Bell Works Creates New Theater Out of Classic Architecture
By Dan Daley
From this month’s issue of Sound & Communications
If you had to pick a place to make into an AV showplace, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as significant as the former Bell Labs headquarters in Holmdel NJ. Finished in 1962, the massive and striking modernist structure was designed by Eero Saarinen, the architect who also created St. Louis’ Gateway Arch and the bird-in-flight-shaped TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport. At its peak, the two million-square-foot, glass-topped building was home to 6000 engineers and researchers who churned out Bell Labs’ many innovations, including Steven Chu’s Nobel Prize-winning work on laser cooling, as well as critical advances in radio astronomy and cellphone technology
The telephone business changed, and the site fell idle in the early 21st century, even as contention swirled around as to what it should become. Coming at a time when businesses and people were rediscovering America’s urban cores, Holmdel’s suburban location, about 45 miles west of New York City, seemed to further consign it to a past era. However, a $200 million redevelopment of the site, begun in 2013 by Somerset Development after a campaign to save it for its architectural value succeeded, has transformed what is now known as Bell Works into a city-like oasis—a “Mini Silicon Valley,” according to one newspaper account, and the epitome of a “Metroburb,” said another—with plans including a health center, a hotel, retail and a public library, in a very suburban location.
One of those amenities, a 350-seat auditorium on the main building’s lower level, might seem a bit quotidian but it’s actually a central hub in a larger vision that ultimately will include a conference center, which will comprise collaboration and huddle rooms of various sizes and levels of sophistication. Eventually, all of these will be networked together, not unlike the way overflow rooms have connected AV to a church’s main sanctuary.
In fact, like a house of worship, the new Bell Works is placing a lot of emphasis on its heritage. Stephen Keppler, Vice President and senior sales executive at McCann Systems (www.mccannsystems.com), the AV systems integrator on the auditorium and other aspects of Bell Works, noted that, at the auditorium’s first event in early May, he encountered a woman who told him that she had worked there for 32 years and had met her husband there. Many of the thousands of people who worked at the site over its 40-plus years as an R&D center for AT&T and later for Alcatel-Lucent have been stopping by to relive old times. “It really reinforced the fact that this is a historical place,” said Keppler. “It has tremendous meaning for a lot of people and the history of the area, so one of the big challenges of bringing modern audio and video into the auditorium was to do it without disturbing what makes Bell Works a landmarked piece of history.”
Landmark status extends to specific architectural and structural items in the huge campus, and the concrete columns that support the auditorium’s ceiling are included. According to Keppler, that wasn’t as much of a problem for cabling as it might have been. “We wanted to avoid drilling into them. Fortunately, there were these notches that were part of their design that we were able to use to route cabling through.” The two Vaddio RoboShot 30 PTZ video cameras installed in the auditorium as part of the renovation were located high up enough so their mounts could be drilled into the concrete columns.
Moshe Gross, Director of Special Projects at Bell Works, said that McCann Systems’ sensitivities to the building’s requirements was why he chose the integrator. “The reason why we liked what McCann had to offer was because they were equipped to take into account the unique historical features and infrastructure of the building,” he explained. “They’re willing to work with us to create something that matches our priorities in terms of time, budget, and functionality, all in the context of the larger redevelopment effort at Bell Works.”
Cabling and conduit underscore that point. Keppler said that the amount and location of existing conduit, under the raised floor of the 55-year-old building (reportedly one of the first ever to have fiberoptic cables installed) was sufficient for the new AV designs. That’s helped, he said, by the architect’s provisions for future transformations, such as the prescient inclusion of three IT rooms per building that run throughout the entire structure.
“Eero Saarinen understood that technology will change, there will be new runs of technology,” said Gross. “The only challenge we had was that a lot of the old wire was left behind, so it took us some time to clear out those passageways. But we do have those pathways throughout the building.”
Less is More
An old 4×3 projection screen was removed, as were existing slide projectors, along with the hydraulic system used to raise them into position. In their place now is a 224″x128½” Da-Lite Cinema Contour projection screen that’s illuminated by a Christie Digital D13HD-HS laser-phosphor projector suspended from the ceiling. The lamp-less laser-phosphor illumination provides 20,000 hours of use before replacement, which made the choice of this product easier, according to Keppler.
