Bell Labs More Flexible, More Adaptable

May 2008 -
A three-day brainstorming event of architects, landscape architects, preservationists, planners, historians, mechanical engineers, and sustainable consultants concluded on Sunday with innovative visions and exciting news that the nearly 2,000,000 square foot office building and research facility in Holmdel, originally built as Bell Laboratories on 472 acres, has immense capacity for rehabilitation and adaptation.

Sponsored by the American Institute of Architects’ New Jersey Chapter (AIA-NJ), Preservation New Jersey, the Docomomo-NY Tristate Chapter, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and billed as a Design Charrette, the event convened 38 design professionals from New Jersey, New York and the northeast to address the problems that surround the sustainable reuse and retention of the historically significant building and landscape designed by renowned architect Eero Saarinen and landscape architect Hideo Sasaki in the early 1960s.

Friday’s events included an afternoon tour for the charrette participants, conducted by current owner Alcatel-Lucent, of the facility that has been vacant for the last 9 months and named in Preservation NJ’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in 2007. Friday evening saw the participants, and members of the public from Holmdel and beyond, gather at the Holmdel Senior/Community Center. Jim McCorkel, Co-President of the Citizens for Informed Land Use, the local host organization, offered the welcome. Nina Rappaport, Chair of the Docomomo-NY Tristate Chapter, spoke of Saarinen’s importance and of the Bell Labs project, which has recently been declared eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. A group of Bell Labs “Pioneers,” retired staff who worked in the building, joined in a panel discussion which helped to assess the building’s functionality and much-appreciated spirit of place, challenging the often-stated claim that the building’s design is inflexible and cold, noting its robustness and connection to the landscape.

On Saturday, led by charrette facilitator, Clinton Andrews, PhD, Associate Professor and Director of the Program in Urban Planning and Policy Development at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School, the designers and planners took to paper and pencils almost immediately for the full-day session. Breakout teams explored possible reuse scenarios from various perspectives: architectural, programmatic, marketing, systems, etc. “The collegial exchange between diverse disciplines and young professionals working alongside senior designers was revealing, stimulating and key to the success of the charrette exercise. Everyone gave their expertise, ideas and time with great enthusiasm,” according to Michael Calafati, AIA, a lead organizer of the charrette.

Andrews and the designers presented the findings of the charrette to the public at the Holmdel Senior/Community Center on Sunday. Their concepts were visionary illustrating a range of solutions that predominately focused the improved performance of the building incorporating a sustainable restoration scheme that would bring the building into the 21st century with new systems and building elements while preserving its historic and character-defining features. For example, some 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 publically accessible land. The coalition of groups that held the charrette will make the findings public on the websites of AIA-NJ and Preservation NJ (www.aia-nj.org and http://www.preservationnj.org).

For more information on the Bell Labs building and it’s current status go to:
http://preservationnj.wordpress.com/

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