The New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA-NJ), in concert with Preservation New Jersey, a historic preservation organization, recently presented their vision for the preservation of Bell Labs in Holmdel, N.J., at a community open house attended by approximately 1,500 guests.
Bell Labs, which was designed by renowned Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and built in 1962 with expansions in 1966 and 1982, is considered the most architecturally significant example of modernist architecture in the state of New Jersey and one of the most architecturally significant in the nation.
The building was closed in July 2006 and listed for sale by owner Alcatel-Lucent. The site was named to Preservation New Jersey's list of the "10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in New Jersey" that same year.
The open house was sponsored by the contract purchaser for the property, Somerset Development, which is seeking a rezoning for the site in order to preserve the building and the equally significant landscape design by Sasaski, Walker and Associates and adapt it for retail, office, hotel/conference center and residential uses.
The aim of the display by AIA-NJ and Preservation New Jersey was to build a public constituency for the rezoning, which the two organizations view as critical to the building's preservation, said Michael Calafati, AIA, chairman of AIA-NJ's Historic Resources Committee. Although some local residents would like to see the building remain an office, that is no longer a feasible option, he said.
"Bell Labs is an architectural resource that is second to none in the post World War II period," Calafati said. "But the only way that the building will survive is with a rezoning that allows mixed uses. There is simply no market for a 2 million square-foot single-use building. AIA-NJ and Preservation New Jersey are here because we feel we need to remain in the conversation about the building's future."
The two organizations, along with the DOCOMOMO US/NY Tri-State Chapter (DOcumentation and COnservation of Buildings and Sites of the MOdern MOvement), were part of a coalition that sponsored a multidisciplinary charrette, or collaborative design session, to develop approaches for the preservation and sympathetic and sustainable reuse of the building.
Somerset credits the charrette with reaffirming its vision for the property and with guiding the company in its formation of a preservationist approach to its redevelopment. The property had previously been considered too difficult to preserve, and earlier plans had called for demolishing most of the structure and replacing it with smaller office buildings and single-family homes.
Calafati cited the huge turnout at the open house as evidence of the popular support for the preservation of the building. Some of the attendees were former employees of Bell Labs, which once constituted a small city in and of itself. The huge building, which is 2 million square feet in size and nearly a quarter mile long, once employed 7,500 people and had its own bank and post office.
Using copies of the charrette report and display easels as visual aids, Calafati and Ron Emrich, executive director of Preservation New Jersey, spent the evening explaining the architectural significance of the building. Many features that are now considered typical of large corporate headquarters, including the mirrored-glass facade, the interior garden and the central atrium (in this case five stories high) were first used at Bell Labs.
In addition, Bell Labs has historical significance as a monument to American technological achievement. The list of technological wonders developed there is breathtaking, including data networking, the transistor, cellular telephone technology, solar cells, the laser, digital transmission and switching, communications satellites and microwave transmission.
Even the "Big Bang" theory of the origin universe was confirmed there. Bell Labs scientists discovered the cosmic background radiation supporting the theory.
Despite the significance of the building, however, few area residents were familiar with it. The building was generally off limits to the public because of the sensitive nature of the research that took place there. Set back from the road at the center of a 472-acre campus, it was virtually invisible to passersby despite its immense size, and thus was something of an enigma to the public.
The aim of the open house was to build support for the preservation of the building by inviting the public in.
"We wanted to soften the ground," Calafati said. "There is some local opposition to the rezoning from those who would prefer to see the building remain an office research facility. What they don't realize is that there's no market for such a use. By having people come to the building and experience it for themselves, they can begin to envision the incredible potential of the site for other uses."
To download the Bell Labs charrette report, please visit the AIA-NJ Web site at http://www.aia-nj.org/PDFs/news/bell_labs_final_report.pdf.