For the second year running in lieu of a holiday recently I travelled to New Jersey to shoot a short sequence for this film. Of course, I could have edited the script or used stock footage to avoid such a costly trip but concluded that not to go would leave a gaping hole. Besides, even on the lowest budget film there’s such a thing as production values. With no crew or trunkloads of kit to carry and hence no need for a carnet in the end I was simply another tourist.
In her diaries, Erica recalls a visit to the United States in 1964 to visit her brother, Edward Eisner who, when offered a post at Bell Laboratories, relocated to New Jersey with his family. Founded by a Scots immigrant, Alexander Graham Bell, Bell Labs became one of the world’s foremost tech companies, producing no less than 10 Nobel Laureates. At its peak, the company expressed its confidence by commissioning a purpose-built headquarters at Holmdel, designed and built in 1959 by the Finnish-American architect, Eero Saarinen.
How could I resist? Not because Holmdel resembles a Ken Adams’ production design for an imaginary Stanley Kubrick film but because, for me, the building represents what the future was supposed to look like. After an exchange of emails and phone calls to the building’s current owners, Somerset Developments, I was kindly granted access.
Leaving the UK mired in post-Brexit turmoil, with my ever-understanding husband, I arrived in New York where we eschewed the usual museum and gallery attractions. Instead we walked the lower end of Manhattan, from the housing projects fringing the East River to the site of the former World Trade Center and its yet-to-be-occupied shopping mall, The Occulus, a stark and unsettling white space broken only by an outsized Stars and Stripes suspended from a balcony.
Three days later we took the NJ Transit to Newark, picked up a car and headed mid-state. On the ride out of town I thought of Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Open All Night’ –
Gotta find a gas station, gotta find a payphone, this turnpike sure is spooky at night when you’re all alone/Gotta hit the gas ’cause I’m runnin’ late, this New Jersey in the mornin’ like a lunar landscape.
On Newark’s edgelands the scale of past and present industry is daunting. From the pitted and potholed highway my POV is mile-upon-mile of factories and warehouses, some functioning, others long closed but all shrouded in drab ochre dust; not so much lunar landscape as exurban desert. Passing through the turnpikes I began to wonder if the term Garden State was purely metaphoric.
Pausing at a service station, I notice the woman serving me is wearing a red, white and blue hijab. Then I remember it’s the 4th July. The place is crowded with families eating Popeye’s fried chicken with 32oz gulpers. Suddenly my half ham-and-swiss sandwich and 12oz iced coffee felt meagre. Outside as the temperature hit the 90s I was grateful for the car’s air con and satnav.
When she made her transatlantic trip in 1964, Erica was six months pregnant with her first son – my husband. On her arrival she compared the conspicuous prosperity of America with the dreichness of her adopted Edinburgh. For her, it was a pivotal moment for she would soon be forced – as was customary at the time – to forfeit her academic career in exchange for home and motherhood. From her writings it’s clear Erica never took much to America, though I suspect her negative bias had less to do with the USA’s perceived shortcomings and more the Old World-view she embraced as an Oxbridge student. That, and perhaps a subconscious envy of her brother whose career prospered at the very point hers went into decline.
At the township of Hazlet, we pause to take bearings. We decide to recce the Holmdel building, these days named Bell Works by the developer. During a short drive through prime New Jersey suburbia, we pass some absurd examples of mongrel, off-the-peg architecture reminiscent of the houses seen in ‘The Sopranos’ – outsized and adorned with incongruous features: fluted columns, double-height UPVC-cased glazing, rustic stone and cedar shingles, often together.
Nothing, however, prepares me for the scale of Bell Works, signalled by a stark white water tower – the Transistor Tower, designed by Saarinen and set in a vast parkland estate. This is but a prelude to the building itself, all 2 million square feet of it.
On Independence Day thankfully there are very few cars around. At the rear of the building – a circuitous drive away – the American flag flies before a massive mirrored glass elevation. I set up my camera to shoot a few exteriors. Then, out of curiosity I try the door of the rear entrance and to my amazement find it open. Entering, we’re confronted with the surreal sight of a fully-functioning fountain while at the far end of this unfeasibly large space, a concrete cliff stands 40-50 foot high. Despite the cars outside, indoors there’s not a soul in sight. Tempting as it was to begin shooting, I decide to keep to our agreed appointment and return the next day.
Keeping to the allotted time, we learn our host, Moshe Gross, is late. I do a quick scan of the reception area, reminiscent of a Mad Men interior and refurbished to match Saarinen’s original design, including a large if impractical yellow carpet, the one bright spot of colour to relieve the uniform grey and black of the building.
On his arrival, Moshe gives us a prolonged tour. Initially he’s spiky and forthright, quoting facts and issuing cautions but eventually he warms up and leaves me to my task. In the limited time granted I want to shoot everything – the building certainly deserves documenting but I only have room on the timeline for half a dozen shots at most.
Sticking to ground level I’m thankful for the immense glass ceiling since I have to rely on ambient light, but even my widest lens can’t convey the scale of the space. After lunch in the in-house cafeteria, we head to the upper levels, most of which are unoccupied. Moshe informs us the aim is to create a hub for start-ups where companies can mix and share ideas. There are plans too for a 200 room hotel, a shopping mall and flexible conference spaces. Certainly the building can house these ambitions and probably more.
In the basement, Moshe gives us a tour of what was once the building’s nerve centre. In a vast, low-ceilinged room, once the site of Bell Labs’ computing and communications infrastructure, he admits how work of a complex and clandestine nature took place here, adding, ‘No one really knows what went on.’ I don’t doubt it. Certainly Erica’s brother, Edward, worked on several projects that were later patented but whose purpose was guarded. I stand my camera in what was once the main cafeteria, the size of a large ballroom, glazed on three sides and overlooking a manicured landscape. ‘I could easily spend a week here’, I say. But sadly I can’t.
Job done, as we bid our thanks and goodbyes, Moshe insists we meet his boss, Ralph Zucker, a short, energetic man with a playful glint in his eye who remarks jokingly how only a stupid person would buy a two million square foot building. He is, of course, the owner.
After a day of shooting suburban exteriors, on the drive back to the airport on Route 35 I spot a billboard: ‘the five most dangerous words are…’ Fleetingly I catch the payoff: ‘…it might just go away.’ It’s an advert for a financial services company peddling fear and uncertainty. During the flight home I muse, perhaps naively on how, in a world inured to a perennial state of recession, anyone can contemplate a future when the present is fraught with war, terror, political expedience, economic failure and social injustice, a state of affairs far removed from the aspiration and confidence of the 1960s that produced Bell Labs.
En route, during a brief stopover in Reykjavik, I overhear an English man telling an American about how, for him, Brexit is a great result, adding how we Brits no longer have to ‘do the bidding of 28 (sic) other countries or pay for the Greeks who retire at 50 for a life of leisure’. He’s from Essex, he informs his companion. At this point I withdraw, hoping that it, or rather, he might just go away and consoling myself with the fact I’m Scottish.
The above image is a screen grab from my shoot at Bell Works, Holmdel, New Jersey.