Eero Saarinen's Giant 1957 Masterpiece in New Jersey Restored and Reimagined

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By Zachary Edelson / Published by Dwell
The cutting edge of laboratory design when first built, Bell Labs is being revamped to fulfill a new role—bringing the city to the suburbs.

It’s no small irony that the building that opened the information age can only be fully experienced in the flesh. Surrounded by verdant fields and trees in Holmdel, New Jersey, Bell Labs is a shimmering glass box 1,186 feet long, 350 feet deep, and 74 feet tall. Contained within its mirrored shell are four separate office towers, all linked by walkways but separated by three football field–size atriums. By day, a massive skylight illuminates these sublime cathedral-like spaces. Designed by Eero Saarinen and built in three phases from 1957 through 1985, its laboratories hosted the cutting edge of scientific research. Its new owners Somerset Development—who have renamed it Bell Works—and Alexander Gorlin Architects are betting they can leverage its unique design to foster an unprecedented revitalization. 

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Bell Labs’ exterior was the first large-scale application of mirrored glass, a product developed specifically for the project. Now common, especially in sunny climates, the glass’s inner layer of aluminum film blocks 70 percent of the sun’s heat and admits 25 percent of its light.

Gorlin speaks about "releasing the original energy of the building" and Bell Works certainly brims with the optimism and zeal of the 1950s. In his client, Saarinen found a vast organization of scientists and engineers whose prodigious innovations—from cellular phones to telecommunication satellites—created the machines and ideas to drive the information age. To accommodate this collaborative innovation hub, he designed deep floor plates—each 57,000 square feet—that ensured flexibility and adaptability. "Communality and coming-together" are in the project’s DNA, says Somerset’s President Ralph Zucker: the building is filled with shared spaces, from ashtrays built into walls for casual chats to two underground auditoriums. By 2006, however, the Lab’s owners Alcatel-Lucent were selling the building. "The local sentiment was: it’s archaic," says Zucker, but we "set out to prove it was far from archaic—it was incredible." 

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Alexander Gorlin and his team restored the sunken lobby to its original yellow hues.

Much like the building itself, Zucker’s plan is bold and simple: Use the building’s versatility, communal resources, and sheer potential for density—some two million square feet—to create an oasis of urbanity in suburbia. Bell Works’ capacity as an event space was proven when it recently hosted conventions on self-driving cars and drones. One tech company, a coworking space, and a restaurant have signed on; a diverse range of occupants—from boutique hotels to a coffee chain—intend to lease as well. While the clients are new, Zucker and Gorlin are approaching the architecture with a "preservationist attitude": replacing fluorescent lights, glass panes, various surfaces, and other details with original designs or aesthetics in mind. As Saarinen originally intended, glass walls will line the offices’ perimeter, letting views and light to enter from the facade deeper into the interior.

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The 1957 building is in the process of admission to the National Register of Historic Places.

The biggest change is front and center: With the replacement of the atriums’ floor, Gorlin had an opportunity to break up its vast expanse of black tile. He installed a Josef Albers artwork—two identical versions, each enlarged to 60 by 90 feet—to "anchor and define the space." Albers was a frequent collaborator with architects, and while there’s no proof of his involvement with Bell Labs, the concentric yellow squares of the building’s sunken lobby seem indebted to his Homage to the Square. Gorlin compares Bell Works to Alice and Wonderland: When architecture reaches this scale, conventional perspective asserts itself in strange ways. Once filled with people, this stage may become a little less surreal—but likely not by much. 

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The vast skylight features a weathering steel structure, currently undergoing restoration.