Pirelli Tire Building

Added by Lindsey Schweinberg, last update: August 17, 2012, 12:31 pm

Pirelli Tire Building
500 Sargent Drive
New Haven, CT
United States
41° 17' 46.3776" N, 72° 55' 4.5048" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Industrial (IND)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):
History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

commission brief:

In 1966, VP Joseph Stewart approached New Haven mayor, Richard Lee, about purchasing what was viewed as a “pivotal” piece of land in the Long Wharf Redevelopment Area. The site, as it occupied an important tract of land at the intersection of Interstates 91 and 95, would mark the gateway to New Haven. Thus, Mayor Lee was much concerned over the choice of architect. He insisted that anything built on the site should have an architectural presence and be built by a master.

The Armstrong Rubber Company’s program requirements were as follows: two or three floors of administrative office space, assumed by Armstrong Rubber Co. to be placed near the turnpike, and a one or two story high-ceiling space for the research and development laboratories to be relocated to New Haven from West Haven.

design brief:

Armstrong Rubber Co. initially anticipated two or three floors of administrative space at the front of the site and a research and development structure of one to two story to be located at the rear, as the testing of tires to the point of destruction made a noticeable amount of noise. That the site selected lay below the roadbed grade posed a design dilemma, as this would render the originally low building plan unimposing to passing vehicular traffic. Mayor Lee suggested that the building be constructed as a 10-18 story tower – Armstrong Rubber Co. disagreed. Marcel Breuer, architect, proposed a two-story research and development structure at grade with administrative offices “hanging” above, leaving a 2-story gap. The client viewed the commission of the building as their way back into the public eye. The only point in the design process during which Armstrong Rubber Co. requested a design change from Breuer was in regards to the tower’s height. Breuer willingly conceded. Though some supporters of Breuer may have urged for more reluctance on his part to compromise his vision, others attribute his ease to his recognition of Mr. Stewart’s responsibility to shareholders, in maintaining minimal costs. Considering this within the framework of Modern architecture, Breuer’s response seems actually appropriate, as the Modernist architect was driven by careful functional analysis and demanded efficiency in structure as well as affordability in creation. The completing feature of the building, the sign, reveals a moment of teamwork between City Planning officials and the Breuer design team. Breuer’s design initially called for a three story stand-alone sign – a rooftop sign was never planned, as this would damage the buildings distinctive silhouette. However, a sign of this scale was against signage ordinance. By including a small storage space at the sign’s base, the “sign” could be deemed a “gardening shed” and thus a structure, able to be built to any height desired.

Dates: Commission / Completion:commission date: 1968, start of site work: March 1968, completion: August 1970
Architectural and other Designer(s): architect: Marcel Breuer
Others associated with Building/Site: name(s): Richard Lee association: Mayor of New Haven, CT, at time of site acquisition - Responsible for securing site for building and promoting the building as a billboard for Renewal-period New Haven. Mayor, 1954-1969; site selection, 1969 name(s): John DeStefano association: Mayor of New Haven, CT - Debated with IKEA planners on the benefits of retaining as much of original building structure as possible during planning of new big box store. As a result IKEA reduced the scope of demolition, leaving the tower portion. Mayor, 1994-present.
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): type of change: Demolition of the research and development wing, as well as the warehouse, portion projecting beyond the “hanging” offices date(s): April 8, 2003 circumstances/reasons for change: Land purchased by IKEA and slated for demolition to make way for an expansive parking lot effects of changes: IKEA’s original plans required the complete destruction of the building. Second drafting suggested the entire 2 story plinth on which the tower stands, along with the entire research and development and warehouse spaces, to be demolished, leaving the tower floating no longer only two stories but four. As a result of intense debate and, finally, reluctant compromise, the decision was made to demolish only that portion of the plinth which projects beyond the hanging office tower. This drastic shortening undoubtedly throws the entire building composition off balance, as Breuer intended for this asymmetrical pairing of the tower and research and development element as complementary, one to the other. persons/organizations involved: IKEA Corporation, New England Development of Newton, MA (developer), Mayor DeStefano, City of New Haven Department of City Planning, numerous architectural advocacy groups, including: the Connecticut AIA, the Alliance for Architecture, the Urban Design League, the Long Wharf Advocacy Group, and the Arts Council of Greater New Haven.
Current Use: The Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli building is currently vacant.
Current Condition: The building, though vacant, seems to be in fine condition, though a personal inspection has not been conducted.
General Description:

The Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli Tire building is a fantastic embodiment of the design ideals held by a master Modernist architect, Marcel Breuer. The entire building is a composite of steel structure for the 4-story tower and long-span concrete T-beams for the two-story high-ceiling test area. Between these two parts of the building is a 2-story gap, giving the tower portion the illusion of suspension. Enveloping the entire building are pre-cast concrete panels of varying scale and design, depending on the function they enclose. Breuer preferred concrete as a building material, as he viewed it as universal – it serves both architectural and structural functions of the building. The pre-cast concrete panels are modeled in a form which Breuer termed crystalline. This form provided protection from the sun (a Breuer preoccupation) and gave the façade a tremendous physicality and depth. The end result is a continually changing impression of the building, depending on the day, the season and the weather.

Construction Period:

building/construction: Breuer exploited concrete’s ability to be cast into an endless variation of forms. Because of this, one material could fulfill the needs of structure and aesthetics. The concrete panels, which were pre-cast, were made of white cement with a dark aggregate that was exposed via light sandblasting.

