New England, IBM and the Architecture of I.M.Pei

A trip to New York a couple of weeks ago brought surprises on many different levels. Firstly a reunion with an old school friend I had not seen for forty years, secondly a night in a hotel that put Alan Partridge to shame and thirdly a close up look at the architecture of I.M. Pei in the shape(s) of the IBM site at Somers NY.

To begin at the beginning, as regular readers will have realised, I’m on something of a world tour, beginning last October I’ve visited China, India (twice), France, Spain (three times), and now America. Some of this has been work; I’m involved in Communications Skills training with IBM and have been delivering a course to members of the IBM Academy, the future technical leaders of the company. The trip to New York came hard on the heels of a trip to India and my rudimentary preparation involved using the IBM chosen travel agent to book my hotel, car and flights.

Arriving in New York, I headed straight for the Hertz desk to collect my car, only to discover there was no sat nav available. A couple of minutes of negotiation secured an upgrade to a premium class, 4 wheel drive, fully automatic Mercedes in glistening white, with Sat Nav installed. I’d never driven an automatic before and more to the point, never driven in NYC before. Unwitting, I set off to recreate my very own “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Leaving JFK, I quickly became lost and hurtled into the Bronx, a borough of legendary delinquency. Cruising the streets of this neighbourhood proved to be disappointingly normal – no angry mobs gathered to torch my vehicle, no gunfights were observed and there was not a siren to be heard. I used the opportunity merely to familiarise myself with the sat nav and the automatic transmission and very soon found my way back onto the highway.

Seventy miles north of New York City is a place called Somers, a tiny New England town, that hosts one of IBM’s many office complexes and research labs. The buildings appear from the highway to float amongst the trees, and it was not until the next day that I was able to get close to this self advertised “futuristic fortress”.

First I was to navigate to Dansbury, Connecticut where my hotel was situated. I’d chosen the hotel on the basis of being out in the woods and towns of New England which I was keen to photograph, yet close enough to commute to Somers where I was going to be working.

Inevitably, nothing went according to plan. I arrived at the Hotel to find a JCB digging up the car park and inside, a fine layer of plaster dust covering the dust sheets that were draped over every stick of furniture in reception. Something told me this was not going to be a long stay. I checked in and made my way to my room, which featured a microwave cooker, a coffee machine with no coffee to be seen and a view right onto the building site behind the hotel. Alan Partridge would have been ecstatic, I was exhausted and unimpressed. I decided to post a satirical rant on Facebook and turn in for the night. Five minutes after posting I got a message from my old school friend Dana Wiehl, who, it turned out, lived only ten miles from Dansbury in a house with a spare room! The power of social media knows no bounds. I moved to Bridgewater and stayed the rest of the week. Wonderful to find out about old friends and to catch up after so long.

The next morning, I set off for Somers and the IBM complex. I’d seen the buildings from the road, but close up they are astounding. Like a scene from a science fiction movie, this site is nothing less than inspirational. There are four buildings in a 730 acre estate, each building is triangular and topped with a glass pyramid. Arriving early in the morning, there was not a human being to be seen, and I was able to roam the estate photographing the buildings from a variety of angles. Extraordinary architecture, designed by I. M. Pei. To my untrained eye this is the finest example of modernist architecture I’ve seen. An absolute joy to be around. I was fortunate to get the most fantastic light, which really shows these buildings off to their best.

Inside, with the exception of the glass pyramid the buildings are disappointingly corporate, but I suppose reality has to impact at some point. I’ve never looked forward so much to going to work as I did at this location, and that is in large part down to the vision of the architect and the boldness of the commission. Hats off to all concerned. The course I should say was also a pleasure. A great bunch of people (as they have been all over the world) and an experience perhaps summarised best by the feedback from one of the attendees, delivered in that inimitable New York style: “A life changing experience, but hey..we’ve gotta get you a new hairdresser!”

The collection of pictures from IBM Somers can be viewed here: http://electricalimage.com/galleries/architecture/

This entry was posted in Photography, Travel and tagged , , , , .

4 Comments

  1. Suzanne Hazelton May 7, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    Stunning pictures, great story!

    • Chris May 7, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

      Thanks Suzanne! It was a great trip..

  2. Rob August 23, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Chris, nice photos. Brings back memories as I worked out of IBM’s Somers location for about a decade before heading off to new adventuers a couple years back. Photograhing in black-and-white was a good choice. It adds to the overall sci-fi feel. The glass-and-steel structures are also mostly colorless, with a slight grey to silver look at all times depending on the lighting and weather. The I. M. Pei design, as with much of his work, is best viewed from the outside. It’s visual. The IBM location serves notice when driving up the I-684 with the three glass pyramid towers set off in the distance peeking over the trees, with the glass atrium serving as the center. Yet you hit on an interesting point that I always bring up when people asked what is it like inside. The fact is it’s not much at all. As grand as it is externally, the interior is no different than thousands of office locations around the world. No people walking around in space suits. No high-gloss, chrome or art deco feel. No Fritz Lang mini-Metropolis! A bit dull on the inside, but quite spectacular on the outside.

    • Chris August 23, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

      Thanks Rob, I was fortunate to be able to get in an hour early every day and roam around the place while it was empty. It is probably the location above all others that I’ll remember as really having an impact close to what one would imagine a hi tech company would deliver. Other worldly and one step ahead!

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