Imagine coming home to your loft in an aging suburban office park. You pull into a parking lot bigger than a football field beside an uninflected wall of mirrored glass. You step inside a seven-story atrium where 600 people once worked and ride the elevators to a loft overlooking that unmistakable office landscaping–tasteful clumps of trees and artfully positioned artificial ponds. A long lawn stretches to a water tower shaped like a transistor.
You could live in such a place if a developer succeeds in saving the endangered Bell Labs campus in Holmdel, New Jersey. Designed by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen shortly before his death in 1961, it qualifies as a prime artifact of corporate modernism, and it was the site of pioneering work on transistors and cell phones. By 2006 it was owned by Lucent which chose to abandon it rather then pay for needed upgrades. The facility was turned over to a developer who planned to raze it until scientists from all over the world loudly objected, both because of the architecture and the historic nature of research conducted there. Fifty members of the National Academy of Sciences wrote to New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine asking him to help save “part of the science heritage of all mankind.” It was a facility that helped shape our world. For the high nerds, it’s sacred ground.
Last August a new developer, Somerset Development, took over with the promise to preserve the structure, which extends a quarter mile long, by turning the skylit atrium into an indoor main street with shops and sidewalks, and by inserting lofts on the top floor. But with the strictures of the financial crisis Somerset says it can’t finance its plan without building 600 additional low-rise residential units on the grounds, which the township refuses to approve.
If the conversion goes through it could serve as a model for the conversation of aging and abandoned surburban offices across the country. “I think key to the project is how to retrofit the building into an era that requires sustainable new systems,” Nina Rappaport, a preservationist and architectural historian, told me this week. “With such a mass of building, materials, and such an open site, it behooves the potential developer to preserve the building’s modern aesthetics, as designed by Eero Saarinen, and make it sustainable.”