Friday, June 3, 2011

Deep Blue Watson

Our next story is about my trip to yet another Saarinen building, his IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center (TJW, 1960) in Yorktown, New York. When I looked out my window that morning, Tuesday, I said to myself, "that there's picture-takin' weather," and reserved a Zipcar. Can you ever really have too much Eero Saarinen? I think not.

All IBM photos ©2011, Ryan Witte, unless noted.

I got very lucky with this trip. Quite by accident, I stumbled onto a webpage that mentioned sort of in passing that the complex is not open to the general public. I called to check on that up front, and I'm glad I did. I was prepared to drive all the way up there and attempt to just waltz through the front gates when, in fact, one needs permission not only to enter, but also to take photographs.

I spoke to someone in communications who said she'd have to find someone to call me back and took my phone number. An hour or so later I got a call back from a person by the name of Darren McAuliffe. He said he'd be happy to help me, but that I would need to be chaperoned at all times while on the property. He later explained that since offices can be seen through the windows from the outside, this was an information security issue. There was definitely the risk that I could have come home with the ability to create the next computer capable of beating top-winning Jeopardy contestants.

Google Maps View
I bought a sandwich, picked up the car (a Mazda 3: accelerates energetically), and got on the road. I'll have to say, I really love Google Maps, but as far as driving directions go? It seriously sucks. It has all the wrong names for every highway and exit you're supposed to be taking. I did get a little lost at one point, but luckily I was able to find my way there eventually without too many U-turns. Getting onto the property was pretty breezy with permission up front.

I announced myself at the reception desk, asked for McAuliffe, and looked around a bit. From behind me, I heard, "Ryan?" When I turned around, there was this, like, sixteen-year-old kid standing there. It was McAuliffe. I'm kidding him. He's probably more like nineteen, and a summer intern there, but he was way younger than I was expecting. He was very nice and I enjoyed talking to him while we walked around. He said he's planning to study computer science and both his parents work at IBM, although his father at a different facility. He's interning with the communications department, he told me, because no matter how good your ideas are, if you can't communicate them to people, they won't go anywhere. I agree.

I asked him if he were from upstate New York. He said "no, I live about ten minutes from here." Rich kid. I'm thinking, "ummm, yeah, that's what I meant?" For me, if I can drive along a road for fifteen minutes and see nothing whatsoever besides trees, that's "upstate." Having lived in a suburb as densely packed as Nassau County, I just can't get my mind to think of someplace as rural as Yorktown as being a "suburb." But evidently "upstate New York" doesn't really exist, it's just anyplace north of where you are. Truthfully, he defined it as anything north of Albany.

As you can see, TJW is a huge arc curving from the east down around to the south. In the lobby, there was a really nice diagram of the offices that shows how the office floors are laid out, not in wheel spokes parallel to the outside edge of the curve, but arranged in sections with groups of interior walls parallel to one another separated by intermittent wedges.

I was happy to see a "building map" link on the TJW website, until I clicked it. There may as well be a hangman-game-style stick figure of me with a smiley face and an arrow saying "Ryan" pointing to it. Really not helpful.

I said since I'd come in from the north, we should head south. The northwestern façade, as you can see in the first photo above, is extremely monolithic and imposing. In fact, there are very few details to break up the monotony. One, of course, is the main entrance canopy, very sculptural and expressionistic in Saarinen's way, but hardly large enough to compete with the wide unforgiving glass expanse of the front façade. The stone piers supporting it are also quite sculptural, and a wonderfully rugged take on forms that recall the TWA Flight Center--appropriately so, considering this far more rural site.

Saarinen knew, of course, that the scale of the canopy would be dwarfed by the building mass, but there was no practical, weather-related reason for it to be larger than this. So to add to its formal impact, he extended the stone walls off to both sides, curved them back up again, and added sculptures like punctuation marks at each end. They're Seymour Lipton pieces, Argonaut I and II, from 1961.

