SAARINEN’S LAST EXPERIMENT
Occasionally, history comes back and gives me a slap in the face. The slap in this instance came in the form of an article on innovation that appeared in the New York Times recently. It recounts the all-too-familiar story of how a giant American corporation sponsored some of the most important research in science and technology in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, establishing the United States as the world leader in innovation, at least in that era. The Bell Laboratories, initially located in Holmdel, New Jersey, by the monopolistic American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), was the epicenter of this story.
But this wasn’t the sting in the slap. Rather, it was that the Bell Labs building was designed by Eero Saarinen, whose firm I worked for, beginning two years after the completion of this building in 1962. By then, Saarinen was dead of a brain tumor at age fifty-one, and his practice was in the hands of his partners, Joseph N. Lacy and John Dinkeloo, and his design protégé Kevin Roche. Saarinen’s great fame was founded on exciting curvilinear buildings like the Yale Hockey Rink and the TWA Terminal at New York’s Idewild (now J. F. Kennedy) Airport. The Bell Labs building was the very opposite, an immense glass box, relentlessly organized on a Cartesian grid.
As an architect, Eero Saarinen was a shameless experimenter. He had no signature style, which might be the reason historians have not treated his work with much interest—they tend to favor trademarked brands, as they are easier to package and sell. I tend to think of him as an expressionist: each of his buildings expresses what he saw as the essence of its function. A hockey rink is about gliding and flow; an airplane terminal is about arrivals and departures and the symbolism they evoke; a research laboratory is about logic. His many other buildings, such as the CBS Headquarters in New York—an unassailable black granite column—express Saarinen’s ideas of their very different purposes. The lesson we take away from his work is that one style cannot fit all. We can only wonder at how successful he would have been today.
Did the ultra-rational design of the Bell Labs contribute at all to the innovative work carried on there? From this article it would seem so. Yet, I have some doubts. Does creative thinking in any field have any relationship with the architecture it takes place in? It’s a hard case to prove, one way or the other, but architects are continually claiming the connection. In the case of Bell Labs, the argument is made that the layout of the building encouraged interdisciplinary contact that led to the most productive, innovative collaborations. If this is true, what does this tell us about the most celebrated architecture of today, with its eccentric, computer-generated complexities. What about the creativity of everyday life? “Dumb boxes,” as I have written elsewhere, may be the wave of the most creative future. Whether yes or no, the sharp sting of Saarinen’s Bell Labs building, and the story behind it, lingers on.
We must not avoid the questions it raises, especially those of us who have made considerable effort to explore other ways of thinking.
(above) The long corridors were encouraging to interdisciplinary exchange, according to the Times article. Photo from 1966.