IBM at 100: How Big Blue helped redefine corporate architecture

Led by IBM President Thomas Watson Jr., Big Blue's building boom cemented IBM's role as design patron

Initiated by IBM President Thomas Watson Jr., Big Blue's building boom cemented the company's role as a leading patron of modern design and architecture, beginning in postwar America and continuing into the 1980s.

In the mid-20th century, as the U.S. asserted its role as global economic powerhouse, architecture provided the perfect outlet for companies like IBM to define their corporate identity.

Between 1956 and 1971, IBM constructed approximately 150 plants, labs and office buildings around the world. The building boom was orchestrated by IBM President Thomas Watson Jr. and architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes, who commissioned many of the period's greatest architects, graphic designers and artists to do work for Big Blue.

Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, Paul Rand and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe are among the designers whose work cemented IBM's role as a leading patron of modern design and architecture, beginning in postwar America and continuing into the 1980s.

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"There were other corporations that were also focusing on design quality and using buildings to express their corporate culture, but it's fair to say that IBM was a vanguard. It was really the scope and ambition of IBM's efforts that stood out," says Martin Moeller, senior vice president and curator of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

This period in IBM's 100-year history -- the company is celebrating its centennial anniversary this week -- started with a walk down Fifth Avenue in New York. As the story goes, Watson Jr. saw the showroom of Italian office equipment maker Olivetti and was impressed by its cohesive approach to industrial design, graphic design and architecture. Watson Jr. wanted the same for IBM. He recruited Noyes to develop a corporate design program, and Saarinen was the first architect hired.

Saarinen had just completed the landmark General Motors Technical Center, a sprawling corporate campus built around a manmade lake in Warren, Mich. Saarinen adopted fabrication techniques and industrial materials from GM's assembly lines. For instance, instead of traditional caulking to seal the buildings' windows, Saarinen specified Neoprene gaskets similar to those GM used for car windshields.

His first building for IBM -- a research and manufacturing facility in Rochester, Minn., with sweeping expanses of blue-hued glass -- likewise is an expression of modern architecture and modern science. "It was architecturally advanced in the same way that the new IT technologies were technologically advanced," says Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York.

Saarinen's work for GM and IBM epitomizes what many U.S. corporations were trying to achieve during that period: a forward-thinking image, conveyed through progressive architecture. Edward Durrell Stone's PepsiCo world headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., is another example.

"There's this feeling from around 1945 to the mid-'60s," Albrecht says. "As the United States is confirmed as a global power and as American business becomes, in a sense, our ambassador overseas, the question was how we would present ourselves as a modern, technologically advanced, economic powerhouse. Architecture was one way that was done."

At the same time, businesses were expanding and relocating their corporate headquarters from the cities to the suburbs. Saarinen raised the bar through his work for GM, IBM, John Deere and Bell Laboratories; he designed multi-building campuses for corporate research, inspired by the university model. "They're built in this lavish scale with art, landscaping and grand, freestanding buildings," Albrecht says. "That's why they're called corporate campuses. They're meant to be places of higher research, higher learning."

Corporations began to assume the role of patrons of the arts.

"The press picked up on the idea of how this is expressing a kind of new America, and they dubbed it the 'Industrial Versailles,'" Albrecht says. "It's this conflation: America is the new Europe, and the American businessman is the new aristocrat, the new art patron. Watson Jr. is a key figure in that."

The modernist style -- typically expressive in its engineering and stripped of unnecessary ornamentation -- was the ideal complement.

"There was a desire when it comes to the architecture to stay away from classical columns and cornices, because at the end of the war, that was very much associated with fascism and Nazism," Albrecht says. "Modernism is free of those associations. It's not overwhelming. It's about science and advancement, and it suggests the betterment of all humankind."

Building IBM

Watson Jr. and Noyes commissioned modern buildings, but they never prescribed a cookie-cutter look, choosing instead to hire talented designers and let them do their own thing.

"IBM was willing to work with Saarinen and other architects who didn't necessarily do the expected but still produced very extraordinary works of architecture," Moeller says.

Mies van der Rohe designed the iconic steel-and-glass One IBM Plaza building in Chicago (the architect's last American building). Marcel Breuer and Thomas Gatje conceived IBM's Boca Raton, Fla., facility with sunshades made out of precast concrete.

These two designs couldn't be more different: One IBM Plaza is light and soaring, the quintessential 1960s corporate architecture, while the Boca Raton facility is beefy and sculptural, anchored by the weighty concrete.

People tend to associate modern architecture with sameness, but there are a lot of variations in ideologies, forms and materials, Moeller says. "There's a whole range going on, and one of the interesting things about IBM's commissioning is that they were exploring that range," he says.

IBM also took pains to hire local talent as it expanded overseas. British architect Norman Foster designed the IBM Pilot Head Office in Portsmouth, England, for instance, and Ricardo Legorreta tackled IBM's manufacturing plant in Guadalajara, Mexico.

"While they worked with some of the biggest names, they didn't work with them exclusively. They worked with other architects with a more local or regional reputation," Moeller says.

Under Watson Jr., IBM's new design direction extended to graphic design, industrial design and other media, too. Noyes brought in graphic designer Rand, who created the classic IBM logo in 1960. Rand tweaked it again in 1972, creating IBM's signature eight-bar logo, which is still in use today.

Charles and Ray Eames created films and designed exhibitions for IBM, making its technology more accessible to the public. At the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, for instance, the exhibits included a probability machine and theaters where puppet-like devices explained the workings of data processing systems.

The Eameses were unique in their ability to take complex information -- whether it was engineering, science or math -- and simplify it so that people could easily understand and see the benefits associated with it, says Lee Green, IBM's current vice president of brand experience and strategic design.

At IBM today, designers still learn from their example and their philosophy, Green says.

Architects and designers such as Saarinen, Ray and Charles Eames, Rand and Isamu Noguchi "were expert in their own individual disciplines, but they were like-minded in terms of their approach to modern design," Green says. "It was always about being very purposeful in terms of design decisions, and not about their own individual styles."

For IBM, engaging these talented designers was also about business. Watson Jr. believed that good design is good business.

"It wasn't just about putting up pretty buildings," Moeller says. "IBM felt, and I certainly believe that it's true, that this helped their bottom line."

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