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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

By , Network World
June 14, 2011 02:20 PM ET
Eliot Noyes

Network World - 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.

IN PICTURES: IBM's greatest architectural gems

"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."

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