Ezra Stoller/Esto

The fact that the Bell Labs building in suburban Holmdel, N.J., still exists is a miracle. The 2 million-square-foot hard-edged hunk of black mirrored glass was designed in the late 1950s by Eero Saarinen for the research arm of what was then the only telephone company in the U.S. For decades, the building was a hothouse where groundbreaking work was done on telecommunication satellites, cellular phones, and fiber optics. The Touch-Tone phone was invented here. Scientists won Nobel prizes almost routinely, including one for the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, an essential element of the Big Bang theory. Then, in 2007, long after the Bell monopoly was broken up and the labs were reformed as a smaller entity called Alcatel-Lucent, the building was abandoned and slated for demolition. But it was saved by a campaign waged by hundreds of outraged scientists, who couldn’t fathom that their grand laboratory might be replaced by just another subdivision.

Today, to visit the complex—recently renamed Bell Works by its owner, a company called Somerset Development—is to glimpse the pre-history of our current technological moment. The set of four mirrored-glass boxes linked by a gargantuan cross-shaped atrium was designed by Saarinen beginning in 1957, a follow-up to his acclaimed General Motors Technical Center outside Detroit and his IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center north of New York City. The first section, one pair of black boxes, was completed in 1964, several years after the architect’s death, and the second pair was finished in 1966. In the 1980s, the four buildings were extended with matching additions by Kevin Roche, FAIA, and John Dinkeloo, who had worked on the original under Saarinen.

View inside the corridor-lined atrium
Connie Zhou View inside the corridor-lined atrium

Like most suburban office complexes of its day, Bell Labs is swimming in land (472 acres) and features two manmade lakes (front and back), endless lawns, cherry trees, and parking lots all rigorously landscaped by Sasaki Walker Associates (now SWA): nature specifically designed to be viewed through glass. It’s a configuration typical of the 1950s and ’60s, when corporations fled cities. Now, the same corporations are turning their backs on the suburbs, leaving behind massive buildings that don’t easily lend themselves to new uses. But this one—perhaps because it was built not as the centerpiece of bureaucracy, but as a factory for the production of scientific ideas—is tantalizingly contemporary inside. There is something about the big atrium, lined with tiers of laboratories, that suggests possibility.

Sunken reception area in Saarinen’s atrium
Connie Zhou/OTTO Sunken reception area in Saarinen’s atrium

Urban Bones

“When I walked in, I saw a pedestrian street, slicing right down the middle,” recalls Ralph Zucker, the president of Somerset, who considers himself one of the New Urbanists, a champion of dense, pedestrian-friendly residential communities. He spent five years, from 2008 to 2013, angling to buy the property, and is now, finally, in the process of renovating it and leasing it out one office at a time to a variety of tenants, especially tech companies. “It was obvious to me that this building had incredible bones for creating an urban core, even though it’s in suburbia. What struck me was the utter simplicity of Saarinen’s design, the brilliant clarity of the linear space.”

Bell Labs interior passageway
Connie Zhou Bell Labs interior passageway

Injecting urbanity into disused bits of suburbia—that’s what Zucker does. He argues that New Urbanism should go beyond “trying to create places for people on the Florida Panhandle” or other greenfield sites he thinks of as “clean places.” In one suburban New Jersey development, Wesmont Station, he turned the site of an old aircraft-engine plant into a cluster of apartments with a rail link to New York City. And in Aberdeen, N.J., he’s currently creating a mixed-use development on the site of an abandoned glass factory. But the Bell Labs project is more an outgrowth of something he and some partners attempted about 15 years ago in New York City, when they hired New Urbanist guru Andrés Duany, FAIA, to come up with new uses for Industry City, a massive complex of manufacturing buildings on the Brooklyn waterfront. They staged a charrette, proposing a mix of uses for the complex including office space, hotel rooms, and cafés. That particular version of Industry City went nowhere (the space is now being leased out by a different developer), but the concept re-emerged as a template for Bell Labs.

Bell Labs from southwest, looking across ornamental lake
Christopher Payne/Esto Bell Labs from southwest, looking across ornamental lake

When Zucker was first contemplating buying the Saarinen building, he asked an architect whom he’d met at the Industry City charrette, Alexander Gorlin, FAIA, to come take a look: “We walked around, and it was completely abandoned,” Gorlin remembers. “It was like coming into the Baths of Caracalla.” Around the same time, Zucker asked for help from another member of Duany’s circle, Jeff Speck. A prominent advocate for pedestrian-friendly development, Speck drew up a fast-and-dirty site plan that created a residential community with almost 300 rowhouses clustered at either end of Saarinen’s glass box, where SWA had placed the parking lots, and where the houses would arguably be less conspicuous. “The central building will remain intact but reconfigured, not just to hold apartments, offices, hotel, and civic uses, but also to function as the public heart of the community, its internal atrium reconceived as Main Street,” Speck wrote. He also penciled in “villas” along the property’s ring road that would contain hundreds of apartments. It was a lovely scheme: dense, urbane, walkable, even a little utopian. But the idea proved too much for suburban Holmdel, a highly affluent town (average household income over $200,000) that, like many such communities, lives in fear of overcrowding in the school system. Zucker’s initial presentation to the townspeople fell flat. According to Zucker, area residents told him, “This is not Brooklyn. This is not the Meatpacking District.”

