In the mid-fifties, a fascination for shapes of the first computers and their product patterns, the IBM punch cards, evolved. People who could read and understand these signals counted themselves members of a new era. From now on, the lives of people were embossed into the modular system of the punch cards - like in the matrices of the modularly structured sheathing of the facilities they were made in. In 1956, Eero Saarinen had been commissioned to design the new IBM Manufacturing and Training Facility in Rochester, Minnesota. This factory, which also included administration, was to stand at the forefront of a new series of IBM production buildings displaying the company's corporate image. The extensive low-rise complex received a curtain wall made of extremely thin tinted neoprene glazing with different shades of colour based on a 4 ft grid. The wafer-thin glass skin makes the building appear abstract and dematerialised; it is a telling expression of the precision of the IBM machines manufactured inside. The blue shades of the façade colour scheme also hint at the IBM nickname "Big Blue". (Just like Olivetti, IBM was in the process of creating a new corporate logo). The individual wings containing the production halls are connected to a central shared area accommodating the canteen, lounge and visitor areas. Instead of designing a conventional lavish entrance lobby Saarinen concentrated his attention on creating a good working environment. Differences in the appearance of production and administration facilities were abolished as far as possible in order to tear down traditional hierarchies and differences between workers and employees. To express this equality, both areas are indiscriminately sheathed with
the same façade pattern. In the following, IBM went on building further factories across the US modelled on the Minnesota facilities.
The IBM plant in Rochester was a precursor for Saarinen's next commission, the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York (completed in 1961). The centre was to provide facilities for the development of a new "intelligent" computer generation.
During World War II a new type of large research laboratory for the private industry had emerged based on a diffuse affiliation of military and university research. Academic research hereby grew increasingly dependent on private foundations which in turn were governed by large companies. In addition, the government co-ordinated military projects during the war, thus taking a leading role in this field of research. This development continued during the cold war and led to the formation of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950. In the following years, this affiliation became known as the "military-industrial-academic complex". The new research facilities needed for this purpose were separated from production and obtained their own corporate image.
When Saarinen was commissioned to design the IBM Yorktown Heights centre IBM had entertained close links with Harvard University for years. At the same time, it handled public contracts in the military sector. This close connection between military and university research also existed in another project by Saarinen which he carried out in two phases for Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey between 1957 and 1966. Both projects have to be considered together since their planning was carried out almost at the same time. Furthermore, both projects had to provide maximum flexibility because the outcome of the respective research projects they were to house could not be foreseen. While the IBM facilities in Yorktown Heights contained six departments for multi-disciplinary computer sciences, the Bell complex in Holmdel comprised research and product development. It maintained close links with universities and was designed particularly for research in the fields of circuits, data transmission, quality control, and network design.
Saarinen's first proposal for the IBM project envisaged a campus consisting of low-rise, interconnected buildings with double-loaded corridors, grouped around a large courtyard and nestling in the hilly terrain. In contrast, the design proposal for Bell was based from the beginning on an introverted compact massing of the building volume. Saarinen's starting point for both projects was a remarkably progressive research complex completed in 1941 - the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Yet in developing the scheme, Saarinen turned conventional day-lit areas with workplaces on the building perimeter into centrally located deep work zones which were air-conditioned and artificially lit. This tendency had become apparent in office and laboratory buildings throughout the USA, but Saarinen pursued this idea more radically. Whereas in his preliminary design sketches at least offices were positioned along the façades, ultimately all offices and laboratories were allocated in central zones accessed by peripheral corridors. The completed scheme drastically broke with the ideals of European Modernism which had postulated a strong doctrine in the twenties with its call for light and air for apartments and workplaces. From now on, the public and circulation areas around the perimeter set the stage for sweeping views of the landscape or into inner courtyards; relationships between interior and exterior space could only be experienced in a controlled manner during periodical breaks and were to take place along the building's curtain walls.
It is interesting to compare Saarinen's project with Kahn's Salk Institute in La Jolla, built approximately at the same time (1959-1965): Kahn's offices were day-lit and naturally ventilated "thinking cells" with adjoining loggias; they were located in front of the inner laboratory zones.
