Jan 3, 201401:31 PMPoint of View

Eero Saarinen's Bell Labs, Now Devoid of Life

Eero Saarinen's Bell Labs, Now Devoid of Life

Empty: Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, as it awaits redevelopment.

Photography by Rob Dobi

At its peak, thousands passed through its massive, light-filled atrium. Today, Bell Labs Holmdel stands empty, all of its 1.9-million-square-feet utterly without life. An iconic example of the now-disparaged office park, the campus in central Jersey, was shuttered in 2007 and vacated soon after. Years later, it remains in an abandoned, if not unkept state. The grounds are cared for, the floors swept clean, and the interior plantings trimmed, however haphazardly. (That's saying something; in the laboratory's heyday, plastic shrubbery filled its glorious central hall.)

For zombie fans, it isn't much of a stretch to imagine the luckless protagonists of the Walking Dead holed up here, fenced off from the rest of the world by six-story high glass walls. (Alternatively, it would make a great lair for the Governor.) Of course, in such a scenario, it's plausible that the virus capable of raising the dead would have originated inside the lab itself. As is often noted, the building is as highly prized by scientists as it is by architects. It was here, in Saarninen's quarter-mile fortress, that has housed some of the last century's most significant scientific discoveries. 

And it's here that the building's new owner, Somerset Development, imagines a new urbanist temple to commerce. Plans are in place to revitalize the site as a town center for Holmdel, complete with urban ammenities like shops and a coffee shop. But as Fred Bernstein wrote in last month's cover story, the building's uncompromising layout complicates Bell Lab's adaptive reuse. New York architect Alexander Gorlin is currently exploring strategies that will bring life back to the historic complex, while still preserving Saarinen's graceful design. It will be interesting to see how he navigates that process.

In the meantime, take a tour of the building through Rob Dobi's striking photography of the building in its current state. It might be your last chance before the place is overrun with mocha-wielding teens.  

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Jan 8, 2014 10:10 am
 Posted by  GW

Very interested in this classic on several levels.

As Bell Labs was an important client for many years, I spent many, many hours in this building. I still remember the first time I walked through the main entrance and up to the receptionist. Complete awe! Though I will admit, with such a grand entrance, many of the offices upstairs were very disappointing -- small, cramped and very vanilla.

I also live in a small town that borders Holmdel, so I continue to follow the never ending discussions concerning the future of this building. While I understand it's a huge challenge, so far, I haven't seen anything that would do it justice.

So, add in my fine arts background and a family of architects, I will continue to follow this with great interest.

GW

Jan 11, 2014 05:18 am
 Posted by  walter h.

The interior views of the tiered floors look surprisingly prisonlike, surely not the architect's intent.

Jan 12, 2014 04:03 pm
 Posted by  oldandintheway

I remember consulting for Bell Labs at this intimidating building and while waiting in the vast lobby noticed the landline where I was sitting had an out-of-order sign. I joked with my Labs contact that it was ironic to see that sign in a building with thousands of the best and brightest Bell employees in the building. He responded that what was funnier was that there was nobody there who could fix it, LOL.

Jan 16, 2014 12:48 pm
 Posted by  Nicabod

Perhaps around 1975, I visited this building with members of the Catgut Acoustical Society; it was a rare treat. All my life, I've been steeping myself in technology, and this was one truly special place. I well remember that along with water, electricity, probably gas, as well as air conditioning and heating, lighting, each lab also received electronic time code, like a rocket test or launch site.

The general public, I'd say, had only a pitifully vague idea of the often remarkable caliber of the work done here, and the inventions created by Bell Labs. If I were to be one of the scientist/engineers here, that would have been wonderful.

Electronics, until invention/discovery of the transistor, was very seriously hamstrung by the limits of vacuum ("radio") tubes, and Bell Labs, iirc here, was where transistors came into being.

I hope I'm correct in holding Carly Fiorina guilty of shutting down Bell Labs, a millennial instance of de facto sabotage of one of the very finest and most-respected R&D labs in the world. This was an epic, yes, millennial tragedy that significantly hurt the USA's competitiveness and future.

