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How to Preserve Saarinen’s Bell Labs HQ?

bell labs nj.jpg

We love a good postwar corporate campus, and in our dictionary, under “corporate campus, postwar” is a stippled rendering of the 472-acre swath of Holmdel, New Jersey that was once home to Bell Labs. At the core of the campus is the 1.9-million-square-foot building designed by Eero Saarinen, who also designed the site’s transistor-shaped water tower. In 2006, the property was sold to a developer who intended to raze the building and replace it with corporate offices, but ultimately scrapped the plan in the face of public outcry calling for the preservation of the original Saarinen structure, built between 1959-1962 and later expanded. Two years and a few task forces later, its fate remains undecided, but last month, such organizations as Preservation NJ, AIA-NJ, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation sponsored a charette to explore the adaptive use and green preservation potential of the Bell Labs site. Click “continued…” for a taste of the ideas.

About 40 architects, landscape architects, preservation professionals, engineers, building systems professionals, and planners got a tour of the shuttered site, learned about its history from former Bell Labs employees, and got to drawing. According to the PreserveNJ blog:

The concepts were visionary, illustrating a range of solutions that predominately focused on improved performance of the building and incorporating a sustainable restoration scheme….[S]ome proposed that the distinctive mirrored exterior walls could be retrofitted with interior glazing. Additional natural light could be introduced into the original windowless laboratories by means of new light wells; the flat roof and parking lot areas could easily accommodate photovoltaic cells to produce “green” electricity on site, and air could be better circulated. The groups also invented new programs for the building, from high-tech laboratories, healthcare, educational, and cultural, to residential with a consensus being to maintain the 472 acres as publicly accessible land.

Meanwhile, charette facilitator Clinton Andrews of Rutgers’ Bloustein School summarized in this presentation what participants learned. Our favorite: “Poetry possible from unexpected quarters.”

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