Welcome to Bell Labs
February 24, 2014 7:41 PM   Subscribe

The legendary Bell Labs Complex in Holmdel, New Jersey was designed by Eero Saarinen and is a gargantuan example of modernist architecture. Though it was shuttered in 2007, there are plans to revitalize it into a mixed use commercial area. However those plans eventually play out, it's fun to have a look at the place both then and now. As a bonus, feast your eyes on a pair of back-to-back videos that first show the construction and opening of the facility in 1962 and then (starting at the 2:35 mark in the second video link) a commemoration of the facility's 20th anniversary in 1982 (Part one, Part two, Part three).
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (28 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
An amazing building, but ultimately software developers no longer want to work in suburban New Jersey. Bell Labs never predicted that.
posted by GuyZero at 7:53 PM on February 24, 2014

Before I watch these, is Dr. Frank Baxter in it anywhere? (for grade school students with lazy science teachers in the 60s/70s, he was the Star of Film Time)
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:56 PM on February 24, 2014

Holmdel was the first office building I ever set foot in as a kid. For years, I just assumed that's what every office building looked like, and everybody worked in similarly enormous mall-like environs. As strange delusions go, it was a pretty dystopic one.
posted by phooky at 8:07 PM on February 24, 2014

I worked in that building for a year or two several years ago as a contractor. What a strange and cool space it was. There was a walkway around the perimeter of the building right inside the outer wall (as seen here) and an equal one more in the interior. In between was a warren of offices, cubicles, labs and other spaces. I remember that room numbers had a building number (each of the four quadrants was considered a "building" for this), a floor number, an aisle number and then a room number, as I recall.

There was a sit-down table service buffet restaurant on the main floor, and two large cafeterias in the basement. I worked there long enough ago that there were still indoor smoking rooms for the smokers - never ventured in those.

Eventually Lucent started moving in and the restaurant disappeared to make way for cubicles. I got transferred over to one of the new buildings in the Laurel Ave complex, and then got laid off about a week and a half before 9/11. I still dream about writing a post-apocalyptic novel about a community forming in that building.
posted by booksherpa at 8:10 PM on February 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

God that's beautiful.
posted by yoink at 8:13 PM on February 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

While looking for more articles about the building, I found this fascinating article series that talks about an enormous design project that took place in this building.

They knew that "Data was devouring the public phone network" and some enormous project would be needed to design something that could scale enough to handle all this data. They talked to the Arpanet folks who had a small project, and decided that it couldn't scale (it eventually did, and became the Internet).

They spent a billion dollars and hired upwards of 1000 people to design their own system, and, well, I don't want to give away what happened because it is an interesting read, but obviously it didn't become the Internet.
posted by eye of newt at 8:33 PM on February 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

Researchers working at Bell Labs are credited with the development of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the charge-coupled device (CCD), information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language, S programming language and the C++ programming language. Seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories.

wikipedia on Bell Labs article.

This is like our Mecca.
posted by bukvich at 8:36 PM on February 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

On top of roughly 400,000 square feet of medical offices and 100,000 square feet of basic office space, the group also plans a host of restaurants, shops, and cafes lining the site’s 100 by 1,000-foot atrium, creating a sort of traditional main street aesthetic. There will also be a 50,000-square-foot health and fitness center, a 20,000-square-foot public library, and a hotel inside the structure. Outside, they plan recreation areas that include walking and biking paths, along with other features like soccer and football fields.

I can't imagine the demand for all that office space and those services given the location of the complex. There is no other commerce around it, it's not on a main thoroughfare and there is zero public transportation (try getting to a concert at the nearby PNC Center without a car -- not fun). I fear it's a building that has outlived its time. The soccer fields might get used, though.
posted by stargell at 9:09 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


We'll never see it's like again.
posted by wuwei at 9:30 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

It looks gorgeous in its vastness and modernist simplicity, but I wonder what it's like to work there sitting at your desk alongside thousands of other drones, all day long, day after day, where the only way to find you is by decoding the number of your cubicle.

