Since the birth of the landmarks movement in America, hatched in the wake of Penn Station’s 1963 demolition, and finally fixed constitutionally in 1978 when the US Supreme Court upheld the designation of Grand Central Terminal by New York City’s Landmarks Commission, the link of form and function that accords with some historic site’s original intent has often been severed. Necessity became the mother of design invention. It came to be labeled long ago with the moniker of adaptive reuse in part hopefully to supersede any anti-designation arguments arising from economic obsolesce.
Jefferson Market Public Library. Image via Stribling
Cases in point whether flourishing and failed are bountiful: Giorgio Cavaglieri’s 1967 conversion of the Victorian Greenwich Village confection of the Jefferson Market Courthouse by Vaux and Withers to a public library branch (above); the 1996 transformation of the princely Renaissance Revival B. Altman Department Store Building to graduate school classrooms, a publishing house, and a library of business and science (even featuring what was then the breakthrough introduction of computer terminals) by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and Gwathmey Siegel Associates; an 1845 Richard Upjohn Goth Revival gem aka the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion becoming in the 1980s the illicit drugstore otherwise known as the Limelight Disco, which is being now readied anew as a gym chain redoubt best known for its tumescent steam rooms; and perhaps the crown jewel of reuse so far, London’s 2000 conversion of the Bankside Power Station to the Tate Modern by Herzog and deMeuon.
Church of the Holy Communion in 2010 as Limelight Marketplace. Image via Wikipedia
It is encouraging that such a client approach is deployed increasingly for the mid-century modernist landmarks, again where and when the original intent works no longer.
One great case in point unfolding today under the aegis of Somerset Development is the great Bell Labs Holmdel Complex in the New Jersey town of like name near the State’s center. Designed in 1962 by Eero Saarinen on 472 parkland acres in an elliptical campus-like master plan, it grew to a more than two million-square-foot building, where technicians and Nobel laureates alike shaped the future of telecommunications for half a century. A water tower resembling the then radical advent of the transistor stands still as apt metaphor of thrilling purpose housed by Saarinen, with a like measure of forward-looking optimism. From the beginning, it was called the “Biggest Mirror Ever” for its reflective facade soon copied far and wide as a modernist design mainstay.
Now as a National Trust landmark, the hire of Alexander Gorlin Architects to reinvent and thus assure its viable future has spawned the new name of Bell Works as befitting a mixed-use center that will include an assisted living facility, public library branch, wellness center, sports club, and best of all commercial spaces and offices intermingled with galleries, food courts, and well plugged-in gathering places. All such amenities are now essential for the shape and operation of new business and industry typologies, taking shape in teams of shared expertise free from outdated formal barriers. Collaboration is the commission’s thrust; as Gorlin puts it, “the thoughtful repurposing of such an historically iconic place.”
Even Somerset’s separate but prospectively compromising negotiation with Toll Brothers to cover the surrounding park acreage with a New Urbanist inflected array of single-family homes and condos cannot diminish the central commission.
Alexander Gorlin Architects are no strangers to intelligent renovation and a critical eye towards New Urbanism: consider their concept for a townhouse in Seaside, Fla.:
Here, the "public gesture" of an open stair guiding residents to the living area above a shop recalls the open loggias of Italian piazzas as well as the traditional brownstone stoop — places for public interaction. The dialogue between public and private is continued through the double-height glass cube of the living area, framing the neighboring square:
And in upstate New York, the firm rehabilitated a 1784 farmhouse into a centerpiece of a Catskills retreat:
Bell Works comes on the heels of many comparable adaptations by contemporary architects, including the old and prematurely overlooked fabric of San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and perhaps most vividly among the long-abandoned shipyards, warehouses, and manufacturing centers along Brooklyn’s waterfront. The Brooklyn Navy Yards, now spilling over in its fully-leased wake to the nearby Industry City, both serve as vivid models for the physical requirements of promising new entrepreneurs and their small business fellow travelers.
Adaptive reuse has never seemed a quicker passage from old to accommodating radical blueprints for conducting business in this unfolding century.
Who foresaw this greenest of all reuse reliance coming when contrasted to the fixed hierarchies inevitably imbedded in the now abandoned doughnut dream left behind by the ultimate tech-visionary Steve Jobs? His now defunct, heavily energy-dependent plans for an airtight suburban world headquarters by Lord Foster, evidently inspired by Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider, yields instead today, for example, to the historic Warfield Building on Market Street in downtown SF.
The addition of this seminal Saarinen temple of high modernism to the still unfolding tradition of adaptive reuse as the paradoxical touchstone for the contemporary is cause for follow-through scrutiny and a likely celebration when completed. Inquiry pending re-date…