Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Bell Labs Lives Again

http://www.citylab.com: April 17, 2018


Hello Everyone:

It is a lovely Tuesday afternoon.  News of the day: Today is the 103rd memorial of the Armenian Genocide.  In cities across the United States and the world, Armenian communities are commemorating this black day in history with rallies.  Blogger is saddened to hear that President George H.W. Bush has been hospitalized with an infection, day after the funeral of his beloved wife Barbara Bush.  Poor heart broken man.  Meanwhile, the White House said bienvenue to French President and First Lady Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron.  Blogger spent a few minutes this morning perusing the California primary guide.  It was interesting to read the governor and senator candidate statements.  One thing was abundantly clear, just because you are constitutionally qualified, filed the appropriate paperwork, and paid your fee, does not mean you should run for office.  Seriously.  Alright, on to something more pleasant.

The Bell Laboratories campus in Holmdel, New Jersey is getting a second life and Yours Truly could not be happier.  In 2007, the Eero Saarinen designed building appeared doomed.  Once upon a time, Bell Labs was an incubator of innovation, however, the Bell System monopoly that fed the incubator, was dissolved--the last of the once 6,000 person strong workforce was gone with no replacement tenants to be found.  Now, the campus has been saved with the building re-christened Bell Works.

Anthony Palletta reports in his CityLab article, "A New Urbanist Developer Gives Saarinen a Reboot," "Developer Ralph Zucker, President of Somerset Development, was intrigued by the building.  In spite of hesitant brokerage houses and potential,..., the site's restrictive zoning, he finally bought the building in 2013."  Mr. Zucker commented during a tour of the site with CityLab,

People said it was obsolete,.... The building is amazing, an ahead-of-its-time Mid-century Modern marvel.  [But] the building had been zoned into obsolescence.

Holmdel is a suburban community of 16,600 that was largely dependent on Bell Labs for tax revenue.  The 2 million-square foot campus was zoned for offices by a single tenant.  Mr. Palletta writes, "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."  Mr. Zucker's scheme calls for a mixed-use commercial, retail, and a variety of 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 zeitgeist of Bell Labs and its era is illustrated in Caroline Mozingo's Pastoral Capitalism (mitpress.com.edu; date accessed Apr. 24, 2018), was intended to bestow the campus with a collegiate aura.  It invested a campus, intended for work, with "sylvan settings suitably distant from urban chaos" launching the shift of white-collar work into pastoral suburban settings.  Ms. Mozingo's explained that large companies 

....built corporate campuses to move their research divisions out of baldly industrial surroundings that no longer befit scientist' corporate station, valorize the industrial scientist, and validate the use of science for profit.

Bell Systems was one of the first corporations to build campuses on a park-like suburban site.  Bell Labs first established its headquarters in Manhattan's Meatpacking District--not far from where Google's east coast offices now sits--it moved to suburban Summit, New Jersey in the 1930 before moving to the even more suburban Holmdel in 1962.

Finnish architect Eero Saarinen proved to be the best fit for Bell Labs.  The Modenist architect already designed the General Motors Technical Center outside of Warren, Michigan; John Deere's corporate headquarters in Moline, Illinois; and the IBM Building in Rochester, Minnesota, to great reviews.  Mr. Palletta writes, "While the Deere Building emphasized its structural steel, the other were successive exploration of glass curtain walls, culminating in a radically reflective surface at Bell Labs."  Jayne Merkel's monograph on the late-Mr. Saarinen (phaidon.com; date accessed Apr. 24, 2018) describes the building as being 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 similar sites grew larger and larger--"from 320 acres at GM to 397 acres at Rochester and 460 acres on Holmdel--" Eero Saarinen's modules shrunk: "5-foot module at the GM building, 4-foot at IBM, and 3-foot in Holmdel.  These became increasingly precise solutions crafted for corporate giants who typically preferred mass standardization."  As Bell Labs expanded, the Saarinen building finally expanded to 715,000 to 2 million square feet.

The exterior of Bell Labs offers few clues about the what goes on inside.  Essentially, "It's a mammoth of a Cold War cube set at the end of a ceremonial approach and surround by two decorative lakes."  Bell labs Master Architect Alexander Gorlin told Anthony Palletta, "that the entrance reminds of a view of Versailles."  However, the famed Hall of Mirrors is on the outside.  Mr. Gorlin compared it to "Alice's Looking Glass," a visitor to the campus encounters a surprisingly easy to comprehend sight through the surface--"a modern-yet-familiar city block with the simulacra of four buildings on each corner."

Ralph Zucker's development projects frequently involves inserting density in suburban New Jersey including Westmont Station (patch.com; Oct. , 2017; date accessed Apr. 24, 2018), a former aircraft engine company rehabilitated as a transit-oriented development.  The Glassworks (app.com; date accessed Apr. 24, 2018) is mixed-use development on the site of a vacant glass factory.  Mr. Zucker's preferred term for these projects is the metrourb,..., metropolis in suburbia.

He told CityLab,

Life isn't just in the cities, people actually live in the suburbs and some cool people live in the suburbs,..., When we walked [into Bell Labs], because of my New Urbanist tendencies, I saw a pedestrian street.  I though this could be amazing.  [Saarinen] created these quarter-of-a mile city blocks and that has allowed us to retrofit it as if was designed that way on purpose.

The rehabilitation of Bell Labs vindicated Mr. Gorlin's firm believe that a "building's circulation defines it."  Alexander Gorlin, the restoration architect for Bell Labs, noted that the dimensions of the atrium features the same dimensions as architectural masterpieces such 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.

Mr. Gorlin also cited Eero Saarinen's proportions as part of the Modernist predilection of looking to history for justification but never revealing your sources.  It is a breath-taking atria and the most photographed elements; usually generous in their proportions.  Even more unusual, are "the perimeter corridors ringing levels 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 excellent feature of the Saarinen scheme was "avoiding a familiar bete noir of modern architects--window shades spoiling a pristine facade."

Bell Labs also filled in the atrium space, originally open with offices, converting a space to take a break into bird's eye view of additional work.  Ralph Zucker told Mr. Palletta, 

Whenever they could squeeze in cubicles, [they did].  We knocked that all out and brought it back to the original vision.

The cube farm layout has been replaced by the more trendy communal multi-use work space.  A classic Saarinen design element--a conversation pit--sits immediately in front of the entrance.  Ralph Zucker made this comment,

One of the things that Saarinen did well is he was able to create the feeling of  rooms within rooms without walls.... 

The challenge was to design similar rooms within rooms in the remaining atrium space with without compromising or blocking its scale.  Mr. Gorlin's team of designers replicated this feat in a number ways.  "One large area features a rug modeled on Josef Alber's Study for Homage to the Square: Departing in Yellow (tate.org.uk; date accessed Apr. 24, 2018) with the impasto intervention of cylindrical seat tubes designed by Ron Arad."  Eero Saarinen's specific designs for the building left complex designer Paulo Zamudio a "inadequacy of rote solutions."  Mr. Zamudio told CityLab,

There has to be a lot of thought when we do anything there,..., I knew I couldn't just go out and shop.

One dining area in Mr. Zamudio's plan is set back of the structure in the rear of a cruciform structure.  Interior landscaping stand at one end of the structure.  Anthony Palletta observes, "These areas feel different if accessible, like a square or a sidewalk cafe."

One strange feature of the Bell Labs campus was the solid internal walls giving the structure a cloister-like feeling in a glass box.  The rehabilitation replaces the solid barriers with glass, thus allowing the external four feet of each of the different spaces to maintain an appearance that works with the public spaces.  Design elements in common areas vary from distinctive (eggcrate lighting features) to defunct (ashtrays) remain in place

Bell lab's infrastructure was comprehensively rehabilitated and a serous amount of utility space was emptied out and put to other uses courtesy of fifty years of technical advances including a variable refrigerant system.  Photovoltaic panels were place in the skylights, producing about fifteen percent of electricity or the public areas.

The cafeteria, sited on the building's lower level overlooking an interior pond, is being rehabilitated as an event space.  Alexander Gorlin noted "that it's the size of the Waldorf Astoria ballroom."  The company auditorium is also being rehabilitated and a conference space is being created.

Bell Labs' restoration was of such high quality, it earned the DoCoMoMo Commerical Desihgn Award for Excellance in 2017 and a place on the National Register of Historic Places.  Yay.  One improvement on the Saarinen plan is the conversion of an unused space above the old cafeteria into a rooftop garden.  Mr. Gorlin noted, 

This was a [Miesian] idea of framing the view when in fact it was not easily accessed.  I've made it accessible

The original landscape by Sasaki, Walker, and Associates remains a fascination.  As does the sculptural water along the main drive, intended to mimick an early transition, and a sculpture resembling an early radio telescope in honor of astrometry Karl Jansky.

Office space is currently 70 to 80 percent leased by a number of tenants--mainly tech and coworking companies--and one chaired by a former Bell Labs employee.  Some of the office spaces designed by Paulo Zamudio reflects different themes from the Bauhaus to Eero Dream, a cheeky reference to the Finnish architect.

The ground floor is dedicated to retail space and quickly filling out with businesses that will, no doubt, serve the new tenants very well.  Even better the Holmdel library has relocated to the main corridor.  Ralph Zucker noted that they are working on some entertainment venues and would love to have bowling.  A hotel is also being put in place on the outside of the building's roof.  Mr. Gorlin noted that it is

...really not visible as you approach the building, but where it is most visible it recreates the visual rhythm of the existing  facade.

Ralph Zucker's development did suffer one setback, his proposal to build pedestrian-friendly townhouse units around the campus was rejected in the stages of the development.  Instead of 225 free standing homes have been built in the standard suburban arrangement.  Mr. Zucker said, "the success of the project has been seen locally as as surprise.  Had people anticipated its popularity, he thinks, the community would have embraced his housing plan."  The need for compact housing on the right scale still remains part of the overall plan.

This modern mammoth, once left for dead, has been resuscitated and that is good enough for now.