Monday, September 26, 2011

An Era Has Passed

We have had several opportunities to entertain some visitors this summer, being mostly at home.  Given the interests of some of the visitors, we have taken some of them for a peek of the closed Bell Labs Holmdel Complex (see an aerial view at right) a place that was literally my second home for almost three decades.

My first encounter of this beautiful building was when I had my job interview with the Bell Labs in January nearly 32 years ago.  My Bell Labs recruiter (Dr. Mo Iwama) picked me up from the Molly Pitcher Hotel at Red Bank in the morning that day and drove me to the building for a two-day visit.  I recall it was a cold winter morning with some snow flake left over on the ground from the previous night.   As one entered this nearly 500 acres park-like compound (To give you an idea, New York City’s Central Park takes up 840 acres or 6% of Manhattan) from the main entrance at the north-east through its unique dual ring access road, you were first greeted with a gigantic 3-leg water tower whose shape was modeled after the famed 1947 Bell Labs invention of three-terminal transistor (see the photo below by Ralph Brandi) that brought the human race into the modern world of electronics.  As one turned the corner and drove towards to the front entrance of the building, an immense 5 story dark glass structure emerged and looked on the visitors silently.  This first impression was etched into my and many others’ memory as the building and what it had housed for 44 years (1963-2007) represented one of the most celebrated architecture and research and development accomplishments in history.


The building was designed by none other than the legendary master Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) whose well-known work to the public include the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the TWA Terminal at JFK International Airport, and Kresge Auditorium and MIT Chapel at MIT (see photos below).  The construction of the Holmdel building started in 1959 and was completed in 1962, one year after Saarinen’s untimely death at age 51.  The 6-floor building is completely enclosed in large glasses on the sides and on the roof top which reflects 75% of the sun.  The building was dubbed "The Biggest Mirror Ever" by Architectural Forum and won the first The Laboratory of the Year competition in 1967, sponsored by R&D Magazine that recognizes innovative designs, materials, and construction for laboratory facilities.  

Its present size, after the 1982-85 expansion while retaining the original design, is approximately 350 ft by 1,200 ft featuring a huge cross-shape atrium in the center with natural light reaching down to the garden at the ground floor.  During the peak years, it housed 6,000 staffs including a large cafeteria that offered excellent food with a view to the pond and garden at the rear of the building.

In addition to the open atrium at the center of the building, the most interesting aspect of Saarinen’s design is the walled modular offices/laboratories in aisles encircled by walkways.  On the interior side, the walkways overlook the central atrium and on the exterior side, it is adjacent to the large glasses that offer unobstructed views of the compound.  With the strong corridor effect of the cross aisle design, maximum privacy was achieved and one would have never guessed that there are 6,000 other employees working in the same building.  During winter times, one would find people using the perimeter walkways for daily walking exercises under the warm winter sun.  For some archival video footages of the history of Bell Labs Holmdel complex, one can start from the following Youtube video:

As a former long time resident of the building, I thought one interesting and important implication of the design was the social equality: no one shall have a windowed office regardless your rank!  This unwritten policy was unfortunately broken when one corner of the top floor was closed off to create an “executive office area” to move Ian Ross, then the Bell Labs President, to Holmdel in late 80s. Till this day, I still can’t believe the company could get an exception from Saarinen’s to agree to such a modification.  In the larger scheme of things however, it was probably just a collateral damage of the 1984 divestiture under which the regulated monopoly (i.e., tax payers’ utility) of AT&T/Bell Systems is no more.

Like many other stories about old dynasties, the ownership of the Bell Labs Holmdel complex changed hands few times more as AT&T struggled to adapt to the new competitive telecom world and went through business restructuring, spin-offs, mergers and acquisitions.  In late 1996, the Holmdel building and 80% of the Bell Labs staffs (and the name), among other assets, became a part of Lucent Technologies, a U.S. based telecom equipment firm whose stock was traded at over $80 a share in Aug 2000, right before the bubbles burst.  Lucent was sold to and merged in Dec 2006 with the French Telecom giant Alcatel to become a part of now Alcatel-Lucent whose stock was traded at $2.91 as of last Fri, Sept 23, 2011.  

The 472 acre complex was closed down in July 2007.  When I moved out of the building early July, there were no more than few hundreds of employees left there and weeds had visibly grown in the empty parking lots.  Despite years of efforts in selling off the property by Alcatel-Lucent, the future of the complex is still uncertain as none of the contractual agreements have been carried through.  First off, it is not likely any corporation these days would entertain the idea of taking over a 6,000 people capacity suburban office/laboratory facility.  The next obvious question has been to create a redevelopment plan for this fabulous property that would be acceptable to developers in making profits and to obtain the needed approval of rezoning by a township which had had different ideas including possible demolition of the building.

Indeed, Preservation New Jersey listed the place on its list of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in New Jersey in 2007.  Never had I thought I would be associated in my life time with words like “endangered” or “historical”.  But if I look back, the computing and communications world has changed dramatically and gone through revolutions multiple times in last 30 years.  I have witnessed and played a part in my career the change from analog to digital, from copper wire to optical and wireless, from voice to anything over Internet, and from time-shared computers and PCs to smart appliances and cloud computing.   Yes, I sure can appreciate the sentiments as such a pace of change would have taken generations to complete not too long ago.

Bob Lucky, a former Bell Labs VP, wrote on the Sept 2005 issue of IEEE Spectrum, upon hearing the news of the planned sale of the property:  For many of us, it is the passing of an era.  Even for technology itself, it is an ominous reminder of how the world has changed.  When I drive by that lifeless building today, I remember these lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias published in 1818:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Yes, an era has passed.  But, regardless how and what the place would become, I am proud and feel fortunate to have worked for one of the greatest institutions in the world and spent countless hours of my prime years in a tiny corner of such a magnificent building.

Talk to you soon!


RelRay said...

Great blog. It brought back many memories, especially since Mo Iwama was my first boss at BTL

iFROG said...

Mo Iwama was my BL Campus Recruiter who shepherded me through the thesis review and interview process when I was completing my Ph.D. degree. A number of years later, he was promoted to become my Executive Director at the Labs for a while.

The world had revolved more since I posted this blog almost 5 years ago. Nokia has taken over the Alcatel-Lucent, thus Bell Labs, 6 months ago. Meanwhile, there have been some signs of life returning to the building, see