I think the plans to turn it into a faux main street would make Eero Saarinen shudder but I'm quite intrigued.
posted by Dragonness at 9:32 PM on February 24, 2014

"This is like our Mecca."

Yeah, that and Xerox PARC together shaped the modern world in many respects.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:49 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

They spent a billion dollars and hired upwards of 1000 people to design their own system

ACS wasn't the only contender there was also OSI (started by the ISO). There's a good chapter on it in Where Wizards Stay Up Late a seminal history of the Internet. OSI was bugabear, a design by committee suit of protocols that were impractical and confusing, created by industry, each vendor added their own "options" to the core protocols, written in specification language so intentionally obtuse and theoretical no one could understand it. TCP/IP's pragmatic, open and do-what-works approach ensured it was the most widely adopted (and Vint Cerf did a lot of lobbying to get key institutions to support TCP/IP).
posted by stbalbach at 10:34 PM on February 24, 2014

The phone system did eventually use packet switching, ATM, which is OSI based. It carries voice, video and data. Unlike with TCP/IP which has variable size packets, the packets in ATM are uniform size, "cells". Virtual circuits are created between two points. Most voice calls are ATM, virtual dedicated 64k circuits, but I think the general trend now is toward all IP networks which is more flexible and cheaper.
posted by stbalbach at 10:48 PM on February 24, 2014

For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure the CIA headquarters in the first Splinter Cell game is based on this building.
posted by cthuljew at 11:02 PM on February 24, 2014

See also Netheads vs Bellheads (WIRED, 1996). Packet-switching vs. ATM. (No Bell Labs mention, though.)
posted by dhartung at 11:49 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wait, it's not bell labs and it's not PARC. What important research shop like this had the ridiculous pyramid-ish building that looked a lot like the pyramid complex from beyond the black rainbow?
posted by emptythought at 11:49 PM on February 24, 2014

At a conference on preserving modernist architecture in Hawai`i someone (a non-architect) dared to ask the same question I had wondered: "How come you guys only want to save the ugly buildings?"

I find these types of buildings elegant and powerful, but also lifeless and soul-crushing. I see the beauty, but in the same way that I see the beauty in the Borg's cube. They always struck me as being much more about the architect than about the people who might have to work or visit the building, or about the surrounding environment or community.

I realize this is a minority view, especially in my field, but I hate most modernist architecture so very much.
posted by kanewai at 11:52 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Great setting for the next Bioshock.
posted by painquale at 1:41 AM on February 25, 2014

I work in an old Bell Labs building. Three floors and a 6 character alphanumerical room location scheme. My window looks out on the 900,000 sq ft manufacturing plant 20 feet behind it. It's coming down. A few months ago you could look into the doors and windows of the north end of the facade and see daylight. The light has crept southward as unseen excavators demolished it from the inside. Last week I saw an excavator's bucket raised above the roof line from my window. It was really close. The south wall will be down by April. Then, I'll look out on the biggest pile of rubble I will ever see in my lifetime.
posted by putzface_dickman at 7:01 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

An amazing building, but ultimately software developers no longer want to work in suburban New Jersey. Bell Labs never predicted that.

If they were still hiring research mathematicians when I finished grad school, I'd have applied for a job there. They did some interesting research, and gave people (the non-drones at least) a little bit of paid time to work on their own projects as well.

The bad rep of north/central New Jersey is somewhat deserved on the basis of sprawl and car-focused, unplanned development with poor public transportation options off of the northeast corridor line or one or two of the other NJ Transit lines with more frequent and extended service, but it does have the advantage of being close to lots of other stuff, where one's friends might live, where academic couples can solve two-body problems, and such.
posted by eviemath at 7:22 AM on February 25, 2014

I find these types of buildings elegant and powerful, but also lifeless and soul-crushing.

