Pirelli Tire Building
In 1966, VP Joseph Stewart approached New Haven mayor, Richard Lee, about purchasing what was viewed as a “pivotal” piece of land in the Long Wharf Redevelopment Area. The site, as it occupied an important tract of land at the intersection of Interstates 91 and 95, would mark the gateway to New Haven. Thus, Mayor Lee was much concerned over the choice of architect. He insisted that anything built on the site should have an architectural presence and be built by a master.
The Armstrong Rubber Company’s program requirements were as follows: two or three floors of administrative office space, assumed by Armstrong Rubber Co. to be placed near the turnpike, and a one or two story high-ceiling space for the research and development laboratories to be relocated to New Haven from West Haven.
Armstrong Rubber Co. initially anticipated two or three floors of administrative space at the front of the site and a research and development structure of one to two story to be located at the rear, as the testing of tires to the point of destruction made a noticeable amount of noise. That the site selected lay below the roadbed grade posed a design dilemma, as this would render the originally low building plan unimposing to passing vehicular traffic. Mayor Lee suggested that the building be constructed as a 10-18 story tower – Armstrong Rubber Co. disagreed. Marcel Breuer, architect, proposed a two-story research and development structure at grade with administrative offices “hanging” above, leaving a 2-story gap. The client viewed the commission of the building as their way back into the public eye. The only point in the design process during which Armstrong Rubber Co. requested a design change from Breuer was in regards to the tower’s height. Breuer willingly conceded. Though some supporters of Breuer may have urged for more reluctance on his part to compromise his vision, others attribute his ease to his recognition of Mr. Stewart’s responsibility to shareholders, in maintaining minimal costs. Considering this within the framework of Modern architecture, Breuer’s response seems actually appropriate, as the Modernist architect was driven by careful functional analysis and demanded efficiency in structure as well as affordability in creation. The completing feature of the building, the sign, reveals a moment of teamwork between City Planning officials and the Breuer design team. Breuer’s design initially called for a three story stand-alone sign – a rooftop sign was never planned, as this would damage the buildings distinctive silhouette. However, a sign of this scale was against signage ordinance. By including a small storage space at the sign’s base, the “sign” could be deemed a “gardening shed” and thus a structure, able to be built to any height desired.
The Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli Tire building is a fantastic embodiment of the design ideals held by a master Modernist architect, Marcel Breuer. The entire building is a composite of steel structure for the 4-story tower and long-span concrete T-beams for the two-story high-ceiling test area. Between these two parts of the building is a 2-story gap, giving the tower portion the illusion of suspension. Enveloping the entire building are pre-cast concrete panels of varying scale and design, depending on the function they enclose. Breuer preferred concrete as a building material, as he viewed it as universal – it serves both architectural and structural functions of the building. The pre-cast concrete panels are modeled in a form which Breuer termed crystalline. This form provided protection from the sun (a Breuer preoccupation) and gave the façade a tremendous physicality and depth. The end result is a continually changing impression of the building, depending on the day, the season and the weather.
building/construction: Breuer exploited concrete’s ability to be cast into an endless variation of forms. Because of this, one material could fulfill the needs of structure and aesthetics. The concrete panels, which were pre-cast, were made of white cement with a dark aggregate that was exposed via light sandblasting.
The original setting for the Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli Tire building was an expansive greensward. In being provided this space, the building was set apart as a sculptural work in addition to a functioning building.
The Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli Tire building exemplifies Breuer’s employment of concrete as both a structural and an architecturally aesthetic material. Whereas steel is structural and must be then covered for beautification, Breuer recognizes the sculptural ability of concrete and utilized this capacity to move his buildings beyond the role of mere containers for human activity to seemingly living creatures themselves. The façade has a tremendous physicality and strength, thanks to the deeply molded panels. Most technically astonishing is Breuer’s decision to suspend the office tower above the research and development wing. One can read through the concrete the massive trusses used to carry this load at the attic story of the tower.
The Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli Tire building was intended to act as a beacon for the town of New Haven. To achieve this, the city was cognizant of the need for an architect on the forefront of architectural practice – Modernism was the style du jour. Breuer designed the Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli Tire building to mark the entrance into the city and announce New Haven’s rebirth as a city of culture.
Developed in the 1950s, the Armstrong Rubber Co./Pirelli Tire building exemplifies what Breuer deemed an emerging new depth of façade. By simply molding the pre-cast panels, common to the Modern movement, an architect could exploit the play of light and allow sun and shadow to define a building’s architectural expression. Breuer termed the resulting form a crystalline structure. This concept of an organic but strictly scientific reproducing of similar forms was possible because of Breuer’s abiding faith in standardization.
In the tradition of masterful artistic works, the Armstrong Rubber Co./Pirelli Tire building has become more increasingly appreciated as a result of its well publicized impending demise. Many recognize now how typical of the Modern movement Breuer’s building is – its affinity for standardization, its construction in concrete, its minimalist ornamentation, its compositional massing. While typical, however, it is also, individually, exquisitely successful.
Unfortunately, the building was allowed to become the poster child for last-minute advocacy. Modern architecture is, seemingly by the day, losing major contributions to the movement; the Armstrong Rubber Co./Pirelli Tire building escaped in an amputated state. Its story has thus become a lesson in advocating for Modern architecture.
Breuer’s design fits neatly into the cadre of Modern architecture. Furthermore, it is referential of his own work worldwide, and in doing this significant of the adaptability of the style to various landscapes and client needs. Breuer’s works for IBM, both at La Gaude, France (1961), and in Boca Raton, Florida (1977), exhibit the same crystalline structure. One of his most heralded projects, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development building in Washington, D.C., (1963-68) showed the applicability of the form in not only the world of science, a discipline Breuer saw directly aligned with art and architecture, but also those social and political realms of culture. The State University of New York at Buffalo’s Furnas Hall (1977) employs the aesthetic and construction type in the world of education. Together, these buildings (a select few in his larger portfolio of works) illustrate his belief in and contributions to the Modern movement. Not only did he begin his studies at the famed Bauhaus school, but he continued on as a teacher, embracing and promoting the idea of unity between art and technology. These structures also show his tendency towards Brutalist aesthetics. Other Bauhaus legends, such as Mies van der Rohe, may have favored the rectilinear glass and steel box, such as the Seagram Building (1954-1958), but Breuer returned time and again to his crystalline aesthetic, more often than not realized in concrete. His buildings project and are at moments distorted in order to achieve the architect’s intended play of light and shadow.
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- Marcel Breuer drawing for tower façade details. (Source: Gatje, 2000)
- View of building system employed at the Armstrong Rubber Co./Pirelli Tire building.
- Photograph of site during period of construction. (Source: Hyman, 2001)
- On the ground level, research and development, as well as storage. In “hanging tower” – administrative functions. (Source: Smithsonian Archives Online, 2002)
- Close-up view of gap between tower and research and development wing. (Source: Hyman, 2001)
- View of the Armstrong Rubber Co./Pirelli Tire building sign which became a “garden shed.” (Source: Preservation Online, 2003)
- Aerial view showing relation of Armstrong Rubber Co./Pirelli Tire building to the IKEA chain store and parking lot. (Source: Architecture Week Online, 2002)
- Cartoon appearing at time of IKEA’s threat to demolish the Armstrong RubberCo./Pirelli Tire building. (Source: Architecture Week Online, 2002)
- Sign designed by Breuer for the Laboratories Sargent. (Source: Hyman, 2001)
- Furnas Hall at SUNY, Buffalo. (Source: SUNY, Buffalo, 2006)
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development building in Washington, D.C. (Source: Marcel Breuer Online, 2007)