Original Physical Context:

The original setting for the Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli Tire building was an expansive greensward. In being provided this space, the building was set apart as a sculptural work in addition to a functioning building.

Technical Evaluation:

The Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli Tire building exemplifies Breuer’s employment of concrete as both a structural and an architecturally aesthetic material. Whereas steel is structural and must be then covered for beautification, Breuer recognizes the sculptural ability of concrete and utilized this capacity to move his buildings beyond the role of mere containers for human activity to seemingly living creatures themselves. The façade has a tremendous physicality and strength, thanks to the deeply molded panels. Most technically astonishing is Breuer’s decision to suspend the office tower above the research and development wing. One can read through the concrete the massive trusses used to carry this load at the attic story of the tower.


The Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli Tire building was intended to act as a beacon for the town of New Haven. To achieve this, the city was cognizant of the need for an architect on the forefront of architectural practice – Modernism was the style du jour. Breuer designed the Armstrong Rubber Co. /Pirelli Tire building to mark the entrance into the city and announce New Haven’s rebirth as a city of culture.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
Developed in the 1950s, the Armstrong Rubber Co./Pirelli Tire building exemplifies what Breuer deemed an emerging new depth of façade. By simply molding the pre-cast panels, common to the Modern movement, an architect could exploit the play of light and allow sun and shadow to define a building’s architectural expression. Breuer termed the resulting form a crystalline structure. This concept of an organic but strictly scientific reproducing of similar forms was possible because of Breuer’s abiding faith in standardization.

In the tradition of masterful artistic works, the Armstrong Rubber Co./Pirelli Tire building has become more increasingly appreciated as a result of its well publicized impending demise. Many recognize now how typical of the Modern movement Breuer’s building is – its affinity for standardization, its construction in concrete, its minimalist ornamentation, its compositional massing. While typical, however, it is also, individually, exquisitely successful.
Unfortunately, the building was allowed to become the poster child for last-minute advocacy. Modern architecture is, seemingly by the day, losing major contributions to the movement; the Armstrong Rubber Co./Pirelli Tire building escaped in an amputated state. Its story has thus become a lesson in advocating for Modern architecture.

General Assessment:
Breuer’s design fits neatly into the cadre of Modern architecture. Furthermore, it is referential of his own work worldwide, and in doing this significant of the adaptability of the style to various landscapes and client needs. Breuer’s works for IBM, both at La Gaude, France (1961), and in Boca Raton, Florida (1977), exhibit the same crystalline structure. One of his most heralded projects, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development building in Washington, D.C., (1963-68) showed the applicability of the form in not only the world of science, a discipline Breuer saw directly aligned with art and architecture, but also those social and political realms of culture. The State University of New York at Buffalo’s Furnas Hall (1977) employs the aesthetic and construction type in the world of education. Together, these buildings (a select few in his larger portfolio of works) illustrate his belief in and contributions to the Modern movement. Not only did he begin his studies at the famed Bauhaus school, but he continued on as a teacher, embracing and promoting the idea of unity between art and technology. These structures also show his tendency towards Brutalist aesthetics. Other Bauhaus legends, such as Mies van der Rohe, may have favored the rectilinear glass and steel box, such as the Seagram Building (1954-1958), but Breuer returned time and again to his crystalline aesthetic, more often than not realized in concrete. His buildings project and are at moments distorted in order to achieve the architect’s intended play of light and shadow.
Text references:

Bibliographical references:
“Around the State: New Haven.” Preservation News. May/June 2003: 6, 15.
Breuer . 2001. St. John’s Abbey and University. Feb. 2007. (http://www.marcelbreuer.org/)
Brown, Bay. “IKEA vs. Breuer.” Architecture, 91.12 (2002): 14.
Marcel Breuer: A Memoir. (New York : Monacelli Press, 2000).
Hawthorne, Christopher. “Disposable Architecture: Ignoring its Modernist lineage, IKEA seeks to dismantle a classic Marcel
Breuer building.” Metropolis. 22.6 (2003): 44.<
Hughes, C.J. “As a Business Sets Up, A Group Takes Steps to Preserve a Landmark.” The New York Times 26 Jan. 2003, late ed: 14C.
Hyman, Isabelle. Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings. (New York : H.N. Abrams, 2001).
Lerner, Kevin. “IKEA Plans to Tear Down a Significant Portion of New Haven Breuer Building for Parking.” Architectural Record 191.1 (2003): 38.
“Modern Buildings in the News: New Haven.” Connecticut. Preservation News. Jan/Feb 1999: 5.
Narracci, Robert. “Advocacy Updates: Connecticut: Pirelli Building (Armstrong Rubber) Demo of Horizontal Section Underway.” DOCOMOMO-US Newsletter. Summer 2003: 4.
“The Emergence of Modernism, 1940-1973: Social Agenda or the Latest Aesthetic?” American Architecture: A History, (Boulder: Icon Editions, Westview Press, 2001).
“Things Finally Gelling for Pirelli.” Tire Business 20.26 (2003): 8.
Von Vegesack, Alexander and Mathias Remmele. Marcel Breuer: Design and Architecture. (Weil am Rhein: Vitra Design Museum, c2003).

Recorder/Date: name of reporter: Cristiana Peña address: 49 St. Nicholas Terrace #36 email: cap2148@columbia.edu
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Pirelli Tire Building
Pirelli Tire Building
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