Jeff Speck’s Bell Labs proposal, circa 2008
Jeff Speck Jeff Speck’s Bell Labs proposal, circa 2008

Of course, the town’s rejection of the initial plan saved Zucker from building during the worst housing downturn in living memory. With the assistance of New Jersey’s state government, which is never shy about promoting job growth, Zucker spent five years persuading Holmdel to change its “archaic” zoning, restrictions that would have permitted only a single tenant in the building. In 2009, he staged an open house at Bell Labs where local residents could walk through a mock-up of the “town center” he envisioned. Eventually, Holmdel’s need to collect tax revenue from the site (once the financial engine of the town) and concessions from Zucker on the number and type of residences on the property led to an agreement. In 2013, the town agreed to a mixed-use concept, putting Zucker and his partners in a position to finally close the deal and buy the property from Alcatel-Lucent for $27 million.

The atrium with an artificial turf recreation zone
Connie Zhou The atrium with an artificial turf recreation zone

4,000-Square-Foot Compromises

Unfortunately, Zucker had to make what one observer has termed a Faustian bargain. To help finance the project, he sold off 103 acres to the luxury home builder Toll Brothers, which, as stipulated in the covenants that Zucker signed when he purchased the property, can construct 225 homes, most of them “age-restricted” to those 55 and older, households unlikely to contain school-age children. Toll Brothers is now in the process of dropping an archetypal subdivision on Saarinen’s front lawn, and Hideo Sasaki’s formalist landscape will be marred by a series of 1-acre home sites clustered around cul-de-sacs. The Toll Brothers homes—4,000-square-foot multi-gabled McMansions—and their sprawly arrangement are antithetical to the principles of New Urbanism and diminish Zucker’s dream to make the modernist glass box the centerpiece of a new kind of city. “Every development of this size has some compromises in it,” Zucker argues. “It just makes the Saarinen but one more pod in a collection of dumb suburban pods,” grumbles Speck.

But this overstates the case. Even McMansions can’t change the fact that the Saarinen building is an uncanny, industrial-scaled deployment of square footage. When I recently explored the atrium with Gorlin, strolling beneath a long, leaky glass roof 80 feet above our heads, the architect pointed out his minor interventions: He cleared out the leftover planters and overflow offices and installed Italian ceramic floors that, near the elevator cores, turn into geometric compositions evoking Josef Albers, he told me, “so it wouldn’t be an undifferentiated mass of tile.”

Current development scheme, showing the Toll Brothers houses
Current development scheme, showing the Toll Brothers houses

Gorlin has a theory about the universality of the space: “The 100-foot width of the atrium is equal to many great avenues and public spaces historically, including Lincoln Road, one of the great pedestrian streets that Morris Lapidus adapted to the pedestrian mall, and the Crystal Palace in London, and St. Peter’s Basilica … ” According to Gorlin, whether it’s measured in feet or meters, the width is always the same. “It’s some kind of human dimension of grandeur and intimacy,” he says.

As Gorlin and I walked the endless open corridors that overlook the atrium (with ashtrays installed in the railings at 20-foot intervals), I began to think that the rigid simplicity of the interior layout is a bit like an urban grid, something that is highly structured yet encourages an incredible range of activities within. In other words, the urbanity that Zucker is hoping to deliver (in a town that has rejected the concept) is embedded in Saarinen’s architecture.

Axonometric of a renovated Bell Labs
Courtesy Bell Works Axonometric of a renovated Bell Labs

Bell Labs was, in fact, designed for maximum flexibility. The labs and offices that are hidden behind sheets of metal, painted white, on each tier, could be reconfigured as the nature of the work demanded. The application for the building’s designation as a National Historic Place, granted last year, discusses this aspect in detail: “Alterations to interior workspaces were routinely made … to accommodate changing project teams and their needs. Indeed, the building was designed to foster such changes.” Gorlin has used the building’s protean quality when making a case to the National Park Service (overseer of Historic Places) to swap out the opaque white metal lab walls for glass, a change that’s essential to turning the old labs into leasable offices.

Rendering of renovated building at full occupancy
Alexander Gorlin Architects Rendering of renovated building at full occupancy

A Mini Silicon Valley

Zucker’s vision of the place is both highly speculative and very clear. It’s a hub for Millennials, innovators who perhaps can’t afford to set up shop in New York City, a Silicon Valley in microcosm, thrumming with life. He’s hoping to convert a large section of the building into a hotel, which will make the epic 15,000-square-foot, glass-enclosed cafeteria on the lower level and the adjacent theater valuable for conferences and other functions. But right now, they’re a little ghostly. Much of the building is still unoccupied. The couple of stretches of corridor with newly occupied offices are inhabited by people who look, encouragingly, like the target market: beards; headphones; screens, big and small. One tenant, Nvidia Corp., a graphics processing company, will design software for self-driving cars. Another, Acacia Communications, helps businesses migrate to the cloud. These companies couldn’t exist if Bell Labs hadn’t spent much of the 20th century laying the groundwork. The concept is perfect.

Exterior rendering
Alexander Gorlin Architects Exterior rendering

Still, there are limits to how genuinely urban this place can be. For one thing, it’s hard to get to Bell Works without a car; the nearest train station is about 5 miles away. For another thing, Holmdel’s low tolerance for perceived Brooklynization and the all-too-common bias against density is the reason New Urbanism is always an easier sell in those “clean locations.” Bedroom suburbs have a built-in resistance to urbanity; residents may work in New York or Philadelphia, but they don’t want to live there. Nonetheless, bit by bit, much of Zucker’s vision is becoming reality. And if this extraordinary example of Saarinen’s boldness—which also happens to be place of inarguable historic significance—can be preserved and rejuvenated, maybe it doesn’t also have to solve the problem of sprawl. After all, Silicon Valley is very much a suburb, too.