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Charrette explores Bell Labs re-use potential

April 13, 2008

Preservation NJ, along with coalition partners AIA-NJ, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, DOCOMOMO, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, the Recent Past Preservation Network and the NJ Conservation Foundation, sponsored a charrette, which wrapped up today, that explored the adaptive use and green preservation potential of the iconic Bell Labs site in Holmdel, NJ.

A fragment of the immense central atrium at Bell Labs

Designed by architect Eero Saarinen (see TWA Terminal, JFK Airport; Dulles Airport, Gateway Arch, St. Louis; John Deere HQ, Moline, IL, etc.), the nearly 2 million sf landmark, set in a stunning Sasaki-designed landscape, has been empty for 6 months and is for sale. The site was listed in Preservation NJ’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in NJ catalogue in 2007.

More than 35 architects, landscape architects, preservation professionals, engineers, building systems professional, planners and the like, from all over the Northeast, volunteered their time and talent to collaborate during the weekend.

The charrette opened on Friday afternoon with a tour of the shuttered building. It’s a magnificent modernistic masterpiece – huge by every measure. It’s in relatively good condition for having been empty and on minimal “life support” for six months. Friday evening saw the participants, and many members of the public from Holmdel and beyond, gather at the town’s Community Center to hear more about the history of Saarinen and the project.

A group of Bell Lab “Pioneers,” folks who worked in the building, joined in a roundtable discussion which helped to describe the building’s functionality and “spirit.” Quickly debunked was the often-stated claim that the building’s “inflexible” design and plan – it was laid out for laboratory work rather than for traditional office use – will make it unusable for 21st century commercial purposes.

On Saturday the designers and planners took to the paper and pencils almost immediately, brilliantly led by charrette facilitator Clinton Andrews, from Rutgers’ Bloustein School. Breakout teams explored possible reuse scenarios from various perspectives: architectural, marketing, systems, etc. The interchange among diverse disciplines, and the intergenerational synergy created among the senior designers working alongside young professionals and students, was exciting and stimulating.

Findings from the charrette will be presented today at the Holmdel Community Senior Center, and the Bell Labs Coalition plans to publish the results more formally for broad circulation. Bell Labs can be reused, and the charrette results we believe will demonstrate both its preservability and its marketability.

Thanks to AIA-NJ, the National Trust and the many individuals – local and national – who helped to underwrite the costs of the charrette.

More soon.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2008 2:25 am

    I was priviledged to be one of the “pioneers” that spoke on the first day of the charrette about the pleasure of working in this magnificant building. My time started in 1966 until I took early retirment in 1997 to start my own company. There is no doubt in my mind the need to save the building and to find a suitable re-use that will keep the building whole. I think we also need to acknowledge what was done in this building and hence I would propose a part of the building (or one of the outside surrounding buildings) as a museum for the wealth of activity and invention that took place there by Bell Labs. There is no other place for this tribute where the lives of over 6000 workers over 4 decades participated in making Bell Labs the great place and company to work for and represent. In the nearby town of Red Bank, there was another saving of a 1922 vaudville building that is now named after a great name in music–Count Basie–for which the theater was renamed. This has brought life to the town and an appreciation of history that took place in this theater. So to will saving the Holmdel Saarinen building that will keep generations to come informed of what was done there and for the new tenant(s) what is to be. Save the building!!!

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