Onstage, a custom-fabricated lectern offers a ViewSonic confidence monitor, a Crestron TS-1542-C control system touchscreen for the room’s DM control system. The lectern can be moved to two locations on the stage, each with its own FSR I/O floor box. Along with an installed Vaddio AV Bridge, the lectern becomes the hub for online and cloud-connected unified-communications conferencing using Skype For Business and other platforms.
“It was important that the room be capable of being operated as simply as possible,” said Keppler. “We programmed the Crestron DM system for ‘hot button’ macros, which let users choose from several different configurations of systems. The result is that the room doesn’t require an operator to be on hand all the time.” Gross agreed: “McCann designed it well, in that it’s simple to use, and easy for someone to understand and plug and play.”
That same lectern holds a pair of Shure wireless handheld Beta 58 microphones, part of the Shure ULX wireless system in the auditorium; these operate in the J1 Band (554-590MHz), outside of the soon-to-be off limits 600MHz range. There are also eight Shure MX418D/C gooseneck microphones.
The sound system is JBL’s CBT Series columnar arrays. Two CBT 70-J1 columns flank the stage, while a pair of SBT 50LA arrays provide coverage for the back of the room. A light touch of acoustical treatment, in the form of a wrap of absorbent material, was applied to the rear wall, along with acoustically treated carpeting on the floor aisles. Keppler said that the side walls already had some absorbent treatment.
There is a small control room for the auditorium, in the back of the room. Although there is no audio mixer installed there yet (sound is auto-mixed through a Biamp Tesira for the time being) Keppler reported that a dedicated audio mix console will likely be part of future upgrades to the control room and auditorium. “The plan is for the entire place to continue evolving,” he said, “so whatever is here now may give way to something else in the near future.”
A ‘Works’ In Progress
There are certainly challenges any time technology is asked to be integrated into environments whose esthetic is clearly from a time before it. Although they found their way around this constraint in some cases by using what was there before, such as the existing cable conduit, in other instances, the room’s physical limitations could not be circumvented. That was the case, said Keppler, with the video screen, which he said the client initially wanted to be floor to ceiling. “With a single laser projector, you’d have issues, such as the light in presenters’ eyes, and front projection casting shadows on the screen,” he explained.
Knowing that the auditorium and its adjacent meeting spaces would be undergoing constant updating, McCann’s team built in as much futureproofing as it could, including supplemental air cooling for the Middle Atlantic 44-space WRK-44-32 rack in the control room, the heart of the systems installation. “Future conference rooms will have their own systems, but their racks may reside in the auditorium control room, so we prepared for that,” Keppler said.
Gross reported that the new systems enable Bell Works to host a wider array of live events without compelling those clients to rent any AV systems. The new platforms bring the auditorium into the 21st century. And, combined with the other spaces that will be going into Bell Works, including a hotel, more retail and restaurants, he’s envisioning the venue becoming the hub of a true media center.
“Let’s say a company has multiple locations throughout the US, and you have one office that actually has a hotel onsite, that actually has a conference center onsite, that actually has a meeting hall onsite. What [better] place to go?”, he posited. “This will become your central media location. There’s nothing else like it out there anywhere in the tristate area.”
According to Keppler, the auditorium is just the first step in the AV implementations for the rest of Bell Works. With its array of industrial verticals, including healthcare, entertainment, corporate communications and retail, the building’s directory could resemble the editorial calendar of a magazine like Sound & Communications. Keppler takes nothing for granted, but noted that McCann Systems has paid this project the highest compliment that an AV integrator could offer a customer: It became a tenant in the building, joining an array of tech companies, including iCIMS, Workwave, Acacia Communications, MetTel, NVIDIA Corp., Spirent Communications, Suttons International and Symbolic IO.
“It’s a pretty amazing space,” Keppler said. “It’s where so much of the technology we’ve grown up with was invented. Who wouldn’t want to be here?”
Read more about the history and the reincarnation of historic Bell Works: