913 but was laid out well before the automobile had become the dominant mode of transportation. Intended to give the city a broad, green belt line for leisurely strolls and carriage rides, it was designed to be much wider than other Detroit streets. Ironically, this made it more easily adaptable than other streets to space- and speed-intensive automobile traffic.91
At the time of the GMB's construction, the district now known as New Center had a conflicted identity. The area south of Michigan Central's rail lines (less than half a mile away) had been an industrial center for decades, but stretched along Grand Boulevard itself was an upper-middle-class enclave largely populated by white-collar workers with jobs downtown.92 Residents of the area would later include a significant percentage of those who worked at the GMB. Many among this group chose to reside in apartment buildings rather than single-family houses. Apartment living was considered a luxury in Detroit at the time, as urban homeownership was concentrated in the lower and upper classes, while “middle-class, native white Americans” often chose flats.93 Detroit architects, including Kahn, played an important role in making apartment living attractive to Detroit's middle class. By 1919, Kahn's firm had many years of experience designing these buildings, and in fact, the GMB's generous block spacing and broad courtyards resemble the plans of the firm's contemporaneous apartment designs, particularly the Garden Court Apartments (1915) on East Jefferson Street in Detroit.94 The architects may have felt that apartment-like courtyards would lend prestige to the GMB.95
Despite this nod to apartment planning, the GMB design paid little respect to its low-lying residential context. The building's size communicated the increasing power of corporate capitalism and its centrality in the city's fortunes. Vested downtown interests effectively condoned this scalar juxtaposition; local elites were opposed to the regulation of building heights and delayed the passage of comprehensive zoning until the 1930s. Ironically, the GMB capitalized on Detroit's antiregulatory climate to deflate the very downtown land values the city's elites hoped that climate would reinforce.96 The GMB's siting may well have been an attempt to spare the city further traffic, as Sloan and others suggested, but at the same time it leeched property value and renters from downtown and enabled the upper- and middle-class Detroiters employed at New Center to relocate further up the city's radial avenues, away from the historic center.
It may be that the building's plan was driven more by the size of its rectangular site than by real estate rules or rental demand (see Figure 11). Such sites were rare in Detroit's radially planned central business district. The site's dimensions, 500 by 325 feet, made the application of daylighting standards awkward. Its width meant that only a design with eight 52-foot-wide daylit blocks allowed the architects to maintain both a symmetrical form and a generous court size. Adding two more blocks, for instance, would have left the building's courtyards only 30 feet wide—far too slender for appropriate privacy or a civic bearing.97
For Sloan, the site's dimensions (though not its location) were a result of Durant's irrational decision making. In his first autobiography, he recounts a visit to the proposed site with his then boss:
We walked along the boulevard, and finally he indicated a place and said, “Buy up to there.” How he picked “there” I'll never know; and before I had the purchases completed, I was instructed to buy the entire block. It was to become a $20,000,000 building enterprise, but that was Mr. Durant's way of operating; right out of his head.98
Sloan contends that if GM had employed a real estate expert—“a carefully chosen part of the corporation's manifold intellect, some specialist giving all his thinking to problems in that category”—the relation between the building's form and its site may have been more rational. But because a rational expert may have decided on a less symbolic site for purely economic reasons, he gladly took credit for the building's location near the intersection of Grand Boulevard and Woodward Avenue while blaming Durant for its unwieldy size.99
The decision to locate at the intersection of Woodward and Grand was not quite as decentralizing as it seems. GM's goal was not a wholesale relocation of corporate employees from Detroit's city center but instead from offices distributed piecemeal among manufacturing and research facilities across the region.100 In the new headquarters, GM brought together a collective of white-collar workers who had once operated largely independently. Like Sloan's multidivisional structure, therefore, the GMB enabled the corporation to centralize its administration while continuing to decentralize its operations and manufacturing divisions. The Kahn firm's architecture was an important agent in both manifesting and representing Sloan's “happy medium.”
Dwarfing the city's institutional and municipal buildings, and located some distance from competing skyscrapers in the central business district, the GMB asserted the company's mastery over the urban landscape. Its size was only in part a reflection of the size of GM's corporate bureaucracy and its outsize image; it also grew from necessity. In order to transform the geography and real estate market of Detroit—to be, in other words, an instrument and not simply an expression of corporate policy—it had to be big.101 With this massive new headquarters, GM staked out the “actual center” of Detroit's domain and thereby its own position as one of the most powerful organizations in the city (Figure 19). Declaring the GMB's site to be the city's actual center symbolized the power wielded by GM's executives. While the city's downtown interests contested redevelopment, zoning, and racial integration, GM went about setting the agenda for the next half century of urban development at New Center.
Although Kahn may have given GM's headquarters a friendly and familiar civic bearing, its siting suggested the company's desire to supersede (or at least bypass) the control exerted by vested local interests over the built environment. When its steel skeleton topped out at fifteen stories in 1919, most of its neighbors were two-story single-family houses. Its literal overshadowing of adjacent residential buildings materialized and reified an unseemly power relation between big business and civil society. The GMB's location let those in the top-floor dining rooms survey a territory that over the course of the twentieth century would be completely transformed by their industry's products (Figure 20). Kahn's broad courtyards afforded an expansive urban panorama from nearly every corner of the building, quite unlike the “narrow horizon” through which GM's employees understood their company. Yet the building's appearance for Detroiters outside was equally important. Because of its location, the GMB was an autonomous and dominant landmark in a way that closely packed downtown towers could never be. It gave the territory a center by conspicuously marking it, consolidating the corporation's image behind its white-collar workers and making their work conspicuous.
In the words of Cass Gilbert, the tall office building is a “machine that makes the land pay,” a way to make well-located urban property more profitable.102 GM's leaders realized early on that automobiles would unmake this urban hierarchy, reducing the need for dense business districts. This realization encouraged them to recenter their home city. Simultaneously, they put forward a new ideal for Detroiters, envisioning them distributed across a sprawling urban landscape, shackled to the automotive industry for their livelihood and to its products for their mobility.103 Detroit was the Motor City not solely because automakers were headquartered there but also because it served as a test site for the kind of urbanism these automakers envisioned and promoted. By striking a balance between urban centralization and suburban decentralization in the construction of its headquarters, GM offered its vision for a transformed urban environment modeled on its corporate structure. If in the 1920s Detroit was a “total industrial landscape” organized around manufacturing, within fifty years it had become a total automotive landscape, restructured with individual mobility in mind.104
From their inception, tall office buildings have been thought to embody the bustle of urban life within their walls while expressing the power and prestige of their owners through their height and exterior design. Such buildings have done both of these things almost automatically because of their size. But these are far from the only effects they have had. In special cases, such as the GMB, they have also embodied and expressed nascent ideas about form—architectural, managerial, and urban. Speculative developments like the GMB have often failed because cities like Detroit could not sustain the level of explosive growth they experienced early in the twentieth century.105 The GMB has, however, remained continuously occupied since its completion, despite the fact that its namesake corporation vacated the building in 2001.106 Like its home city, GM had by then survived several cycles of boom and bust; as a result, neither the city nor the corporation bore much resemblance to its 1920 self. Detroit had continued to expand geographically at the expense of its inner-ring neighborhoods, while GM grew its business through its “full line” marketing strategy and through global expansion. Nevertheless, the building remains a potent image of the automotive enterprise that built it.
For Rem Koolhaas, big buildings like the GMB embody not only the complexity involved in making architecture but also the “thoughtless energy” of capitalism. He has argued that big buildings carry an incredible power despite architects’ seeming inability to recognize or channel it, asserting that “Bigness has been, for nearly a century, a condition almost without thinkers, a revolution without program.”107 This is, in effect, an erasure of architects like Albert Kahn from the history and theory of architecture. Kahn and his firm were adept at thinking through and managing the complexities of big buildings, while leaving their “program” to clients. The professional and managerial techniques deployed by architects at Albert Kahn Associates and by executives at General Motors constituted an ad hoc, working “theory” of bigness. This theory—that one could manage bigness only by reducing the friction between utility and art, and by finding a balance between centralization and decentralization—was materialized in the Kahn firm's architecture and in the autobiographies of Alfred P. Sloan. The “program” of this big building mirrored the goals of the big business that occupied it: through its size and location, it hastened an automobile-focused reconfiguration of the urban landscape that ultimately undermined its centrality. The GMB may for a time have been Detroit's actual center, but this status was short-lived, overcome by the very same forces the building materialized.
In many ways, the GMB prefigures Koolhaas's theorization of bigness—from his itemization of its breaks with architectural composition, authorship, and context to his proposal that through bigness architecture can “regain its instrumentality as a vehicle of modernization.”108 The story of the GMB illustrates that big buildings have long had precisely the kind of power Koolhaas ascribes to them—the potential to remake design practice, corporate management, and the urban landscape. It is perhaps only by studying big buildings that historians can map the connections among these seemingly unrelated objects of study.