IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Laboratory Is a Lab Like No Other

Photo by Simon Greig/ Courtesy of IBM

Designed by Eero Saarinen for IBM, the Thomas J. Watson Research Laboratory is an architectural marvel in the hills of Yorktown Heights.

Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen made his mark in America. His 623-foot stainless-steel Gateway Arch rises almost defiantly from the Mississippi River in St. Louis, a continental landmark overlooking the West. Yet, much of Saarinen’s work was on the Eastern seaboard, from Yale’s iconic “Whale” hockey arena to the alar, Jetsons-like TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy Airport. MIT… Dulles Airport… Madison Avenue… in a brief 11-year career, the Finn made an indelible impression.

In Westchester, IBM chose Saarinen to design its Thomas J. Watson Research Laboratory in Yorktown Heights. (It was an encore performance: He also designed their Rochester, MN, site, paneled in shades reflecting the northern skies.) In deference to his principle that “a building cannot be placed… but grows from its site,” Saarinen’s curved three-story building seems to merge with its hilly surroundings.

“The shape of the site fits with the topography,” says retired IBM senior architect May Kirk. “And the glass and fieldstone (along the site’s 1,000-foot corridor) really brought the outside in and enhance the massiveness of the fieldstone.”

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a lab like no other
Photo by Simon Greig/ Courtesy of IBM

In fact, the stone element, which begins outside the building, continues inside, in the narrow corridor — “a constant interplay of indoors and outdoors,” Kirk adds. And with good reason: Saarinen, for his part, felt that scientists were generally “tweedy, pipe-smoking men” who needed “a relaxed, ‘tweedy’ outdoor environment as a deliberate contrast to the efficient, precise laboratories and offices [which are windowless].” He noted that the floor-to-ceiling windows could reveal the landscape and be opened, like galleries.

Depending on one’s line of sight, one, two, or all three levels of the building are visible. To Kirk, the 60-year-old structure, completed in the year of Saarinen’s death, 1961, remains a fitting and modern tribute. She mentions sitting in the second-floor library at the lab — on one of Saarinen’s innovative “tulip” chairs, naturally — as a unique experience and calls the site one of her favorite IBM buildings.

“I love his work, to be honest,” she says. “It’s iconic. It was revolutionary then, and in my mind, it still is.”

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