Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I Can Can

After visiting IBM, I went to see Gordon Bunshaft's American Can Company Headquarters (1970) in Greenwich, Connecticut. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn't even have known about this building if it weren't for Ada Louise Huxtable, and I'm grateful to her for making it known to me. It was magical.

There are a couple of things I find very ironic about this building. The first is that the very things that the town of Greenwich demanded in allowing this to be built there--namely that it not be over forty feet tall and that parking be as concealed as possible--are the very things that made it cause such an enormous impact on the land. Basically, the conservative residents surrounding this building didn't want to see it, period. Bunshaft's (very smart) solution was to bury probably a third of it underground, meaning far more earth would have to be excavated and disturbed.

The second is that the reason Huxtable praises this building as being considerate to its rural site is the very same reason it would be condemned as such today: that the building is essentially a dam interrupting the flow of a stream through the ravine and creating a man-made lake on the property. With today's attitudes, it might have been forgiven, even praised, if hydroelectric turbines provided all the necessary power to the building, but no. It just got plopped down and completely altered the existing ecosystem.

In the building's defense, times have changed. In the context of the late-1960s and its rampant abuse of and disregard for Mother Nature, this was a highly sensitive and monumental improvement. In any case, it would always be unfair to judge a work of art by present standards--evaluate, of course, but not judge. And whatever its ironies, it is an incredible building that was every bit a rival for Saarinen's IBM for me, believe it or not.

With this building, Bunshaft--head of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the absolute masters of the curtain wall--has effectively turned the conventional building form completely inside-out. With the conventional curtain wall, the structure was on the inside of the building, with the steel and glass "curtain" hanging from it on the outside. It had a gradual evolutionary progression, which I started to discuss in terms of his bank at JFK, but at American Can it comes into full bloom. Not only has he separated the structure from the enclosure, but he's made the structure into an expressive element of the building. This is a sort of quirky Brutalism, it's also a form of structural expressionism as per Saarinen, but Bunshaft made it something quite unique to himself that defies categorization.

From what appears to be the main public entrance, one would have absolutely no concept of the scale or character of this building. Truth be told, although beautiful, the front entrance doesn't seem to differ terribly much from any other suburban office complex.

The astonishing side façades were actively, purposely concealed from view, making one's experience of the building a true journey of discovery. These three stories are all you can really see from the front, although there is a hint with a carefully controlled view of the luscious landscaping that there is much more to this building.

The front faces the southwest, so I got back in the car and first drove around to the east. My first shock was the dramatic entrance to the parking garage built into the building's base.

I probably gasped. Even I had no idea the building was this huge. A curving lane feeds each of two parking levels. The base of the building looks like a medieval fortress, strong and imposing.

At this point, I was kind of stuck. I'm thinking, "how am I going to get a look at the back of the building?" I got back into the car and continued in the same direction I was going. But I had to actually exit the entire office complex. My idea was to continue around the outside and keep making left turns until I got around to the other side of it. Before too long, I realized this wasn't going to work because I'd passed over a highway cutting off the building's grounds from where I was headed. I found myself in this really ritzy Connecticut neighborhood. The only way I would have been able to see American Can from there would have been to walk onto and through someone's property, which probably would have gotten me arrested. But the other thing is that the whole point of the siting of this building was that none of the neighboring residents would be able to see it. Very likely it's entirely concealed from view from any property nearby.

I retraced my route past the front of the building and instead went around to the west. This turned out to be another vehicular route to the back of the building which I should have tried first. I ended up not losing too much time. This was another astonishing discovery. A bridge crosses over the tip of the triangular pond formed by the building. This is what one sees from the bridge:

Unbelievable. And as monumental and majestic as that looks, the rear of the building, which I presumed to be the employees' entrance, is quite modestly scaled, especially the way it interacts with the landscaping.

Behind the main building is a much smaller one-story structure which evidently originally housed the executive offices. Here's where I got my first suspicious looks of the day for exploring the building. I got up close to the front doors, and was looking into the building at how a square courtyard was carved out of the middle of it, Bunshaft's signature. Eventually, I realized the receptionist was peering out at me with this snotty look on her face like, "and just what exactly do you think you're doing?" 

It continues to baffle me how people can work every day in a building as gorgeous as this one and really not be able to grasp the concept that someone might want to look at it. It's a testament to the shameful fact that architecture is not legible to the vast majority of people. I might even venture to propose that most good architecture has greater potential to disappear from public sight than bad. When a building works, its users don't need to think about why it works. When a building is ugly, it's called an "eyesore." For something to make your eyes sore, you have to be seeing it. If the architecture causes you inconvenience by being awkwardly planned, you're aware of your interaction with the architecture. Helping make (good) architecture visible to those not indoctrinated in its forms is why I do what I do, on this blog and at work. These looks and the other reaction I describe below are exactly why it's so sorely needed.

I ignored the suspicious receptionist. You can see that the beams on this building have rather conspicuous hardware at the ends. I found this very strange, and I can only think they must be merely ornamental or they most certainly would have been necessary on the beams of the much larger building, which no doubt have a heftier structural job to do. That may have been precisely the point, though. Since this building is so much more petite, the needless strength of the beams and posts was already going to be conspicuous. Rather smart of Bunshaft to emphasize that even more.

The smaller building also gave me a better chance to get a nice close look at the details shared by both structures. The contrast between the relatively rough, muscular concrete engineering and the sleek, shiny black glass is really delightful.

Another thing I liked a lot was how a few of the rock outcroppings were (apparently) left where they were, and used to kind of punctuate the building in interesting ways. The larger of them worked very well with the smaller executive building behind it, emphasizing its diminutive size, this time in relationship to a natural element rather than an architectural one.