The Thomas J. Watson Research Center for IBM was one of the first large research complexes to be linked to new highways, thereby changing the bucolic landscape of the Hudson Valley south of New York City. Initially, Saarinen had envisaged natural lighting for the laboratories via courtyards and for the offices via exterior façades respectively. Yet eventually he opted for a compact three-storey building volume based in plan on a 4 ft x 6 ft grid. Each floor plan comprises funnel-shaped cores and corridors along the façades. The open plan spaces are column-free. 24 ft deep rows of laboratories are arranged back to back along narrow service corridors perpendicular to the façades. Alternately, 12 ft deep office rows are also arranged back to back along central rows of fitted cabinets. Both zones are accessed via transverse corridors. The sweeping lightweight façades of the building are juxtaposed by massive natu
ral stonewalls facing the peripheral corridors on their inner side. The rocks were gathered locally. Individual rocks have been marked with the coordinates of their original position within the landscape. The corridors afford generous views of the surroundings. The staggering of the natural stonewalls supports the contrast between the orthogonal workspaces and the sweeping shape of the glazed exterior membrane - at that time, this was an extraordinary composition! Just how groundbreaking this scheme really was became apparent 40 years later when Sir Norman Foster adapted it for his McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey, England, in a striking way.
While the concave façade of the IBM building consists of natural stone and glazed panels, the convex main façade received a full height curtain wall made of dark tinted glass. It is based on a 4 ft grid and bears no relation to the 6 ft interior grid. All interior partitions are modular steel-and-glass elements. The interior grid manifests itself in prefabricated wall and cabinet elements consisting of modular panels in two different widths in dark and light colours. This differentiated interior scheme is reminiscent of the façades of the IBM factory in Rochester; it facilitates orientation in the highly repetitive circulation system.
Walter Gropius and his TAC practice were also commissioned in 1962 by IBM to design a large research centre for the development of computer systems for the Federal Government. Gropius' proposal for the IBM Federal Systems Division Facility in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was a clear layout comprising linked rectangular rows of laboratories. In an alternative scheme he proposed square building volumes with inner courtyards. Unfortunately, the interesting schemes were never realised.
Saarinen's final design for the Bell Laboratories is based on a monolithic, introverted block structure with very deep inner zones and a row of small courtyards. The basement houses the IT control rooms; also, an auditorium and a canteen are located here.
The Bell Laboratories are characterised by the strict correspondence of the square 6 ft ceiling grid, the transparent glazed interior partitions, and the grid of the continuous curtain walls. Although the building volume is embedded in a generous baroque elliptical layout of roads and green spaces, in reality the complex appears just as neutral as the grid of the interior partitions (their only variation being different shades of grey). The neutral appearance is reinforced by the sheer endless and repetitive veneer of the light reflective glazing supported by a delicate 3 ft grid of metal profiles. In the two-dimensional, graphic system, the floor levels are no longer visible. With a length of more than 400 m it was the longest "mirror" that had ever been built. This achievement was also revolutionary in terms of building technology. Saarinen had brought together the transparency of the interior spaces with a reflective exterior skin. Solar heat gains were reduced and with it energy consumption for the air-conditioning of the exterior corridors by approximately 70 %. At that time, the Architectural Forum called this an "inside-out" air-conditioning.
Paradoxically, the huge reflective façade does not reflect much; the flat landscape and the huge parking lots do not produce images that could be mirrored. Yet this effect was fully intended: Saarinen and his client wanted to express IBM's corporate image with an impersonalised, incomprehensible façade - a mirroring computer screen that in its way was to become a symbol for the "military-industrial complex" of the time.
The visions, wealth of ideas, and architectural potency of the portrayed American research buildings of the post-war era between 1945 and 1965 are the key to a better understanding of an important period of architectural history of the 20th century. After the end of Postmodernism and the rediscovery and resumption of Modernism, the echo of these projects can be heard. This is true for today's laboratory and research buildings and many other building types.
Was this article helpful?