Into the Spaceship: A Visit to the Old Burroughs Wellcome Building

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When the pharmaceutical firm Burroughs Wellcome chose to move its headquarters from suburban New York to North Carolina in 1969, it was a major turning point for the state’s growing Research Triangle Park (RTP). The park was founded in the late 1950s in a bid to attract higher-paying and more advanced industries (the word “high tech” was not common at the time) to a state that had traditionally been dependent on agriculture and low-wage industries such as textiles and furniture.  The pharma giant was one of RTP’s biggest gets after IBM, and the company  helped define the image of the park with the iconic building it commissioned by celebrated modernist architect Paul Rudolph.

I talk about the Burroughs Wellcome building — officially renamed the Elion-Hitchings building, after Nobel-prize-winning scientists Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings — in much greater depth in chapter four of my book-in-progress, Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Rise of the Creative City.  But I’d like to give readers a brief introduction to Elion-Hitchings, following a remarkable tour of the structure conducted as part of the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s annual conference, which was held last week in Durham, NC.

The building has changed hands over the years, as Burroughs-Wellcome merged with Glaxo and the biotech firm United Therapeutics (UT) ultimately purchased it in 2012.  Since then, UT has has moved to demolish parts of the structure while rehabilitating its most memorable and historic portions.  Some architectural critics and defenders of Rudolph’s legacy were unhappy with the company’s plans, but even maintaining such a mammoth structure (let alone remodeling it) is an understandably daunting and perhaps impossible task.  So far, UT has taken down about 400,000 square feet of space, though it argues that these facilities were mostly lab space added on to Rudolph’s original design — structures that George Smart, director of North Carolina Modernist Houses, suggests were “never particularly architecturally significant.”

In any case, the most recognizable portion of the building remains, albeit in lapsed condition after years of being unused and unoccupied.  UT plans to refurbish the remaining 160,000 square feet and install an exhibit dedicated to the history of the building and the scientists it is named after.  In the meantime, the company was generous enough to open up the building to members of VAF, an organization made up mostly of architects, historians, planners and preservationists.  Architecture geeks all, we were thrilled to get a rare peek into a piece of architectural and, indeed, cultural history.

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Geeks among the possum and pine

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From a distance, one can see the incongruity of the striking building and its bucolic surroundings.  Several friends independently offered similar reactions, all varying on the theme of “horrible postmodern Mayan temple.”

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Here we see the famous facade, with its segmented spaces stacked like futuristic building blocks.

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The rusting pylons of Rudolph’s jagged, angular design will benefit from a fresh coat of paint.

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Hunter College planning professor Matthew Lasner takes a photo amid the flaking metal and paint in front of the building.

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The University of Oregon’s Chris Bell enters the building, walking up steps of pink marble.  The floors of the building’s lobby were once covered in groovy orange and green carpet, lending warmth to the otherwise austere modernist aesthetic of the structure.

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The Elion-Hitchings building has been described in many ways over the years, as a spaceship, honeycomb, or beehive.

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The bottom floor looks out on to an area for relaxation and reflection, now overgrown with weeds.

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The building features a seemingly inscrutable and complex system for numbering offices, likened by one tour participant to the “star dates” in the captain’s log on Star Trek. For previous owners Glaxo, ordinary numbers simply would not to do.

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Rudolph’s design was meant to mirror the ridge of the building site, with chunks and plates cascading down either side of its overarching A-frame structure. This choice gives the building its strikingly lapidary or “stacked” visual aesthetic.

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Windows frame the forested and rural surrounding the building like a landscape painting, both highlighting its verdant environment and emphasizing the distinction between its high-tech, artificial internal environment and the natural world around.

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No longer supplied with power, the building becomes a dark warren of workspaces and hallways, occasionally illumined by natural light from outside. Undoubtedly Elion-Hitchings felt different when it was electrified and occupied, with the presence of people and the trappings of business, work, and research.  But the combination of small, confined workspaces and Rudolph’s motif of jutting angles throughout still must have resulted in a slightly claustrophobic feeling at times.  However, tour participant Cynthia de Miranda — an architectural historian whose father was a scientist at Burroughs-Wellcome — averred that the building always struck her as warm and pleasant during her visits as a child.

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So many angles, so little time

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The gilded fixtures of the executive bathroom (which even included a shower) would probably not pass muster with today’s C-suite elite.

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The building retains its mix of geometry-fetishism and glorious 1970s chintz.

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We leave through the empty, dust-covered lobby, anxious to get to our next tour stop on time.

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The “executive entrance emergency telephone” — in a time before cell phones, some executive emergencies just couldn’t wait.

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In the end, numerous tour participants could not escape the sense that, in its current form, Elion-Hitchings evokes a distinctly postapocalyptic vibe — like a remnant of a dead and forgotten civilization, overgrown as nature retakes the towering proof of human hubris.  One could imagine aliens coming to Earth and finding the structure well after humans have succeeded in wiping themselves out as a species.

As scholars and lovers of architecture, we look forward to the day when the building’s remainder is restored to its former greatness, an emblem of the wild aesthetic ambitions of modernism in its late heyday and the information economy at the moment of its emergence.  Love it or hate it, Rudolph’s design remains an impressively audacious creative gesture and an important part of the history of both architecture and Research Triangle Park.  The fact that it will be preserved is a heartening one in a culture that is all too often hasty to forget even the recent past, and Elion-Hitchings is definitely unforgettable.

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Afterwards, VAF members yuk it up at the National Humanities Center in RTP