An Architectural Marvel Reborn: Bell Works Creates New Theater Out of Classic Architecture
Article posted on Jun 23, 2017
If you had to pick a place to make into an AV showplace, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as significant as the former Bell Labs headquarters in Holmdel NJ. Finished in 1962, the massive and striking modernist structure was designed by Eero Saarinen, the architect who also created St. Louis’ Gateway Arch and the bird-in-flight-shaped TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. At its peak, the two million-square-foot, glass-topped building was home to 6000 engineers and researchers who churned out Bell Labs’ many innovations, including Steven Chu’s Nobel Prize-winning work on laser cooling, as well as critical advances in radio astronomy and cellphone technology
The telephone business changed, and the site fell idle in the early 21st century, even as contention swirled around as to what it should become. Coming at a time when businesses and people were rediscovering America’s urban cores, Holmdel’s suburban location, about 45 miles west of New York City, seemed to further consign it to a past era. However, a $200 million redevelopment of the site, begun in 2013 by Somerset Developers after a campaign to save it for its architectural value succeeded, has transformed what is now known as Bell Works into a city-like oasis—a “Mini Silicon Valley,” according to one newspaper account, and the epitome of a “Metroburb,” said another—with plans including a health center, a hotel, retail and a public library, in a very suburban location.
One of those amenities, a 350-seat auditorium on the main building’s lower level, might seem a bit quotidian but it’s actually a central hub in a larger vision that ultimately will include a conference center, which will comprise collaboration and huddle rooms of various sizes and levels of sophistication. Eventually, all of these will be networked together, not unlike the way overflow rooms have connected AV to a church’s main sanctuary.
In fact, like a house of worship, the new Bell Works is placing a lot of emphasis on its heritage. Stephen Keppler, Vice President and senior sales executive at McCann Systems (www.mccannsystems.com), the AV systems integrator on the auditorium and other aspects of Bell Works, noted that, at the auditorium’s first event in early May, he encountered a woman who told him that she had worked there for 32 years and had met her husband there. Many of the thousands of people who worked at the site over its 40-plus years as an R&D center for AT&T and later for Alcatel-Lucent have been stopping by to relive old times. “It really reinforced the fact that this is a historical place,” said Keppler. “It has tremendous meaning for a lot of people and the history of the area, so one of the big challenges of bringing modern audio and video into the auditorium was to do it without disturbing what makes Bell Works a landmarked piece of history.”
Landmark status extends to specific architectural and structural items in the huge campus, and the concrete columns that support the auditorium’s ceiling are included. According to Keppler, that wasn’t as much of a problem for cabling as it might have been. “We wanted to avoid drilling into them. Fortunately, there were these notches that were part of their design that we were able to use to route cabling through.” The two Vaddio RoboShot 30 PTZ video cameras installed in the auditorium as part of the renovation were located high up enough so their mounts could be drilled into the concrete columns.
Moshe Gross, Director of Special Projects at Bell Works, said that McCann Systems’ sensitivities to the building’s requirements was why he chose the integrator. “The reason why we liked what McCann had to offer was because they were equipped to take into account the unique historical features and infrastructure of the building,” he explained. “They're willing to work with us to create something that matches our priorities in terms of time, budget, and functionality, all in the context of the larger redevelopment effort at Bell Works.”
Cabling and conduit underscore that point. Keppler said that the amount and location of existing conduit, under the raised floor of the 55-year-old building (reportedly one of the first ever to have fiberoptic cables installed) was sufficient for the new AV designs. That’s helped, he said, by the architect’s provisions for future transformations, such as the prescient inclusion of three IT rooms per building that run throughout the entire structure.
“Eero Saarinen understood that technology will change, there will be new runs of technology,” said Gross. “The only challenge we had was that a lot of the old wire was left behind, so it took us some time to clear out those passageways. But we do have those pathways throughout the building.”
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