The union between the prominent architecture of the Pirelli Building and IKEA, the retailer of carefully considered and stylish designs, would seem to be a perfect match. IKEA is a natural candidate to inhabit an important work of architecture and is a welcome addition to New Haven. Unfortunately, IKEA’s plans miss an opportunity to creatively design a new store and to reaffirm the retailer’s carefully cultivated image as a purveyor of good design. Instead, they default to the status quo by surrounding the building with a typical big box store and parking lot.
German-born American architect Marcel Breuer designed the Pirelli Building in 1969 for the Armstrong Tire Company. Best known for the Whitney Museum of American Art, Breuer was also an industrial designer who employed common materials in mass-produced contemporary designs. His ubiquitous bent steel-tube chairs likely surround your parents’ kitchen table.
IKEA pursues an analogous philosophy today with its popular modern furnishings. In its pursuit of expansion, the Long Wharf location offered IKEA a “home-run site,” according to Pat Smith, IKEA’s real estate manager for New England. IKEA has purchased the Pirelli Building and plans to construct a new 300,000-square-foot store adjacent to the existing structure.
The Breuer design hovers at the side of the highway, a concrete cube elevated on stilts. As it now stands, the building’s squat tower projects over a two-story warehouse and office plinth that extends 300 feet into the lot. This asymmetrical composition creates a sense of tension that thrusts the tower toward the highway. IKEA plans to raze most of the horizontal component of the building — save for the portion that falls directly beneath the tower — to make room for more surface parking. This will eliminate the interplay of the vertical and horizontal elements that provide some of the building’s expressive quality. The remaining building will be a compromised, blocky building standing heavy yet ghost-like in a relentless blacktop field.
Architecture is inseparable from its place, and the Pirelli Building’s location alongside I-95 is integral to its importance. “It is a building best viewed from the highway and at great speed,” noted professor of architectural history Vincent Scully. A roadside beacon, it is the architectural object and icon that announces New Haven to thousands who drive by every day.
In the terminology of architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the building has become a “duck.” A duck is a building whose shape suggests its use. Architecture is inherently functional, but the use of the Pirelli Building, which has been vacant for five years, is no longer as an office building. It has become pure image, an icon that abstracts Venturi’s duck to evoke a place. The alternative to the duck is the “shed”; a nondescript building type that relies on dedicated signage to indicate its use.
The typical IKEA store is a shed.
If this is a subtle distinction between image and building, IKEA’s egregious signage proposal turns it into a blatant one. IKEA hopes to plaster huge signs declaring “IKEA, Exit 46” across the facade of the building. The billboards disrespect the careful detailing and articulation of the building’s exterior and disrupt the rhythm of its concrete panels. They also neglect Breuer’s well-documented aversion to placing signs on the building. He designed a secondary building merely to function as a billboard in order to circumvent a city ordinance that prohibits free-standing signs.
IKEA’s signs would turn the duck into a shed. They demean the significance of the architecture and belie IKEA’s expressed interest in architecture. Reconceiving the Pirelli tower as a meaningless prop denies the importance of the building as an icon. IKEA hopes to assert its ownership of the building, trumping the public image of the city with the private image of the corporation.
IKEA seems to know that the signs are problematic. The proposal submitted to the city of New Haven shows the buildings with large signs affixed to the facade. For this article, the architects provided a second variant of the design without the billboard. But John Clifford, the project architect, has expressed IKEA’s desire to use signs to demonstrate ownership of the building and to increase visibility. All indicators suggest that IKEA intends to pursue the signed version.
But rather than asserting itself through crude self-promotion, IKEA would better serve its image by creatively tackling the latent difficulties and opportunities to be found in this site. With a little ambition, IKEA could reuse the Pirelli Building in a viable manner and also create a flagship store that furthers its corporate image.
Converting the existing warehouse into loft-like retail space could create a regional design center. A conglomeration of retailers, wholesalers and designers could compliment IKEA’s merchandise and create a true destination that would confirm IKEA’s commitment to design and to the local community.
The relationship between IKEA and the Pirelli Building does not have to be one of opposition. IKEA could engage Breuer’s architecture to make a design statement and create a flagship store. Instead — at least for now — IKEA has defaulted to the status quo. They have missed an opportunity to further their corporate image and to contribute to the architecture and experience of New Haven.