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DOCOMOMO NY talks with BassamFellows, new tenants of Philip Johnson’s Schlumberger Administration Building

March 25, 2017

It’s a match made in design heaven. On February 22 Ridgefield, CT, voters approved the multi-disciplinary design company BassamFellows as the long-term lessee for the Schlumberger Administration Building, Philip Johnson’s first non-residential building. This deal will preserve an important Modern building—vacant since Schlumberger moved out in 2006—without the risk that accompanies a change of use or architecturally clueless owners. Principals Craig Bassam and Scott Fellows are committed to not only restoring the building but calling it headquarters for years to come. What design firm wouldn’t want to be headquartered in a remarkably intact early Philip Johnson building?

The Schlumberger Administration Building, now affectionately known by locals as “The Philip Johnson Building,” was completed in 1952. It’s a single-story, steel-frame building constructed over an underground storage/loading dock. The rectangular plan builds around a large central bay that contains an open-air landscaped courtyard, glass-walled library, and conference room. A skylight-covered corridor mediates between the central bay and the perimeter offices, which are situated two per structural bay along the length of the building, with larger executive offices at one end. Each office has a window wall with views of the landscaped property as its perimeter wall and a solid infill wall of light gray iron spot brick on the interior corridor.

Stephen Fox in the monograph The Architecture of Philip Johnson notes that in terms of scale, spatial organization, and materials the Schlumberger Building is similar to Johnson’s Hodgson House of 1951, which sits across the street from the Glass House in New Canaan, CT. This adds an interesting twist to the story, as Bassam and Fellows purchased the Hodgson House in 2007 and have embarked on a multi-year restoration.

We caught up with Bassam and Fellows in late March on what happened to be the day they were picking up keys to the building. Getting to this day was a six-year process that started when they tried to persuade the Schlumberger Company to subdivide its former research center property and sell them the Philip Johnson building parcel. In 2012 the Town of Ridgefield, CT, bought the entire 45-acre Schlumberger tract as a way to counter the risk of over-development near its town center. After a proposal to turn the administration building into a museum was defeated by a referendum, the Town’s Board of Selectmen formed the Schlumberger Citizens Committee in 2015 to conduct a public planning process and determine viable, community-supported uses for the site. The committee was tasked with looking at a broad range of possibilities in line with the town’s desire to maintain the historic “Philip Johnson Building” and an auditorium on the site. In November of 2015 the Citizen’s Committee contacted DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State. Chapter president John Arbuckle and board member John Dixon toured the site and later conducted historical research that led to a report to the Committee and Town government confirming the building’s significance.

Bassam and Fellows note that the Citizen’s Committee was instrumental in moving the project to a positive outcome. The Committee articulated and communicated the value of the building in an effective and transparent way to the community and town leaders. And they got out the vote when needed. From DOCOMOMO’s standpoint, the committee was a model for local planning and preservation efforts.

BassamFellows’s main business is designing and marketing Modern furniture and other lifestyle goods, but they also offer architectural and design services, all driven by their “Craftsman Modern” aesthetic. “The Schlumberger Building,” says Fellows, “works with what we do. All of our work is linked to an aesthetic vision, and the environment in which it is created and seen is very important.” The Schlumberger building is the embodiment of the Modern aesthetic: architecture by Philip Johnson, lighting by Richard Kelly, interiors by Florence Knoll and landscape design by James Fanning. “Their work coalesced in this building in Ridgefield,” says Fellows, “yet it is completely modern and up to date today. It fits well into the contemporary way of working.”

While the interiors are remarkably intact, including the original partitions, lighting fixtures, hardware and finishes, they are in disrepair due to ten years of vacancy. Floods occurred and water is still entering the building through the roof. BassamFellows’s lease is $1 a year for 13 years after which it adjusts to market rate. During the initial period they expect to invest $1 million in the restoration and are wasting no time getting started. Architectural plans and contract documents have been in the works for two months and contractors are lined up. Their goal is to move into their new headquarters in September when the town finishes its site work. “For the right space,” says Fellows, “it’s all or nothing. The space is incredibly uplifting. The architecture is perfect. This is worth a six-year wait.”

Photo courtesy Craig Bassam
Schlumberger Administration Building, corridor between glass-enclosed library/conference core and perimeter offices. Photo: John Morris Dixon, 2014.