January 30, 2014

A New Experiment for the Eero Saarinen-Designed Bell Labs Building

  • By: David Weible
The massive atrium of the Bell Labs building. Credit: s o d a p o p, Flickr
The massive atrium of the Bell Labs building

The Bell Labs building has been the site of countless advances in science and technology since its completion in 1961. In its time, it’s hosted the work of multiple Nobel Prize winners, including that of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who in 1964 discovered the universal background radiation that helped prove that our universe is expanding, and led to the general acceptance of the Big Bang Theory.

Needless to say, a building with that much cultural heritage is practically priceless to preservationists, but the fact that it was designed by Eero Saarinen makes it that much sweeter. Now, the building that almost went the way of the Dodo will play host to a whole new experiment.

Located in otherwise unassuming Holmdel, New Jersey, the five-story, 2 million-square-foot glass-encased structure is actually four buildings in one, connected by perimeter walkways and centered around a massive, 100,000-square-foot atrium. In all, the site covers 471 acres, though the building and its parking lot cover only about 100.

“It has a very elegant simplicity to it,” says Ralph Zucker, President of Somerset Development, which is leading the project to reuse of the site. “Eero Saarinen designed a building that is functional [and] collaborative. The space lends itself to connectivity. Everything connects and flows from one thing to the other.”

The remains of the radio antenna that helped Penzias and Wilson inadvertently discover the universe’s background radiation. Credit: recluse26, Flickr
The remains of the radio antenna that helped Penzias and Wilson inadvertently discover the universe’s background radiation

In more recent years, the building was at the center of digital communication technology development, and scientists within its walls made major advances in cell phone technology and the creation of various computer languages. But by the mid 2000s, the lab’s transition to more digital technology drastically reduced its need for such massive amounts of work space. By 2007, the building had been bought by the Preferred Development group who planned on demolishing part of at least two of the site’s four buildings.

Thankfully, Preferred Development never got approval for their plans and by mid-2007 Zucker’s firm began brainstorming their own ways to redevelop the site. The group closed on the property in August of last year, and their vision has made a pretty big bang itself.

Though suburban New Jersey has no shortage of office space, Zucker’s firm plans to take the 1.6 million-square feet of usable space in Bell Labs and create a whole host of amenities that will change the way people go to work.

On top of roughly 400,000 square feet of medical offices and 100,000 square feet of basic office space, the group also plans a host of restaurants, shops, and cafes lining the site’s 100 by 1,000-foot atrium, creating a sort of traditional main street aesthetic. There will also be a 50,000-square-foot health and fitness center, a 20,000-square-foot public library, and a hotel inside the structure. Outside, they plan recreation areas that include walking and biking paths, along with other features like soccer and football fields.

Bell Labs interior atrium and glass exterior. Credit: Michael Moran
Bell Labs’ five-story mirrored facade will be preserved as part of the reuse project.

“The idea here is to create a living environment, a place where you can have a much better place to work,” says Zucker. “[These are] things you take for granted if you work in the city, but things you don’t typically have if you work in suburbia.”

In terms of preservation, the plan is to retain the integrity of the building’s design, including the look and feel of the finishes of its floors and its reflective facade. The building’s conversation pit, a concept popularized in many of Saarinen’s other works, will also be restored.

Zucker says he expects the site’s first new tenants to move in in about six months, while the more than $100 million project will take about seven years to fully complete.

“If you think about it, our work lives and our [personal] lives have become very much more intertwined because of the gadgets that were invented in the Bell Labs building,” Zucker says. “So your work day and your [personal] day are very much intertwined as it is, and this project allows us to blend those together much more seamlessly.”

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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