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In Holmdel Township, New Jersey, a “MetroBurb” is born. Once home to over 6,000 engineers and scientists, the former Bell Labs campus — a 186,000-square-metre complex designed by the legendary Eero Saarinen — has been respectfully yet radically reinvented into a city in miniature.

Originally built in 1962, the sprawling five-storey building housed a striking sequence of central atriums ringed by windowless research labs behind a mesmerizing mirror-like exterior. By 2006, however, the massive edifice was vacant and slated for demolition. What a shame that would have been. Fortunately, a forward-looking adaptive re-use project by New York’s Alexander Gorlin Architects has transformed the building, adding a variety of office and retail spaces and reviving the spine of atriums into discrete social hubs.

“This is such a powerful example, and at a rare large scale, of adaptation in the suburbs. It is so important to see effective transformation in this context for rethinking mixed-use community hubs.”
Marc Ryan, AZ Awards 2021 Juror

Among its major moves, the firm replaced the monolithic opaque walls of the former research rooms with a careful balance of glass walls and solid panels. This opened up the new offices, co-working spaces and event venues (popular for weddings and private parties) to the atriums below, which have been enlivened with boutiques, coffee shops and food halls. Alongside eye-catching seating by Ron Arad, the designers introduced to this “Main Street” a variety of plant life and Astroturf “lawns” that soften the imposing architecture with a playful dose of green.

The sensitive design celebrates the spatial quality of the original building while maximizing its functionality. To that end, the firm reconstructed the roof with clear photovoltaic glass. The world’s largest such installation, it maintains the transparent lightness of Saarinen’s design while generating 15 per cent of the building’s electricity.

Team Alexander Gorlin with Cyrus Sarrafha, Vincent Linarello and Daniel Schuetz (Alexander Gorlin Architects); Ralph Zucker (Somerset Development); Justin Fabrikant (Laufs Engineering Design); Kit Bryant (Jensen Hughes); Randy Sabedra (RS Lighting Design); Paola Zamudio (NPZ Style + Décor); Eric Collins (Becht Engineering BT); Cindy Hamilton (Heritage Consulting Group); Jill Walsh (OLA Engineers); Gene Dassing (G3 Architecture) and Robert Zuffi (Stantec).

Winner: Adaptive Re-Use
AZ Awards 2021 Winner: Bell Works