A new life for Saarinen’s Bell Labs.

Built in 1962 and expanded in ’66 and ’85, the building has been vacant since 2007. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton

The scientists who worked at Eero Saarinen’s Bell Telephone Laboratories were famous for putting in long hours, and they probably felt as if they lived in their offices. Now you can literally live there – as well as shop, dine, have a facial and borrow books – as soon as Somerset Development completes its $100 million adaptive reuse plan.

As a landmark for the site, Saarinen designed a 127-foot-high, 300,000 gallon water tower. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton

New Jersey-native Ralph Zucker purchased the property in 2013, and his firm is transforming the 472-acre campus in Holmdel, New Jersey, into a health and wellness-anchored “metroburb” called Bell Works that will include a skilled nursing facility and assisted-living center, a hotel, restaurants and shops, a spa, office spaces and a 20,000-square-foot public library. Luxury homes and an outdoor sports complex are also planned for the surrounding land.

As for how Saarinen’s mirrored masterpiece will be preserved, Zucker says not to fret: “From the conversation pit to the light-filled hallways and atrium to the mirrored glass-clad exterior, we are staying true to Saarinen’s vision for a collaborative space that’s conducive to wandering and interacting.”

Photo by Gwendolyn Horton

An example of Zucker’s careful approach is the carpet in the conversation pit, which has been restored to its yellow-nested-squares design. While researching the carpet, lead architect Alex Gorlin thought it resembled the “Homage to the Square” paintings that Josef Albers painted between 1950 and 1976, so he contacted the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Unfortunately, the foundation believes the carpet was inspired by, but not necessary designed by, Albers. Because Eero and Josef were fellow faculty members at Yale in 1949, it’s possible that they collaborated on the floor covering at some point.

The conversation pit. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton
The conversation pit. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton

The carpet sparked a relationship with the foundation, and Gorlin decided to introduce Albers’ work to Bell Labs in a different way. He commissioned two installations for the atrium floor, where they can be viewed from multiple angles and heights. Titled “Goldrosa” and designed by Albers in 1926, the artwork was enlarged to a pedestrian scale and recolored – with the foundation’s permission – into shades of black, white and gray. “The spatial interpenetration of the building itself can be seen in Albers’ pattern,” says the architect. “We’re continuing Saarinen’s idea of nested squares.”

Josef Albers installations at Bell Labs. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton
Josef Albers tile installations in the atrium floor. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton

Gorlin was hired for the Bell Works redesign “because we felt he’d be the most respectful to Saarinen’s work,” says Zucker, citing the architect’s strengths in both modernism and classicism, and his renovation of the only surviving synagogue designed by Louis Kahn. As soon as Gorlin was on board, he and Zucker flew to Italy to see the Fiat Lingotto factory built in the 1920s and renovated by Renzo Piano in the 1980s. Transforming the Fiat building into a multiuse center while maintaining its architectural identity was a challenge, but Piano’s successful result helped shape what’s planned for Bell Works.

A hotel is planned for the former offices on the left. Glass elevators (far end) will be restored. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton
Six-foot-wide corridors run the periphery of the quarter-mile-long building. These scientists would’ve been huge fans of the Nike FuelBand. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton

With so much focus on the future of the site, it’s also important to remember Bell Labs’ impressive past. Some of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century happened within these walls, including fiber-optic communications, touch-tone dialing, the UNIX operating system and cellphones. Exciting innovations continue today as Gorlin, Zucker and their teams find ways to modify the building into a mixed-use complex. There was much to learn from this building when it was first designed, and now that it’s been saved and allowed to evolve, the lessons will continue. For that, we’re truly grateful.

Being in the basement is like being in the hull of a huge ship. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton
This original phone booth with Eames Molded Shell Chair and phone books will be restored and preserved. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton
A phone booth – with Eames Molded Shell Chair and phone books – will be restored and preserved. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton
The ring road surrounding the building even looks cool on GPS. Photo by Gwendolyn Horton