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Regional Plan Assoc (RPA) comments on Charrette

May 5, 2008

Carlos Rodrugues, RPA-NJ Director, PNJ Board member and Bell Labs Charrette participant, recently shared some thoughts on the challenge presented by the preservation of Bell Labs project:

Struggling with Our Modernist Heritage – the Bell Labs Charrette

The 2 million square foot former Bell Labs facility located in Holmdel, NJ, designed by famous modernist architect Eero Saarinen and set within a site plan designed by equally famous landscape architects Sasaki, Walker and Associates, is part of the famed Bell research centers that for the better part of a century helped set the technological agenda for the nation and the world.

Now, Holmdel and most of the other Bell Labs are vacant, undone by both economic and political changes. In New Jersey, civic and public officials are figuring out what to do with the Holmdel facility, important both architecturally and in terms of economic history.

Built between 1959 and 1962, and expanded in 1966 and 1985, the facility once housed 6,000 scientists, researchers and support staff on a 472-acre tract in Holmdel. Both the building and the surrounding landscape, significant examples of mid-century modern architecture, have been deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Research conducted in the building led to several significant technological advancements, including the transistor and the cell phone.

RPA participated in a recent inter-disciplinary design charrette organized by Preservation New Jersey, AIA-NJ, DocoMomo, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Recent Past Preservation Network and the Cultural Landscape Foundation. The charrette – which took place April 11th to 13th – was hosted by Holmdel Citizens for Informed Land Use and facilitated by Clint Andrews, chair of the planning program at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University .

The charrette was part of an ongoing attempt to find a graceful future for the facility, vacated by Alcatel-Lucent (successor to Bell) two years ago and on the market ever since. So far, the proposals that have surfaced have not been kind. An interested developer proposed several schemes which did not respect the historic qualities of the building and site, and included demolishing the building and subdividing the site into single-family lots. Fortunately, this was not well accepted by the municipality and the developer has since left the scene.

The redevelopment of the former Bell Labs facility poses thorny questions for the planning and design community. While clearly an icon of a certain period of our recent history, where corporate America and modernist architecture aligned to create new models for the corporate workplace, the facility – with its vast building set in splendid isolation within 472 acres of lawns, ponds and woods – is also emblematic of a bygone era of suburban sprawl, with all that it represents in terms of waste. From a sustainable-development point of view, the Bell Labs site is as outdated as Stonehenge. A simple re-tenanting or re-purposing of the building has no future in the world we now live in.

Bell Labs and other comparable case studies raise some difficult issues with which the historic preservation movement must come to terms. The rigid formality of the massive building and the strict geometry of the access roads, circulation system and parking lot layout seem terribly dated and mall-like. Indeed the same formal model was used all over the nation to build regional malls. Should we seek to preserve all the early examples of the auto-oriented environments we created in the 1950s and 1960s, whether they were workplaces, places of commerce, residential or other, no matter how unsustainable these land use models are? I think not.

The charrette brought together top-notch professionals from leading architecture, landscape architecture, historic preservation and engineering firms from throughout the Northeast. There was also compelling testimony from former workers at the facility and current residents.

Many valuable ideas came out. There was clearly an emphasis on finding viable models to both re-purpose the building and retrofit it to make it and the surrounding landscape perform better from a sustainability point of view, without compromising the essential elements of its historic character. This objective appeared achievable, from a technical point of view, no matter what the ultimate use – or combination of uses – ended up being. Indeed there was a noticeable emphasis on mixed-use solutions as the most viable and most appropriate.

However, perhaps RPA’s most significant contribution was to point to the bigger picture. If all we achieve is to find more energy efficient ways to run the same building within the same land use pattern, how ultimately sustainable is that? Even if a “silver bullet” solution is found (a single user with deep pockets willing to take on the entire facility – a GooglePlex was suggested as were a university or some other large research, educational or health care institution) will that not simply perpetuate the existing, unsustainable land use and transportation pattern? Regardless of current market conditions – and there is a lot of vacant office space in Monmouth County, with more to come as a result of the decommissioning of Fort Monmouth – is a replacement office use the most appropriate solution to this challenge?

In a sense, Holmdel and Bell Labs is a story oft repeated throughout America. We are all well acquainted with the history of company towns, whether the industry was cereal mills, roses, blueberries, steel, defense, tourism, gambling, electronics or whatever. In a world of global markets and global corporations, the single-industry town is not a good bet.

– Carlos Rodrigues, PP / AICP, Vice President and New Jersey Director, RPA

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