Disposable Architecture

When the residents of New Haven, Connecticut, got word last fall that Ikea might be coming to town, many welcomed the news. No longer would they have to brave the two-hour drive to the retailer’s nearest branch in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to pick up a new Ingo side table or Oppala chair. What’s more, Ikea had its eye on the Pirelli Tire Company headquarters (formerly Armstrong Rubber), a 1969 building designed by Marcel Breuer that had been sitting vacant since 1997. Given the debt that so much Ikea merchandise owes to Breuer’s work—particularly his midcentury furniture design—the company seemed perfectly cast as the neglected building’s savior.

The marriage between retailer and landmark, though, has been rocky so far. It turns out that Ikea never had any interest in occupying the Pirelli building, seeing its interior spaces as much too cramped to accommodate a planned 300,000 square feet of retail space. Instead the company was attracted simply by the site, a 19-acre parcel at the intersection of highways I-95 and I-91.

Indeed Ikea initially hoped to demolish the entire Breuer building. But after meetings with New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr. and others last summer, “it became clear that it was important for us to protect the integrity of the building,” says Patrick Smith, the company’s real estate director for the northeast United States. Exactly how that integrity is defined, however, has become a matter of debate. The compromise that Ikea eventually reached with New Haven officials will keep intact most, but certainly not all, of the Pirelli building, a sculpted concrete design that features four floors of offices hovering over a two-story base structure with a dramatic gap in between.

On the southern edge of the site Ikea plans to build its typical two-story box in yellow and blue. It will leave the front elevation of the Breuer building but demolish two sections at ground level: a 17,000-square-foot chunk of the main structure, turning the building’s L-shape profile into one that looks more like the letter I, and a 20,000-square-foot warehouse, also by Breuer, that stretches toward the back of the property. The demolition will free up room for about 200 parking spaces.

Ikea’s plans for the site got a boost in November when New Haven’s board of aldermen unanimously approved a zoning change that allows the deal to move forward. The company has so far been reluctant to say precisely what it plans for the Pirelli building, though it will probably try to lease out the upper floors as office space. The new store is expected to open in 2004.

The unanimous vote seemed to confirm a widely held view that the city, though uncomfortable with the prospect of losing the Pirelli building altogether, was unlikely to risk derailing the project by pushing too hard for concessions from Ikea. New Haven’s downtown commercial core has experienced a tentative revival in recent years, and the Pirelli building, standing at a major gateway to the city, was increasingly seen as a white elephant. Ikea’s arrival at the site, predicts Craig Russell of New Haven’s office of economic development, “will do wonders for the city. It’ll make New Haven more of a destination.” For its part, Ikea maintains that its planned changes to the building will hardly be noticeable. To drivers on I-95, Smith says, “the building will look identical.”

But it’s not hard to find architects who contend that the city ought to have pushed much harder to protect Breuer’s design. “A building—and particularly this building—is not simply a sum of its parts,” Robert Narracci, a New Haven architect, wrote in a document critical of Ikea’s plans that he helped prepare for the board of aldermen. “It cannot be chopped off at a convenient point.”

“What we’re saying to Ikea,” local architect Lana Berkovich says, “is if you want to tear down the warehouse, fine, but why not keep the rest of the building intact? That seems to us to be an extremely reasonable, even sheepish, demand.”

In a larger sense, even fans of Ikea’s furniture find it baffling that the company would expose itself to charges of taking a wrecking ball to the same Modernist heritage it celebrates in its product line. “I think we all made certain positive assumptions about how Ikea would treat the building based on the fact that it was Ikea,” Berkovich says. “And most of those assumptions turned out to be wrong.”

Categories: Arts + Culture, Preservation

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