T he Pirelli Tire Building looms long, color-shifting from tan to gray depending on the weather and time of day and your vantage point, with rows of windows at even intervals save a two-story gap between the second floor and the rest. You’ve almost definitely spotted it if you drive, as it’s prominently positioned near the intersection of highways 95 and 91 in New Haven’s Long Wharf neighborhood, or if you’ve ever shopped at Ikea, the blue-and-yellow structure next door. Indeed, Pirelli’s right there in the middle of Ikea’s parking lot and sometimes carries large banner advertisements on its sides.
Perhaps you’ve wondered what goes on in there. The answer, at present, is nothing. But the Pirelli Building, built in the late sixties, was once home to tire manufacturer Armstrong Rubber Company, including administrative offices and a warehouse. It got its “Pirelli” moniker after the Italian tire brand acquired Armstrong in the late 80s.
Marcel Breuer, a celebrated modernist architect who died in 1981, designed the prominent, largely concrete structure in 1968. His involvement is the reason why the building is known by architecture fans the world over, and it’s a big reason why the iconic example of modernist construction still stands today, although not in its famously asymmetrical original incarnation.
That change was a controversial one. By 1999, the Pirelli Building was empty, and by 2002, the Swedish furniture giant IKEA decided to open a new retail store on the very same plot of land. To make room for a parking lot and to increase visibility for its also modernism-inspired storefront, IKEA planned to remove the Pirelli Building entirely.
In a compromise with city officials and preservationists, IKEA agreed to keep Pirelli’s tower intact while removing a low double-story expanse which had extended outwards from one end of the structure’s base. Particularly for the architecture enthusiasts who consider that asymmetrical feature to be one of the hallmarks of Marcel Breuer’s original construction—including a host of bloggers who’ve expressed their opinions online—it was an upsetting development.
Then again, as the website Docomomo (a nonprofit dedicated to the documentation and conservation of the designs of the modern movement) notes in its entry on the Pirelli Building, modernism is meant to incorporate pragmatism and utility, and the Hungarian-born Breuer was a master. Born in 1902, by his early 30s he was already much-celebrated in Europe and would soon become world-famous. He designed respected modernist structures all over the globe, including the Whitney Museum in New York City (probably his best-known) and the headquarters of Housing and Urban Development in Washington D.C., as well as Flaine, a multi-building ski resort in the French Alps. Compare these structures to the Pirelli Building and you’ll likely identify elements of Breuer’s signature style, including his geometric, textured facades.
Breuer was commissioned by the city and Armstrong to design the Pirelli Building in 1968, with construction finished in 1970. Beyond making a home for a successful business, New Haven officials saw a common benefit in bringing a world-class architect to town; the building was “intended to act as a beacon for the town of New Haven,” surrounded by a grassy “sea of green,” according to Docomomo.
For nearly thirty years, that’s exactly what it was. Hailed as a shining example of Breuer’s style and talent, trade tome “Architecture Week” called it “an icon of modern architecture.”
IKEA owns it, of course, yet the Pirelli Building is part of a “Planned Development District” and is on the State Register of Historic Places, says Karyn Gilvarg, Executive Director of New Haven’s City Plan Department. She says the structure could be inhabited again and that her department forwards requests about using the building to the company.
So far, though Breuer’s work remains significant and meaningful, it’s still literally vacant. Perhaps someday the locked doors will be cast open, the “No Trespassing” signs will be stowed away and the Pirelli Building will become a new haven to some enterprising New Haveners.
500 Sargent Drive, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.