While I was hurt and horrified at the time by the sabotage, it didn't fully hit me until I saw these photos. I felt as though I'd been stabbed.

Jan 17, 2014 05:16 am
 Posted by  doodilin

I grew up in Holmdel because my father worked at this Bell Labs. Saarinen’s building was a beautiful icon for this little town in New Jersey. I will be keeping a nostalgic eye on its redevelopment, and am hoping Gorlin will do it justice!

Jan 18, 2014 11:56 am
 Posted by  Phil

I was fortunate to have been in the small group that first occupied the Holmdel labs on the first day it opened in 1962. We developed computer controlled telephone systems - yes there were computers then, but they occupied a complete cross aisle in the new building.

About four years later, we "supervised" the construction of the back half of the building with a massive steel bridge between for the sky light. It was built with all "temporary" internal walls so that offices could be quickly reconfigured. There were no outside offices, you had to take a walk to see the grounds including the "spacecraft" shaped water tower.

Today, it would be a great environment for an operation like Google's development organization, except that their type of employee wants to be in a big city, while most Bell Labs employees of my time wanted to live in a rural home environment.

Phil

Jan 20, 2014 05:38 pm
 Posted by  RonTeg

I remember when I came for an interview in 1969 I was blown away by the Holmdel building. I was hired and worked in the building for over 33 years.

Still remember that no expense was spared to keep up the image of a real R&D palace. In the early 80s the building was expanded and it was done on both ends of the building to preserve the symmetry. Well they began installing the mirrored glass in the new additions and found there was a slightly different shade to the mirrored glass between the old and existing glass so the powers that be replaced every pane of mirrored glass in the existing building.

Those were the final days of the Ma Bell monopoly and I often think that all the good scientific contributions that were made by Ball Labs in the Ma Bell monopoly era was not such a bad thing and maybe we would all be better off if the government not broken up Ma Bell but instead had broken up some of the big oil or pharmaceutical companies instead of Ma Bell.

Jan 20, 2014 09:41 pm
 Posted by  KeithA0000

Was the lab relocated? Or is this just another reminder of our decline?

It reminds me of the demise of Nortel Networks in Canada. They once had a separate subsidiary research company called Bell Norther Research, employing hundreds of engineers engaged in research projects. Now? All gone...

Jan 21, 2014 09:19 pm
 Posted by  chairthrower

There were about a dozen sites in New Jersey and about 10 more around the country. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_Labs#Formal_organization.

The Murray Hill location is now the primary (only?) Bell Labs facility, and Alcatel-Lucent, the current owner, has stated they wish to see it return to its heritage of innovation. The Murray Hill building has a similar sci-fi vibe, and also has movable walls. The rumor is that no one knows the precise location where the transistor was invented because no one recorded how the building was configured at the time!

Jan 23, 2014 09:24 pm
 Posted by  Sharon

I was a child when my father, a NY City high steel ironworker came to build the Bell Labs building. I would visit him with lunch and knew that someday I would work there. My uncle worked on the building extensions and I visited him at lunch because I was now an employee as were many of my high school graduating class.

As to the transistor, an historian for the labs once told me it was actually created in one of the old farm houses that were originally on the Holmdel property before the main building was erected. Murray Hill is however credited with it's development.

I was privileged to be one of the last 3 remaining people in the facility, part of facilities operations, my last day in the building officially being 12-31-2007.

I am also privileged to possess many photos of the building in its heyday with the garden's poinsettias that Ed Bergen placed so lovingly in the planters and toy and doll night. I would be happy to share these photos with all.

I loved my job and miss the camaraderie of all Holmdel's residents, no matter your station or position, we were truly a family. Pleasantries shared in the good mornings and how are you today, management familiar with their subordinates families and cards at the holidays.

I was usually the person making the announcements for drill evacuations or early closings, it's funny but people knew me by my voice. If you called x3131, any time day or night, you at some time spoke to me. We were the point of contact 24/7 for the global company. I miss you all.

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