For several years, the fate of the Eero Saarinen–designed Bell Labs complex in Holmdel, New Jersey, remained uncertain. Now the mammoth modernist structure, once the breeding ground for pioneering technology of the 20th century, will be reborn as an expansive mixed-use town center.
Developer Somerset Development has tapped Alexander Gorlin Architects to convert the 1.9 million-square-foot facility into a contained island of retail, dining, residential, hotel, performance, and office space—providing new amenities, from a town library to an outdoor sports complex, for the sprawling suburban community. Two New Jersey–based firms, NK Architects and Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design, will also collaborate on the design of the interior tenant space.
“It is almost like the Romans have left the arena. How do you re-inhabit the coliseum? How do you inject new life in a space that is waiting for something to happen?” said Gorlin. “It symbolized America at its post-war peek in 1962.”
The colossal, quarter-mile-long atrium will be the cornerstone of the renovation. Gorlin imagines that this vast, open space will serve a similar function to that of the Armory, and host a variety of events such as large and small-scale performances, a farmer’s market, and pop-up shops.
“It was originally a single-use tenant. It was not a space other than a gathering place or a passage through for the building. Now it is inverting that and making the atrium a kind of boulevard to reanimate a space that is deserted,” said Gorlin. “Until there are new tenants, that [atrium] has to be made the destination.”
Only a month after purchasing the property from Alcatel-Lucent, Somerset has already begun work on its $100 million rehabilitation of the roughly 470-acre campus. Ralph Zucker, president of Somerset, said that they have started to clean up and restore the landscaping originally designed by Saarinen and Sasaki, Walker & Associates (SWA).
The renovation will first involve restoring the three entrances to the facility and putting together a final master plan. “On the other hand, the space at some level is quite enormous and monumental and at the same time it is all based on repetitive modules,” said Gorlin.
Gorlin said another challenge is attempting to make a structure that is “completely sealed” more “energy efficient and sustainable.” Zucker anticipates that the master plan will be completed within the next few weeks. As the “town architect,” Gorlin will focus on “the life between the buildings,” whereas the future tenants will be able to bring in their own architects to oversee the interior design.
“We are going to provide a unified graphic system that will control all the tenants behind,” said Gorlin. “It will maintain the order of Saarinen’s vision, but newly alive with 24/7 programming—maintaining the spirit of invention and creativity that signified Bell Labs.”
So far the development has one tenant, Community Healthcare Associates, which plans to take over 400,000 square feet of the building. The developer envisions the complex will house a variety of tenants that meet the needs of the rather affluent surrounding community. “Everything has to mesh and come together: the clientele, the target market. There is room for many different levels,” said Zucker.
The property to the rear of the building will become an outdoor sports center with basketball courts and soccer and lacrosse fields. Zucker also plans to carve out pedestrian and bike paths as well, however, he ensures that the front entrance and iconic landscaping will remain intact.
“The idea is to keep the simplicity—gargantuan simplicity,” said Gorlin. “It is this perfect rectangular glass volume sitting in a bucolic nature, between two ponds. Between Versailles and an English country garden.”