Page N1.1 . 13 November 2002                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department
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IKEA Threatens Breuer Icon

by ArchitectureWeek

On November 7, 2002, the Board of Aldermen of the City of New Haven, Connecticut voted to approve a development proposal from IKEA, an international retailer of designer furnishings. IKEA proposes to build a major new store on an industrial landfill site known as Long Wharf, bringing much-needed jobs and tax revenue to the city. However, unless IKEA changes its current plans, construction of the facility's parking lot will result in the demolition of a substantial part of the Pirelli Building, designed by Marcel Breuer in 1969 for the Armstrong Tire Company.

With its bold form and concrete detailing, the Pirelli Building has become an icon of modern architecture. It consists of a tower asymmetrically placed over a long, two-story building and adjacent warehouse. IKEA's proposal would demolish all of the lower building except that portion directly below the tower. The demolition would provide additional surface area for parking and make the new store's entrance more visible from across the parking lot. As a result, however, the famous asymmetry of the Pirelli Building would be destroyed.

In an effort to save at least part of the Pirelli image and to urge IKEA to rethink its approach to design on an urban waterfront, a local advocacy group made up of architects and other citizens has proposed a compromise that would allow IKEA to remove the historic warehouse, but leave the rest of the lower portion of the Pirelli Building intact. In their plea to the Board of Aldermen, the Long Wharf Advocacy Group, headed by Robert Narracci and Lana Berkovich, wrote: "The tower 'floats' over a strongly horizontal base. By cutting the base down to its minimum, the effect will be of a teetering tower... An innovative solution must be found, which balances the store's parking needs against the urbanistic/ environmental needs of the city."

IKEA's plan, by architect of record Greenberg Farrow Architecture, also calls for replacing an expanse of lawn with asphalt parking. The advocacy group suggests that the retailer's architects consider above- and/or below-ground parking as well as turf parking to preserve the appearance of a lawn that frames the Pirelli Building.

Some New Haven residents find the Pirelli Building ugly and unlikable. To them, Narracci counters: "Consider that most of the great architects and artists of the 19th and 20th century, including the great Pablo Picasso, were not popularly regarded until many years after the creation of their works. Any mature work takes time to be fully appreciated."

Further suggestions from the advocacy group concern alternatives to the planned use of the historic building for commercial signage, the visual screening of the store's roof and loading docks from the highways, and the environmental benefits of adaptive reuse of the older building. They support a more thoughtful development of the waterfront site that would enhance its urban attractiveness. Berkovich says, "Architecture is not just for architects. The city should use its architecturally significant buildings to market itself to potential developers, visitors, and residents." Given IKEA's interest in design and environmental issues, it is possible that, despite the November 7 decision, they could alter their design plans and preserve more of the historic building and its surrounding urban landscape.

From the perspective of ArchitectureWeek, this is a sad and unnecessary controversy. Shouldn't we expect IKEA to find a way to creatively coexist with a design icon? We believe an ostensibly design-oriented company should be willing to absorb the minor cost of a bit of structured parking to accommodate their occasional peak parking requirements. We hope that IKEA has not become just another big-box retailer, hiding behind a thin veneer of branded style.

As is common with controversies over the preservation of modernist architecture, there are voices of dissent from many quarters. Some modernism aficionados argue that the Long Wharf Advocacy Group is too modest in its counterproposal. They believe the Marcel Breuer building should be preserved in its entirety. That and other questions are apparently now up to IKEA to decide.

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ArchWeek Image

The Pirelli Building, designed by Marcel Breuer in 1969.
Photo: Robert Narracci

ArchWeek Image

The Pirelli Building's tower is asymmetrically placed over a long, low building. Part of the adjacent warehouse is visible to the right.
Photo: Robert Narracci

ArchWeek Image

A cartoonist's view of the preservation compromise proposed by the Long Wharf Advocacy Group.
Image: Hemant Jha

ArchWeek Image

The Long Wharf site plan proposed by IKEA and recently approved by New Haven's Board of Aldermen.
Image: Courtesy, City of New Haven, Connecticut


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