A New Urbanist Developer Gives Saarinen a Reboot
This story originally appeared in CityLab. Find the original here.
In 2007, the future looked bleak for Eero Saarinen’s Bell Labs building in Holmdel, New Jersey. Once a factory of innovation, the Bell System monopoly that sustained it had dissolved—the remnants of a mighty 6,000-person workforce gone with no replacement tenant in sight. Now, all has been saved with the building reborn as Bell Works.
Developer Ralph Zucker, President of Somerset Development, was intrigued by the building. In spite of hesitant brokerage houses and potential tenants, as well as the site’s restrictive zoning, he finally bought the building in 2013. “People said it was obsolete,” Zucker commented during a recent tour of the structure. “The building is amazing, an ahead-of-its-time, Midcentury Modern marvel. [But] the building had been zoned into obsolescence.”
Holmdel, a suburban community of 16,600, had been substantially reliant on Bell Labs for tax revenue. The company’s 2 million-square-foot complex was zoned for office use by a single tenant. Coming to terms with the impossibility of finding a single tenant for the building, the town’s zoning committee consented to alter the site’s zoning to accommodate multiple uses. Zucker’s plan included office space, retail, a hotel, and a variety of other uses—a dramatic shift from how so many of the remarkably designed but environmentally wasteful suburban corporate campuses were originally designed to be used.
The spirit of the building and the era, described in Caroline Mozingo’s Pastoral Capitalism, was initially launched by an effort to bedeck corporate research with collegiate trappings. It provided facilities for work amidst sylvan settings suitably distant from urban chaos, initiating “the shift of white-collar work into pastoral suburban settings.” Large companies, she explains, “built corporate campuses to move their research divisions out of industrial surroundings that no longer befit scientists’ corporate station, valorize the industrial scientist, and validate the use of science for profit.”
Bell was a pioneer in this development. After first setting up in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District—not far from where today’s innovation giant, Google, now sits—it relocated to Summit, New Jersey, in the 1930s only to move to an even more suburban location in Holmdel in 1962.
Few architects were as fit for the Holmdel commission as Saarinen. Before Bell Labs, the Finnish-born Modern architect had designed the General Motors Technical Center outside of Warren, Michigan; the John Deere headquarters in Moline, Illinois; and the IBM Building in Rochester, Minnesota, to great praise. While the Deere Building emphasized its structural steel, the others were successive explorations of glass curtain walls, culminating in a radically reflective surface at Bell Labs. There, according to Jayne Merkel’s monograph on Saarinen, it was laminated, “with a thin film of aluminum bonded between the panes to protect the metal from the weather,” while deflecting 70 percent of the sun’s heat. As the sites became more gargantuan—from 320 acres at GM to 397 acres at Rochester and 460 acres in Holmdel—Saarinen’s modules became smaller, with a 5-foot module at the GM building, 4-foot at IBM, and 3-foot in Holmdel. These were increasingly precise solutions crafted for corporate giants who typically preferred mass standardization. As Bell Labs grew in Holmdel, Saarinen’s structure eventually expanded from 715,000 to 2 million square feet.
“[Saarinen] created these quarter-of-a-mile city blocks and that has allowed us to retrofit it almost as if it was designed that way on purpose.”Ralph Zucker
Bell Works’ exterior provides few hints as to what goes on inside it. It’s a mammoth of a Cold War cube set at the end of a ceremonial approach and surrounded by two decorative lakes. Alexander Gorlin, Master Architect for the Bell Works renovation, said that the entrance reminds him of a view of Versailles. But in this case, the Hall of Mirrors is on the outside. Gorlin also compared it to Alice’s Looking Glass, with the visitor to Bell Works encountering a surprising and easily understandable sight once through its surface—a modern-yet-familiar city block with the simulacra of four buildings on each corner.
Zucker’s work frequently involves efforts to insert density in suburban locations in New Jersey, including Wesmont Station, a former aircraft engine plant now turned into an apartment complex linked to commuter rail, and The Glassworks, a mixed-used development on the site of an abandoned glass factory. His preferred term for these efforts is “the metroburb,” which he defines as a “metropolis in suburbia.”
“Life isn’t just in the cities, people actually live in the suburbs and some cool people live in the suburbs,” he says. “When we walked [into Bell Labs], because of my New Urbanist tendencies, I saw a pedestrian street. I thought this could be amazing. [Saarinen] created these quarter-of-a-mile city blocks and that has allowed us to retrofit it almost as if it was designed that way on purpose.”