Another one interrupted a row of hedges lining the northeastern façade of the main building.

I was pretty much finished, and it was getting very close to the time I needed to head back home so as not to return the Zipcar late. My last stop was the beautifully landscaped employees' entrance, down a grand staircase to a terrace, which I believe was cantilevered over the pond.

When I got to the terrace, some tool in a dumpy brown t-shirt and a baseball cap was coming out the door. He sort of asked if I was headed into the building so he could hold the door for me (polite enough, but wait). I said "no, no, I'm fine, thanks." And went around into this little corner behind the entrance to get my last photo. When I turn back around, Dork is standing there glaring at me and says, "excuse me, what are you taking pictures of?" I said, "the building." "For what?" "I write an architecture blog." "Well, I work here and I can't let you do that. Yeah, you can't be taking pictures here."

Oh, yeah? And why not, Baseball Cap? It's a freaking movie studio now. It's not the FBI headquarters. Hell, it's not even a major international airport. What I should have said is, "oh, really? On whose authority will you 'not allow it?'" But I'm not generally a trouble-maker and the last thing I needed at that point was a spontaneous trip to the office of the building's head of security. I needed to get the car back.

I am called upon to forbid photography at work, too, but that's inside the buildings, where there are many very good reasons it can't be permitted. No one would even pretend to try to forbid it outside; it would be laughable. The best thing about Photo Policeman's little performance of being so very, very important is that I might have snapped another picture or two, but basically I had been there for around an hour and was already entirely finished taking photos. It was an unfortunately sour ending to a wonderful trip out of the city, too wonderful to be ruined by one person's delusions of grandeur.

And there you have Gordon Bunshaft's American Can Company Headquarters.

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I spent time working there in the 1970s and the pictures brought back wonderful memories. I'm surprised you didn't photograph the original estate on the property, made of stone. It was called the Guest House and senior level visitors would be taken there for lunch. Maybe it has been torn down?

Ryan Witte said...


It was my pleasure completely. If the Guest House is still there, I didn't notice it. I was sort of on a mission and pressed for time. But if it's that different in character, I might also have seen it and not realized it was a part of the original complex.

Tadao Kamei said...

I visited the American Can Company in 1979 when I lived in NYC. This is one of my favorite architecture. What company owns the building now? I also visited IBM headquarters building with Isamu Noguchi's courtyard nearby by SOM.

Tadao Kamei

Ryan Witte said...


It really is a fantastic building. It's now home to Blue Sky Studios, the animators behind the Ice Age movies.

Anonymous said...

I also worked at ACC in the early 70's -- all in the wonderful HQ building. It had many conveniences beyond simple offices. The floor between the parking structure and the three glass-walled floors contained a small convenience store, a barbershop, and an extensive medical department. There only were fixed-wall offices and conference rooms along the outside glass windows. Elsewhere it was simply short cubicles and a few taller cubicles that we called "shower stalls." The inside glass wall onto the center garden courtyard was viewable by most workers -- lots of ambient light. However, it was not a space that one could go into -- just look at. As it was built on an old estate, the original estate mansion was just across the street from the HQ's main entrance (hidden behind trees). As the other post mentioned, that mansion was used as a guest house for business visitors (overnight rooms were very nice) or for more formal lunches and dinners. I had the chance to play pool in its billiard room on several occasions. It was (and hopefully still is) quite a grand place.

Karen Johnson said...

Beautiful pictures. I worked at this building for American Can for 10 years. It was absolutely gorgeous and the grounds with the stone mansion, "the Guest House" was really beautiful. The inside had a very large three story atrium. The interior was white with bright red wool carpet. You could always tell someone worked at American Can by the red wool fuzz on the bottom of their pants and shoes.

Anonymous said...

I worked there from 1979 to 1982 and it was a wonderful place to spend the day. One thing you couldn't see was the underground tunnel that linked the main building to the one-story executive mini building. It curved down and up again and always reminded me of the space station scene in the film 2001. Both buildings surrounded lovely courtyards filled with greenery and light.

Ryan Witte said...

LOL It's starting to look like this post is becoming a meeting place for former American Can employees, which of course is fantastic. Glad you folks all enjoyed it. I hope it brought back pleasant memories. I love the image of that curving underground tube! The movie that immediately came to my mind was Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

Anonymous said...

I worked in this building from 1970 to 1980. I had an outside office located above the entrance door to the garage. It was a shock to me to see these photos and your comments. Now retired, it brought tears to realize that was once my beautiful dsytime home. I wish I could have seen the spectacular interior that we enjoyed - bright red carpets,black desks with natural wood tops, white file cabinets as space dividers, live green plants as accents, and upholstered chairs at each desk in bright solid colors of green, blue, black, gold, etc. I was there when the helicopter flew the trees into the inner courtyard that was a garden to be observed but not entered. I did not realize at the time that this was such an architectural triumph. We were not allowed to bring a single item from our New York offices such as an ash tray or pencil holder. Everything was new and matched throughout the building.

Ryan Witte said...

I wish I'd been able to see the interiors, also. They sound stunning, if a little bit militaristic.

Craig Calle said...

Thanks for covering this building. I spend the summers of 1978, 79 and 80 as an intern and loved everything about my experience at American Can. Even though I was in just in college at the time, I realized that the building was special. The guest house also was remarkable and it's too bad that you weren't able to capture that building as well.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should have said thanks to Mr. Baseball cap, and just gone inside.

Nice piece of writeup, though. Yeah, they are a bit of a photo-nazi regarding the grounds, which is a shame.

Anonymous said...

To answer a former employees question about the mansion: Yes, it still remains and is owned by Citibank. It is a separate property. Tishman Speyer currently manages the rest of the property.