In the late 1960s, buildings by Marcel Breuer were being constructed up and down America’s East Coast like billboards for a Brutalist future. These hulking concrete structures, akin to dispersed relations, were untethered but for the interstate highway. Now, a particularly zealous archiphile need only hop on I-95 to get a fill of Breuer, be it IBM’s “Big Blue” corporate office in Boca Raton, the Housing and Urban Development headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, or the Armstrong Rubber Company headquarters in New Haven. Of this brutish bunch, the latter, known as the Pirelli Building, is the most candid about its relation to the highway.
Its stacked massing, completely open at the midriff, encourages rubbernecking. This formal daring may explain why, in the estimation of local architect-developer Bruce Redman Becker, the Connecticut building is “one of the best-known works of midcentury modern architecture in New England.”
Becker is in the final phases of redeveloping the former office complex into a boutique destination. When it opens at the end of 2021, the 110,000-square-foot Hotel Marcel will in all likelihood be the country’s first Passive House hotel, generating its own electricity, heat, and hot water through solar panel arrays backed up with batteries. Unlike the polluting cars out front, it will operate utterly independently of fossil fuels—a happy fate for a building that is no stranger to trauma.
Completed in 1970, the property fell into disrepair after Italian manufacturer Pirelli acquired Armstrong and vacated its flamboyant digs. IKEA took possession of the Pirelli Building in 2003 and, desiring more surface parking for its adjacent store, took a hacksaw to the two-story podium; to cap off the ignominy, it draped the five-story tower in a massive blue-and-yellow banner. But then in January 2020, IKEA sold the deed to Westport, Connecticut–based Becker and Becker Associates, which hoped to capitalize on the site (it is listed on the State Register of Historic Places) and Brutalism’s enhanced cultural prestige.
“Brutalism celebrates the inherent qualities of material,” Becker said. “And so we are also celebrating things for what they are.” At the 165-room Hotel Marcel, this means an adaptive reuse that leaves the facade’s 525 precast concrete panels mostly unchanged. (A few dozen rounds of power washing removed highway exhaust while retaining some of the surface patina.) Inside, Becker and project architect Violette de La Selle sought to restore the aura of the long-gone original features. For example, during their research the pair uncovered photos of the executive offices on the eighth floor, where full-height wood veneer panels once framed views of New Haven Harbor. “We refashioned them into special suites,” Becker said, “using the same spline-textured acoustical ceiling system with 1-by-4 lay-in fixtures.” That system now illuminates new walnut takes on the erstwhile paneling. Walnut also appears in case goods and other interior elements, for which the Becker team collaborated with Dutch East Design and the New Traditionalists.
Local maple was used to line the 525 windows, which Breuer recessed to “offer shadow in the summer when the sun is high, but let the sun penetrate in winter,” explained Becker. The renovation amps up efficiency, swapping out the original glass for triple-glazed windows. “It took us a year to have them approved with exactly the same profile,” he recalled. “We had to send glass samples to D.C. I believe this is the first time that the National Parks Service has approved triple-glazed windows for a historic site.”
“They are very particular in terms of what you can and can’t do, which became one of the challenges and stimulants of the project,” said de La Selle. “But we got very close to where we started from, with an updated window unit that not only has great thermal insulation but better sound—which is great, considering the neighboring highway.”
That highway noise (and the wild wind off the harbor) means the void will stay empty. This suits Becker just fine: “It frames the view of the city from the highway and demonstrates the acrobatic quality of the structure. For me, it would be heresy to fill it in.” With deference to Breuer, he and de La Selle have designated it an event and social space. Elsewhere, exigencies of the conversion forced their hands; they inserted light wells that pierce the 85-foot-wide floor plates, twice as deep as is typical for hotels.
These interventions, however, are few and far between. Instead of changing how the building looks, the Hotel Marcel hopes to change how people feel about it. Brutalism’s currency may rank high among architects and aesthetes, but locals have yet to warm up to the Pirelli Building’s charms; in 2018, readers of Business Insider voted it Connecticut’s ugliest building. “In my opinion, the biggest problem is just to invite people back into the building so they will experience it not just from the highway but through the lobby, the ground-floor restaurant,” said de La Selle. “They can understand how it can be an intimate space.”
And they can approach Breuer’s work in new ways, turning off the highway for a coffee while their electric vehicles charge, or ditching the old ways altogether and arriving via a trio of bicycle paths that weave up and down the Eastern Seaboard in greener iterations of the old highways. The Brutalist future that was once promised is, it seems, coming into its own at the Pirelli Building.