Redeveloping Bell Labs has vindicated the restoration architect Gorlin’s belief that a building’s circulation defines it. He notes that the central atrium features the same dimensions as “St. Peter’s Basilica, the Crystal Palace, Louis Kahn’s atrium space in the Salk Institute, the Piazza Navona, and the Baths of Caracalla.” He cited Saarinen’s proportions as part of a Modernist tendency of “looking to history for justification but never revealing your sources.” Its capacious atria are its most photographed feature and are unusual in their generous proportions.
But more unconventional are the perimeter corridors ringing level between the building’s office blocks and its exterior wall, a democratic chemin de ronde—not for sighting foes but simply for admiring the landscaping. Another virtue of Saarinen’s arrangement was avoiding a familiar bete noire of modern architects—window shades spoiling a pristine facade.
Bell Labs had also filled atrium space that was originally open with offices, turning a space for escape into a bird’s eye view of yet more work. Zucker said, “Wherever they could squeeze in cubicles, [they did]. We knocked that all out and brought it back to the original vision.”
Cubicles have been replaced with multi-use spaces for socializing and dining and a planting area. A classic Saarinen conversation pit sits directly in front of the building’s entrance. Zucker commented, “One of the things that Saarinen did well is he was able to create the feeling of [there being] rooms within rooms without walls.” A challenge was to devise similar “rooms within rooms” in the remainder of the atrium space without compromising or obstructing its scale. The designers replicated the feat in different ways. One large seating area features a rug modeled on Josef Albers’ “Study for Homage to the Square: Departing in Yellow,” with the impasto intervention of cylindrical seating tubes atop designed by Ron Arad. Given Saarinen’s specific designs for the building, Paola Zamudio, designer for the complex, noted the inadequacy of rote solutions. “There has to be a lot of thought when we do anything there,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t just go out and shop.” A dining area of Zamudio’s design sits at the back of the structure in the rear of its cruciform structure. Plants and a grass area stand at one end of the building. These areas feel different if accessible, like a square or a sidewalk cafe.
Had people anticipated its popularity, Zucker thinks, the community would have embraced his housing plan.
One odd feature of the original building was its solid internal walls inside the structure, cloisters inside a glass box. The renovation replaces these former barriers with glass, while ensuring that the external four feet of each of these otherwise different spaces maintains an appearance that doesn’t clash with public areas. Design touches in the common areas, from the distinctive (eggcrate lighting features) to the actively defunct (ashtrays) remain.
The building’s services were comprehensively remodeled, and considerable amounts of utility space were cleared out and put to other use thanks to technical advances of the last 50 years, including a variable refrigerant system. Photovoltaic panels were installed in the building’s skylights, which now produce about 15 percent of electricity for common areas.
The building’s cafeteria, sited in characteristic Saarinen corporate fashion on the building’s lower level overlooking a pond, is being renovated into an event space. Gorlin noted that it’s the size of the Waldorf Astoria ballroom. An auditorium has also been renovated and a conference space is being created.
The quality of the building’s restoration has earned itself a Docomomo Commercial Design Award for Excellence in 2017 and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. One item that seems an active improvement on Saarinen’s scheme is the conversion of an unused space topping the former cafeteria into a rooftop garden. Gorlin mused on this unused opportunity: “This was a [Miesian] idea of framing the view when in fact it is not easily accessed. I’ve made it accessible.” Sasaki, Walker, and Associates’ original landscaping remains alluring. So does a sculptural water tower along the building’s main drive designed to imitate the form of an early transistor, and a sculpture resembling an early radio telescope honoring astronomer Karl Jansky.
The office floors are now 70 to 80 percent leased by a variety of tenants—mostly tech and coworking companies—and one is headed by a former Bell Labs employee. A number of pre-built office spaces were designed by Zamudio, reflecting themes from the Bauhaus to a cheeky “Eero’s Dream.”
The ground floor retail components of the complex are filling out, with a coffee shop and a pop-up restaurant open now, along with a hair salon. A gym, pharmacy, daycare, florist, and other retail is on the way. The town’s library relocated to the main corridor. Zucker noted that they’re “working on some entertainment venues” and “would love to have bowling.” A hotel is also being inserted on the perimeter of the building’s roof. Gorlin noted that it’s “really not visible as you approach the building, but where it is most visible it recreates the visual rhythm of the existing facade.”
One misfortune of the development plans is that Zucker’s proposal to build pedestrian-friendly townhouse units around the building was rejected in early stages of the development. Instead, 225 standalone suburban homes have been built in typical suburban arrangement. Zucker says the success of the project has been seen locally as a surprise. Had people anticipated its popularity, he thinks, the community would have embraced his housing plan. A need for more compact housing “on the right scale” remains part of their vision.
This marvelous behemoth was left for dead a decade ago, merely breathing new life into it is enough of an accomplishment for now.