When I was a little kid my dad would tell me these wonderful stories about the work done at Bell Labs. For about 10 years, if you asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would say, "Work at Bell Labs!" (With no real idea of how, mind you.) Then I found out it was in New Jersey. And saw a photo of it. And said, "Ugh, why would I want to work in an ugly glass rectangle building in New Jersey? That's awful!" I don't have the maturity to articulate it at the time, but lifeless and soul-crushing was my immediate response to what Bell Labs looked like, and while it may have also been powerful, I knew that's not what I wanted. How many people, as GuyZero pointed out, may have had a similar reaction? Could architecture be powerful enough to affect whole careers? I find that idea fascinating.

Oh, 17 year old me. If you only knew how many ugly glass rectangle buildings you'd one day have to work in....
posted by barchan at 7:27 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

See also Netheads vs Bellheads (WIRED, 1996). Packet-switching vs. ATM.

Yeah that was back when the battle between TCP/IP and ATM (in the core) was fresh. This was a direct challenge to the Internet really, had ATM taken off and been more widely adopted at the edge. Problem is ATM equipment is too expensive, and TCP/IP was already there and more features. It's amazing a scrappy decentralized group of (very smart) people in the 60s and 70s changed Bells way of doing things as outsiders. One of the great stories of the 20th century, this empty R&D building makes it poignant.
posted by stbalbach at 8:03 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

eye of newt: "They spent a billion dollars and hired upwards of 1000 people to design their own system, and, well, I don't want to give away what happened because it is an interesting read, but obviously it didn't become the Internet."

And we still suffer the consequences (both the extremely positive as well as the negative) today. Not that ACS would have been worth a damn, but TCP/IP is an utter piece of shit that took damn near forever to be reliably switched in silicon. Some might say it still isn't there. ;)
posted by wierdo at 9:04 AM on February 25, 2014

My dad worked for a few years at Bell Lab's location in Murray Hill and he had a lot of fond memories of the super smart people that he worked with there and the cutting edge research he worked on. He managed to sneak out some cafeteria utensils as a memento. Welp that's my story.
posted by gyc at 9:15 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

And who ever could forget (I you are as old as I am) the Bell Labs Science Series? From 1st grade to 9th, I think I saw Hemo the Magnificent in gym class every year on a rainy day. And, yeah, we were all kind of squicked out by the sight of a beating heart lying on a table.
posted by SPrintF at 6:33 PM on February 25, 2014

Someone I am aquainted with worked in this beautiful monolith of a building backed in the day. Despite the fact that this is a distinguished man with engineering degrees from many distinguished institutions to his name and and an impressive academic history, I was never particularly impressed by any of that. Until, that is, the day I looked at his CV and realised he was in the building the day UNIX was invented. At which point I came over all twitterpated and I've never really recovered.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:12 PM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found some interesting things asking google "how much money did at&t make off the transistor?"

True Innovation by Jon Gertner (NYYimes op ed 2/26/2012).

Also apparently there is still a big buzz about how Bell labs reverse engineered the transistor from the Roswell wreck!

From the times op-ed:

ONE element of his approach was architectural. He personally helped design a building in Murray Hill, N.J., opened in 1941, where everyone would interact with one another. Some of the hallways in the building were designed to be so long that to look down their length was to see the end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling the hall’s length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas was almost impossible. A physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.

(The pronoun refers to Mervin Kelly, lab director, who has a wikipedia page in German but not in English yet.
posted by bukvich at 6:41 AM on February 26, 2014

Also, this is where in 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson discovered the cosmic background radiation, which had been predicted but not identified. They won the 1978 Nobel for this.

This was enormously important for astronomy, the most convincing piece of evidence for the Big Bang and is relevant for the equally important news announced today.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:57 PM on March 17, 2014

« Older John Chen's Plan to Save Blackberry   |   Quincy Jones And Bill Cosby: The Original Jam... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments