It’s no wonder that architect and developer Bruce Redman Becker is a fan of Marcel Breuer: Becker grew up with a furniture designer mother and an industrial designer father in New Canaan, Connecticut, which holds a trove of postwar homes designed by the likes of Breuer, Philip Johnson, and Eliot Noyes. It’s not shocking either then, that as an adult, it pained Becker to see Breuer’s 1970 Pirelli Building in nearby New Haven sitting unused for years, except as a brutalist billboard for Ikea banners advertising the neighboring superstore.
The hulking concrete tower was originally designed by the Bauhaus-trained architect as the headquarters and research labs for Armstrong Rubber Company. In 1988, Italian manufacturer Pirelli made the site its North American headquarters, and Ikea bought the structure in 2003, demolishing a large portion of the lower level to make way for a parking lot. The Breuer-designed landmark fell into disrepair until recently, when Becker’s firm bought the site with plans to herald its new chapter.
For roughly 20 years, Marcel Breuer’s 1970 Pirelli Building (also known as the Armstrong Rubber Building) sat largely empty beside the busy Interstate 95 in New Haven Connecticut, unused by its then-owner, Ikea, except as a way to advertise the store that shared its parking lot. Architect and developer Bruce Redman Becker of Connecticut firm Becker + Becker bought the site in early 2020 and converted the structure into a 165-room hotel.
In early 2020, after a year of studying and planning—"I didn’t want to buy the building and then find we couldn’t execute something I was proud of," Becker says—Connecticut firm Becker + Becker began converting the building into a boutique hotel where high design shares a room with the latest energy-efficiency technologies.
The now-open Hotel Marcel claims it will be the country’s first net-zero energy hotel, meaning that the building can generate 100 percent of its own electricity and energy, including for the kitchen and laundry. Solar panels mounted above the parking area and on the rooftop harvest enough power for electricity, heat, and hot water. A backup battery stores enough to run the hotel systems as a micro-grid, even if New Haven’s power goes down.
Brooklyn studio Dutch East Design used Bauhaus-inspired fabrics and colors to introduce warmth and playfulness throughout the 1970s office building turned hotel.
The firm also designed the 165-room hotel in accordance with Passive House principles to maintain indoor temperatures and air quality. Becker says this goal was achieved thanks in part to Breuer’s originally solid construction. (The renovation involved the installation of new triple-glazed windows, which were easily accommodated by the existing building’s deep window openings, for instance.) Along with the sealed windows, the structure was also generously insulated to ensure a high-performance envelope.
"We also recycled a whole building—the single most important thing we did environmentally," Becker notes. "When you build a new structure, that initial carbon impact is often greater than that of operations for the entire life of the building."
The generous scale of the corner king guest room reflects Becker + Becker’s adherence to the five-foot module laid out by Breuer for the existing building. Most hotel rooms are 12 feet wide, but the window placement at the Hotel Marcel dictates a 15-foot width for the larger guest rooms.
While sustainability came first in the firm’s considerations for the renovation, it was not at the cost of beauty or a deep appreciation for Breuer’s original framework. Becker + Becker brought in Dutch East Design to help with the interiors, working with the Brooklyn studio to select sustainable fabrics, furniture, and paints that wouldn’t off-gas, which refers to when new, manufactured products release volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Regional manufacturers—Stickley in New York and the New Traditionalists in Torrington, Connecticut—were chosen for the woodworking, and only sustainably harvested hardwoods were used. The long-lasting materials and fittings chosen for the renovation are part of Becker’s sensible and sustainable plan. "Why would anyone choose to save a dollar and then find that they need to spend five over the next five years?," he says.
Wooden casements fabricated offsite by Stickley were fitted to each newly installed triple-glaze window. The angles of the exterior and interior openings match exactly. "We wanted that little bit of geometry to happen throughout the whole project," says William Oberlin of Dutch East Design.
The brutalist symmetry that dominates the exterior is echoed throughout the interior, too. The rectangular rhythm of the precast concrete panel facade appears in the new window frames, as well as in the thin, black border that outlines the rectangular lighting fixtures in the public areas (which were recycled from the existing, generic office lights). The motif reemerges in the camel-colored vinyl panels that make up the guest room headboards, and in the metal frames of the bathroom sinks and shower door.
The rectangular, upright headboards in the guest rooms reference the precast concrete panels on the building’s exterior. Dutch East Design’s goal was "to reference the Bauhaus, Marcel Breuer, and the building itself, and let that be a hero for the project," says Oberlin.
No lingering office building sterility here, either—there’s warmth in the color palette and the layering of Bauhaus-inspired fabrics throughout. A corridor carpet designed by Dutch East features large gray ovals that repeat in the pattern every 30 inches, keeping pace with the steady five-foot module that organizes Breuer’s existing design.
While furnishing the guest rooms with Breuer’s iconic Cesca chairs was an expensive investment, Becker predicts the pieces will last for decades with only the occasional need for reupholstery. ("We have this beautiful Anni Albers fabric for the job," Becker says of when that time comes.)
"This building is the future of buildings," says Oberlin.
In bringing the Hotel Marcel to life, Becker sought to restore a noteworthy Breuer building while demonstrating that beauty doesn’t have to be sacrificed to create a sustainable future. "The norm in the hotel world is to take an existing model and repeat it, whereas sometimes things that have been done for decades don’t make any sense anymore," Becker says.
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