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Saarinen’s Bell Labs Waits to be Unshackled
Michael Calafati, AIA, LEED AP, Chair, Historic Resources Committee of AIA New Jersey

The future of Bell Labs, located in suburban Holmdel, NJ – an hour’s drive from Manhattan, remains uncertain. Alcatel-Lucent, successor to Bell Labs, vacated the nearly 2,000,000 square foot facility two years ago and has yet to sell the building and 472 acre site. The redundancy of the Bell Labs facility is symptomatic of the evolution of the American economy in recent generations and the impact it has had on numerous corporate campuses. Similarly, the challenges and possibilities facing Bell Labs are also emblematic of this building type in a transformed economy.

Considered by many to be the most important building constructed in New Jersey since World War II, Eero Saarinen designed Bell Labs in the late 1950s and construction was well underway at the time of his death in 1961. Following the master plan established by Saarinen, the project, including the landscape designed by Hideo Sasaki, reached full flower with later expansions by Kevin Roche, a lead designer in Saarinen’s studio at the time he designed Bell Labs.

Bells Labs’ significance is wide, encompassing innovative architecture and technological achievements that we take for granted today. During its nearly 50 years as a research facility employing as many as 6,000 researcher and staff, the fax machine transmitting data over voice lines and the cellular telephone were developed and perfected. Bell Lab scientists Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978 for discovering cosmic microwave background radiation, a nearly uniform glow filling the universe in the microwave band of the radio spectrum.

Saarinen’s design fostered such exploration. The first use of a mirrored glass façade became the building envelope containing monumental scale atria, extra large and flexible floor plates, and interior circulation that included suspended over-head walkways and perimeter corridors running the full length of the curtain walls. The longest perimeter corridors each measure nearly ¼ mile along the two longest facades (approximately ½ mile at the building’s entire perimeter). These features created a highly controlled interior environment and non-hierarchical office settings that were conductive to research.

Set well off public streets, a unique water tower, often likened to a stylized transistor, marks access to the property. The low-slung rectangular building is set within symmetrical and concentric oval roadways. Man-made ponds flank the building’s long facades and the main entrance drive. The irregular tree line at the property’s boundary and the irregularly shaped north pond that engages the building’s dining facility help soften and enliven the otherwise highly structured setting.

Since the last employee reported for work at Bell Labs, prospective developers have come to the fore. Preferred Unlimited, Inc. of Conshohocken, PA proposed the construction of several new commercial office buildings and new single-family houses in 2007. Preferred’s schemes called for the partial demolition of the existing building (reducing it by half to approx. 1,000,000 sf) or, alternately, the complete demolition so the entire site could be redeveloped. Town residents disliked the proposed housing, as additional children would burden the schools and increase property taxes. Meaningful discussion about the site’s historic or cultural value, the fact that demolition would help create a substantial landfill problem and, moreover, would be terribly out of step with the times was curiously absent.

It was this point that regional organizations with preservation interests, including AIA New Jersey, Preservation NJ, Inc. and Docomomo-NY/Tristate Chapter, began to organize as a force to monitor developments and help guide a successful outcome. Reverence for the work of modern masters, especially Eero Saarinen, summoned an immediate, visceral and positive reaction by architects and, not surprisingly, support by AIA New Jersey followed quickly. However, the plight of the Holmdel facility was more difficult to convey in other sectors. In some ways the situation is the result of AT&T’s desire to remain enigmatic and low-key, as the monopoly could foretell the break-up that came in 1982. Its low-slung mass and the distance from public view disguised the building’s colossal size. The coalition of organizations, led by AIA New Jersey, combated the relative obscurity by hosting a local event where Donald Albrecht, author and curator of a traveling international exhibit on Saarinen, spoke about the architect, Bell Labs and how the design fit into the larger oeuvre.

By late 2007 Preferred had dropped their pursuit of the site but AIA New Jersey and the coalition of organizations recognized this as an opportunity to get ahead of the issue. Months of planning led to the Bell Labs Charrette that was held over a three-day period in April 2008 in which 40 architects, landscape architects, planners, and engineers participated. The charrette demonstrated that the building was able to accommodate a variety of uses and that it was more flexible and more adaptable than previously imagined. The charrette final report is available at the AIA New Jersey website.

After the charrette, a second prospective suitor, Somerset Development, LLC of Lakewood, NJ, emerged later in 2008. Somerset publicized their desire to keep and adapt the Saarinen building for multiple uses, including hotel, office and residential. In addition, Somerset wants to build new residential buildings on the site. Somerset frequently credits the charrette as showing the way to redevelopment. The proposed redevelopment of the site is now subject to local approval, as the Township of Holmdel must approve any use other than office and research as a zoning change. Although the new construction proposed by Somerset is flawed at best, zoning revisions allowing redevelopment are advocated by Somerset and by AIA New Jersey.

The local administration, however, holds all of the cards regarding rezoning and it is deeply divided on the issue. The challenge facing AIA New Jersey and the coalition of organizations is how to best advocate for the necessary zoning changes that promote re-use while steering Somerset, or any developer, into a redevelopment that honors and respects Saarinen’s legacy. As we continue to engage the township and the developer, the coalition is preparing a National Register nomination with the belief that the higher profile formal designation brings will serve the cause of appropriate preservation of the building and site.

About the Author: Michael Calafati, AIA, principal of Historic Building Architects, LLC, Trenton, NJ, holds a B. Architecture from Syracuse University and a M.S. in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. Focusing on historic buildings in the public realm, his recent projects include Church of the Presidents, Long Branch, NJ and the John F. Peto House and Studio, Island Heights, NJ.

 

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