BELL LABORATORIES: Compromise to Save Saarinen’s Original Building

The August 2006 proposal for the Bell Labs facility in Holmdel, New Jersey, has been received by many in the scientific, preservation, and architectural communities, as well as the surrounding community of Holmdel, to be an acceptable step in the redevelopment of the site and original building by Eero Saarinen.

Built in 1962 on a rural New Jersey site chosen for its lack of man-made static, the Bell Labs building and site, is “a prime example of the postwar corporate campus,” as explained by Susanna Santala in her article from the DOCOMOMO-US summer 2006 newsletter. Not only is Bell Labs an important example of Saarinen’s work, it was also the birthplace of many communication technologies from touch-tone dialing to cellular telephones, representing the innovation and technological advancement of the postwar years.

After acquiring the former Bell Labs facility (now home to a downsizing Lucent Technologies) earlier this year, developer Preferred Real Estate Investments, Inc. (PREI) originally planned to demolish the existing, two million square feet building and build in its place three stand-alone headquarters-type buildings (for businesses yet to be determined) with significantly less floor space overall. The main reasons cited for the demolition was the impracticality of renovating the existing structure, with its small office bays, windowless research spaces, low ceilings, and single-pane glazing for current office space purposes, as well as the difficulty in attracting a single firm in need of so much square footage PREI intended to retain some elements of the original site, including the site layout, the landscaping by Dan Kiley and a transistor-shaped water tower designed by Saarinen.

However, due to public outcry from the various communities, including local town people, preservationists, and noted scientists from around the country, some of whom are former Bell Labs employees, PREI has reconsidered their initial plans and has proposed a solution that retains the original 1961 Saarinen structure (itself 1,000,000 s.f.) while stripping away the expansions made to the original building in the mid-1960s and early-1980s (by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo). This new plan, presented by Michael O’Neill, CEO and Founder of PREI at an August 30, 2006 meeting with Holmdel Township residents, would still preserve the original building’s relationship to the central axis, water tower, water reflecting pond and ring roads. The non-original exterior glass will be replaced with modern insulated glass, but the integrity of the pioneering exterior with is mirror reflective surface, as well as the vaulted atrium lobby, would be maintained.

In place of the demolished additions, the developer proposed construction of two new freestanding buildings that are to sit behind the Saarinen building, for a total of 1,500,000 s.f. on the site These new buildings will encircle the existing pond behind the current building, while some housing on the periphery of the site will be developed. PREI contends that with separate buildings and lower overall square footage, a single company or multiple corporate tenants could occupy the site. Although Citizens for Informed Land Use, the coalition of Holmdel residents most active in providing input and feedback to the developer about proposed plans for the Bell Labs site, originally opposed construction of housing, no major opposition has arisen. For the local residents, there were several primary reasons for which the Saarinen building and site should be preserved, ranging from property tax revenue to emotional connections to a former workplace to conserving open space and the watershed.

Though this revised plan has been received well by the many interested parties, concern over the new freestanding buildings that would occupy the site, set behind the main approach axis and original building, has been raised in the preservation community. The original vista will not be destroyed by the additions in their current proposed location, but the new construction will be visible behind the Saarinen building. This, along with the proposal for housing on the periphery of the site, has the potential to diminish the “pure and singular aspects” of Saarinen’s design – the original building as the nucleus to the site, around which the other elements of the site are laid out symmetrically. There is also the possibility that the placement of the new residential construction on the periphery of the site will thin the tree line and have a visual impact on the overall site. Both Preservation New Jersey and AIA New Jersey are actively involved in this process. DOCOMOMO US remains cautiously optimistic and will provide updates as the plans move forward.

For more information, please contact Preservation New Jersey through their site www.preservationnj.org, AIA New Jersey at www.aia-nj.org, or the DOCOMOMO New York/Tri State Chapter

For previous DOCOMOMO US coverage on Bell Labs, see the Summer 2006 newsletter here.

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