The hulking concrete building just off the I-95 in New Haven commands the attention of anyone who passes by it. That’s how Dick Lee wanted it.
As mayor from 1954 to 1970, Lee presided over the Connecticut city’s nearly unmatched embrace of urban renewal and modern architecture. When Armstrong Rubber Company decided in 1966 to build in the city’s Long Wharf Redevelopment Area, the mayor told them they’d have something tall and designed by Marcel Breuer.
The company reluctantly agreed. Armstrong only needed two or three floors for office space and one or two floors for research and development, but Breuer had a solution: stack the offices on top of the R&D with a two-story slot between them. With additional space on the top of the building for mechanical equipment between deep trusses, Lee would get his landmark and Armstrong would get a building it needed.
Lee is long gone. So is Armstrong Rubber. Breuer, too, for that matter. But what’s left of the building and remains seared in the minds of New Havenites and those who drive past it.
Tom Burr is one of those New Havenites. The 54-year-old artist grew up just outside the city in a neighborhood with a lot of architects. In fact, his next door neighbor was Kevin Roche, who worked for Eero Saarinen before starting a practice with John Dinkeloo in 1966. “I knew that family well,” says Burr. “Through them I had my first impression of Modernism as a type of architecture and a potential style of living.”
Burr, now based in New York, first incorporated New Haven’s Brutalist architecture into a 2001 show in Berlin’s Gallery Neue. In it, bulletin boards displayed collected images of architects who left their mark on the city, including Paul Rudolph, Louis Kahn, Kevin Roche, and John Dinkeloo. Also seen: singer Jim Morrison, who was infamously arrested during a Doors concert at the New Haven Arena in 1967, inspiring the band’s song “Peace Frog” from their 1970 album, Morrison Hotel. “It’s an important moment if you grew up there,” Burr says with a chuckle. “The line ‘Blood in the streets in the town of New Haven,’ was sung with honor in public high schools.”
Now, Burr is building on those explorations in his current show, Body/Building. Spread out over the first floor of Breuer’s gutted local icon, the show uses objects that weave together a story about himself, the site, and his city.
It’s part of Bortolami Gallery’s “Artist/City,” project, which finds unconventional locations outside of the New York art bubble for the artists it represents. In a 2016 New York Times interview, gallery founder Stefania Bortolami described the program as being “yearlong, not primarily commercial, experimental projects in cities that are museum- and culture-rich but are not considered art hubs.”
Burr was hesitant about the idea of a hometown show at first, but after warming up to it, site selection became the main obstacle.
International tire manufacturer Pirelli purchased Armstrong and its New Haven property in 1988 before selling it off and leaving the building vacant by the end of the century. In 2003, three years after the building was added to the State Register of Historic Places, the city approved IKEA’s plan to build a new store on the site. As part of the plan, the furniture retailer demolished part of Breuer’s building for surface parking—an act that many preservationists have yet to forgive. Bob Gatje, who worked on the design with Breuer, told CityLab last year that he’d rather see the entire building torn down than stand as such a severely compromised version of itself.
“One of my first thoughts was to set up in the Pirelli building because it’s iconic, abandoned, and ripe with possibilities,” says Burr. “But everyone we spoke to [in New Haven] said, ‘You’ll never get in there. IKEA just doesn’t use it for anything.’”
So after looking at other spaces, including Paul Rudolph’s Temple Street parking garage (a two-year waiting list eliminated that option), the gallery made a call to IKEA—and it turned out they were up for it.
“They were actually quite interested," says Burr. “IKEA received such bad press when they took down part of the building. This was going to give them some positive press.” The gallery gleefully agreed to a $1, one-year lease.
The real trouble came after the good news traveled to city hall.
Local officials found out about the occupancy after the Times feature on Bortolami’s Artist/City plans for New Haven was published. “The inspectors came down on us pretty tough,” says Burr. “We met with building inspectors, health inspectors, fire inspectors. They were all very concerned, particularly because of the [Ghost Ship] fire in Oakland. All of a sudden, this was where our entire budget was being spent. I wasn’t quite sure we could pull it off.”
What began as a blank slate turned into a series of repairs. Burr and his team took plywood off of windows, built railings around recessed areas, sectioned off an elevator shaft, and brought in electricity to power exit signs. They also had to give up plans for using any of the upper floors, since it would be too difficult to provide access to anyone with a disability. “At that point, out of necessity but also conceptually, it made sense to turn those restrictions and codes and requirements into the body of the work,” says the artist.
So, into the new railings, Burr etched a May Day speech that French writer and activist Jean Genet gave at Yale in 1970 to support the Black Panther Party. Several Panthers were facing trial in New Haven at the time thanks to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s fixation on dismantling the group—a photo of Hoover holding a gun sits nearby next to an old men’s room door. Areas that used to be bathrooms—marked by red tiles one half inch above the bare floor—also have railings that Burr compares to the post-minimalist sculptures of Sol LeWitt, who lived an hour away in Chester, Connecticut. Of course, a photo of Jim Morrison’s local arrest is also on display. Burr describes each area as a “stage set.” Viewed together, “Genet, Hoover, Morrison are characters that weave a particular story.”
Burr also uses his show to get into the story of the building’s partial demolition. A white ribbon stretches across the compromised west wall of the former R&D space in which original modular panels of the building were then stitched together to form the space as it exists today. Titled “White Wall Wound,” the piece marks the action he describes as “a physical trauma enacted on the building.”
Burr adds, “I was thinking about the building as an entity that was built, loved, cared for, neglected, abandoned, and amputated. And then I was trying to think conversely about myself as a construction coming from certain coordinates in New Haven.”
All of this comprises the show’s first phase, “Preexisting Conditions.” A second phase, “Concrete Realities,” inside Bortolami’s Manhattan gallery, included six new bulletin boards by Burr. A third phase will include a spoken word performance inside the former Armstrong Rubber building next month. Now that IKEA has shown a willingness to activate the space, people want to know what comes next. As long as it sits in its current state, it perfectly fits into Burr’s interests.
“I don’t have a preservationist approach to my project,” says the artist. “I like the building, so I don’t want to see it taken down. But I’m not here to save it. I’m interested in the fact that it’s amputated.”
Tom Burr’s Body/Building (450 Sargent Drive, New Haven, CT) runs through November 11. Admission is free but visits are by appointment only.