I told McAuliffe we have a Seymour Lipton at Lincoln Center (Archangel), and he confessed that, if I wanted to know about the sculptures, I was talking to the wrong person. So I thought I'd share with him what I knew, although I feared I was boring him. Lipton trained as a dentist. He used a material called Monel as the backdrop for his sculptures. It's an alloy extremely resistant to corrosion, but it's very difficult to work with because it hardens instantly and can withstand extremely high temperatures. For this reason, it lent itself perfectly to Lipton's technique of spot-welding softer metals, usually bronze, onto the Monel to achieve his expressionistic textures. As I've said elsewhere, Lipton's work explores the contrast of positive and negative space, in the sense that he makes individual forms both positive and negative at the same time, by twisting them in, around, and through other forms. "Argonaut" was a great title for here. It's an ancient Greek group of explorers, a really bizarre octopus, a class of submarine from the late-1800s, and an obscure, high-luxury American automobile that supposedly attracted some press around the time these sculptures were being created.

He also told me he had considered going into architecture in college, but that the schools wanted to see actual drawings, and his skills with that are somewhat limited. I confessed that the reason I didn't go into it is because my math skills are similarly limited. With computer technology, I'm not sure either of those failings would be obstacles for us now. Oh, well.

The second thing I noticed interrupting the lines of the front is the cafeteria terrace. A beautiful place to eat lunch, it overlooks a valley of marshland that must remain untouched. [Bad IBM employees, leaving your trays and silverware out there on the tables.]

The only thing remaining to see on this end was a doorway and a little staircase which I can't really imagine anyone using all that often, aside from a computer scientist strolling around the grounds to mull over his or her next experiment in Artificial Intelligence.

At this end is just mechanical structures and a loading dock, no access to the back of the building (the inside of the arc), so we heading back in the other direction.

At the eastern end of the arc, I found one of the first truly exquisite details of this building. It's where the glass curtain wall wraps around the corner and then meets this strong, rugged stone.

The contrast of how powerfully monolithic the glass appears from the front, in comparison to how it seems to dematerialize in relationship to the stone is absolutely magical. There's also an amazing contrast between the obviously machined, prefabricated, industrial quality of the curtain wall and the obviously hand-masoned, natural look of the stone wall. I think this is the perfect analogy for what goes on inside the building, as well. The most sophisticated products of our rapidly-accelerating Information Age nonetheless produced by the thoughts and ideas of regular human beings. Does Modernist architecture get any better?

The inside of the arc is truly remarkable. I'm surprised that I'd never seen photos of it before (although, to be fair, I really need to get one of the monographs dedicated to Saarinen and read it cover to cover--I have a couple on my Amazon Wish List). It's a long, massive stone wall, wrapping around you like an embrace. It looks like a massive stone fortress, which McAuliffe remarked seems appropriate considering the secrecy of what happens inside it. It's lushly landscaped with a meandering path and picnic tables. I got the strange feeling that it's not really used all that much by employees sitting around having their lunches. I hope I'm wrong because it's a really pleasing space.

Window openings interrupt the length of it from the ground up to the full height of the wall. It's somehow more powerful than had Saarinen allowed the wall to frame the windows on four sides. It would have disturbed the apparent strength of the stone walls. Instead, the walls stand without perforations.

I didn't actually notice this until studying my photos at home, but there's one interesting moment where the stone masonry stops and starts again at a seam. I'm not sure if this was structural or not. If it was cosmetic, it's a very interesting way to call attention to the textures, and the stone also appears to change to a slightly darker color.

Bridges lead from the massive parking lot in the rear to the top floor of the building, with entrances also on the ground floor.

The second-to-southernmost bridge is entered by a vaguely Richard-Neutra-like pavilion at the parking lot and is enclosed in glass.

We took this bridge back into the building, which McAuliffe suggested would be better than walking all the way back around it.

I had seen the lobby from the ground floor, but I think I might actually have gasped when we entered it from above. It's breathtaking, and I told McAuliffe, such an incredible intersection of the 1950s and the 1960s. It's the combination of the rugged stone walls, rough-cut stone floors of the landing, and wood accents from the '50s with the graceful curves, stark black and white, but especially that super-glossy white from the '60s. Even had I not known when this was built, I probably could have guessed this was on the cusp of those two decades.

I love "THINK," and the suspended clocks are a great detail.


Opposite "THINK" is a bust of Thomas J. Watson, himself, by Jacques Lipchitz.
So there you have my visit to Saarinen's Watson Research Center. Much thanks to Darren McAuliffe for his time, his help, and his friendly conversation. I actually visited another incredible building on this same trip. But I'll let that be a surprise.

©2011, Ryan Witte

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