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August 2015


Pirelli Tire Building

August 6, 2015
Pirelli Tire Building by Night Owl City

While the severe beauty of some modernist buildings seems to finally be getting the recognition it deserves (Marina City), many other Brutalist works seem to have used up all of their luck in fighting criticism from both the public and (some) experts (Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center, Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore). The recent Rhode Island trip reminded me of another Brutalist wonder that seems to be sitting out its slow and ungraceful demise—Marcel Breuer’s 1970 Pirelli Tire Building.

Today known for the name given by a later owner, the building that marks the entrance to New Haven was originally built by the Armstrong Rubber Company—a family-owned tire company that started to fear it was becoming too dependent on orders from its primary client, Sears and Roebuck. Seeking to strengthen its identity the company’s leaders approached the mayor of New Haven about purchasing a plot of land right off the highway in  New Haven’s Long Wharf neighborhood. The mayor, eager to increase the presence of New Haven and have the building become a symbol of the city, requested the work of a noted architect and—having previously worked with Johnson, Saarinen, and Kahn, among others—recommended Marcel Breuer for the job.

The Armstrong Rubber Company called for a relatively simple plan. The company needed two or three floors of administrative offices, which they wanted separated from their research and development laboratories in order to minimize the noise of testing tires. The mayor, on the other hand, worried this would make the building imperceptible from the road and demanded a skyscraper be built instead. Breuer offered a compromise by building a two story base that housed the laboratory and suspending the offices over a two floor gap. The goal was for the offices to expand and fill the in-between slot in the future, although that became unlikely as the company asked Breuer to reduce the number of office floors from five to four instead.

And although the main form, at once hefty and gravity defying, as well as the freestanding sign that once accompanied it are undoubtedly stunners, Pirelli’s most distinct feature remains the narrow side of the building, boasting one of the most striking examples of Breuer’s use of molded pre-cast concrete panels (what he referred to as crystallic forms) which give it a highly sculptural presence while providing protection from the sun.

After changing owners several times and finally being abandoned in 1999, the land Pirelli occupies was acquired by Ikea in 2002. After much criticism from the public and media the company reneged on its original plan to demolish the building, but knocked down the extension of the originally L-shaped building to build a large parking lot, at the same time draping the main form in advertising. Not much has changed since then but, as several journalists have noted, the neglect has likely had an significant impact on the structure and the interiors of the building, leaving its future resurgence highly unlikely.

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