Pirelli Building Reopens ... To Art

Allan Appel PhotoAfter being shuttered for decades, Marcel Breuer‘s famous Brutalist elevated concrete griddle off I-95 is opening its doors once again.

However, inside they’re not promoting Armstrong Rubber, which commissioned the building in 1968, or Pirelli Tires, or the sofas of IKEA, which still owns the building. Instead, an art show is on display. In the show, New Haven native, ECA graduate, and now distinguished conceptual artist Tom Burr offers art with evocations to New Haven’s recent past, including the 1970 May Day on the Green, Jean Genet’s defense of the Black Panthers,  an era of borders and border crossings, and the arrest of Jim Morrison at the New Haven Arena in 1969.

Burr’s show in the Pirelli building on Sargeant Drive, “Tom Burr/New Haven Body/Building: Pre-Existing Conditions,” has been in the making since last November, when Burr and his gallery, Bortolami Gallery in New York City, brokered a contract with IKEA.

The idea was for Burr to use the full length of the building’s first floor to explore borders and boundaries, catching and concealing, expression and repression — in short, the kinds of subjects and works he’s been showing across the country and most recently in Berlin and Munster, Germany. He’s back in New Haven as part of one of his gallery’s programs that seeks to link an unusual space with one of their artists and to mount a show in an unusual space.

An artist’s autobiography usually doesn’t help determine the location of a show, said the show’s coordinator Emma Fernberger. However, for Burr — whose 95-year-old dad still lives in Hamden, where Burr grew up — the Pirelli building adds an extra level of meaning, said the artist.

Born in 1963, Burr was only a kid when Armstrong Rubber built the building, a paean to a hoped-for Modernist version of city life that was directly undercut by the deep disruptions of urban renewal and the 1970 May Day rally on the Green, an apocalyptic moment, potentially, in New Haven history.

“I was born a handful of years before the Pirelli Building was built, so it was always in my mind while I was growing up,” Burr wrote in material accompanying the show.

In Burr’s conception, the building on its west wall is lined by a large white ribbon. It’s a kind of bandage that evokes the wounds sustained by many in that era, Burr said. It also marks the building’s own kind of wound, from the dismantling of the two-level extension that was torn down in 2000 to make way for the IKEA parking lot when that company bought the building

“A trauma to the body” of the building as well as the social body is how Burr, in an interview this week put it.

The show, which also features sculptural installations and photographs focusing on Jim Morrison’s arrest and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover’s managing of the Black Panther crisis, will be there through November.

The contract with IKEA calls for the gallery to be restricted to about 30 people at a time, which means you have to arrange for a visit by appointment. At least for now.

The first thing you notice when you walk into what is an utterly gutted space, with the steel ceiling and concrete columns exposed, is a shining brand new railing. Burr built it because IKEA and the city of New Haven’s building code required the artist and gallery to do so before inviting the public in. But Burr turned code compliance into art. Not only did he fashion the sturdy railing out of stainless steel, he engraved on it the complete text of famous French playwright and gay activist Jean Genet’s speech in defense of the Black Panthers.

Then there are two installations in front of the site of what had been the first-floor bathrooms on the north and south ends of the building. Here code required Burr either to remove the loose tiles or install railing. He chose the latter approach. Genet hovers over one, appearing in an old and young portrait. J. Edgar Hoover guards the other, shooting a Tommy gun.

It’s a kind of face-off redux that never specifically happened, but could have — and thanks to art, now does. That’s the way this show works, gradually growing on you as you circumambulate the raw space.

Burr said that he’s long been interested in coming back to New Haven, his native ground. But doing so at the Pirelli Building wasn’t a given, or even the first target.

He and his gallery explored an office tower in another part of town as well as the Paul Rudolph-designed parking garage on Temple Street.

Architect friends told him IKEA would never let him use the Pirelli Building. “Everyone told me you won’t get access,” he said.

But they were wrong. Gallery coordinator Fernberger made a cold call, and they lucked out. A contract was struck to run from last November through this November. “I don’t think they [IKEA} were necessarily interested in art. I think they liked the idea of activating the building,” Burr said.

Yet much renovation had to be undertaken by artist and gallery before the public would be allowed in. That work consisted not only of the new railings mentioned above, but also boarding up an open elevator shaft. Burr also turned that into an installation, using see-through plastic and large-face security mirrors, which certainly makes you think about the surveillance in your life, whether you are ascending or descending.

From Long Wharf Usher To Artist

Burr’s first specific recollection of the Pirelli building was connected to one of his first jobs.

“I was an usher at the Long Wharf Theater,” he recalled. “I wore a burgundy vest.”

Still without a license, he couldn’t drive himself home yet after work. When his parents came to pick him up, he noticed, night after night, the Pirelli Building.

The show inside the building is only the first phase of the project. Phase two is both online and physically at Bortolami gallery in Tribeca. Phase three will be what Burr calls “another layer” — probably a performance in the Pirelli building space, among and referring to the installations.

Those activities will take place in the fall. To find out more specifics or to make an appointment to visit now, contact Emma Fernberger at emma@bortolamigallery.com.

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posted by: jim1 on July 11, 2017  12:56pm

Mold under glass!!

posted by: Renewhavener on July 11, 2017  12:59pm

Have been looking for an update on this since the times piece.  Much appreciated.

However, @AllenAppel, “After being shuttered for decades, Marcel Breuer‘s famous Brutalist elevated concrete griddle off I-95 is opening its doors once again.”

Respectfully, would argue that Marcel Breuer is distinctive as a post-modernist, not to be confused with the work of Paul Rudolph who is prototypically Brutalist.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on July 11, 2017  1:33pm

It’s hard to appreciate Breuer’s design without the missing addition that was destroyed.
But sign me up for the tour.
The building deserves to be preserved and to serve the people of New Haven.

posted by: HewNaven on July 11, 2017  2:04pm

Great idea! Don’t let this building go to waste (looking at you, IKEA)

posted by: JCFremont on July 12, 2017  8:02am

Maybe it is about time New Haven gives up this ghost. An ode to New Haven’s last grasp of old industrial strength has been vacant for decades obsolete for today’s office space and I’m sure too expensive to bring up to code. IKEA like The Apple Store, silly too think they would add escalators, freight and passenger elevators to “re-purpose” the building for retail and bring it up to code. Like the city’s of Detroit and Buffalo shuttered Central Train Stations, The Pirelli Building is New Havens’ “Ruin” a standing icon to an expansion and future that never materialized. Since late 90’s New Haven has spent a fortune trying to correct or fix that “Paean to a hoped-for Modernist version of city life.” Yes maybe The Pirelli Building is a bit more interesting then the era’s other “Love of Concrete” structures it is time to admit that it will continue to sit relatively empty.

posted by: CONCERNEDPARENT on July 12, 2017  9:14am

this building is crying out to be an “upscale” hotel like “w” or “the study”......it is a travesty that it sits vacant…..yes, the long demolished one story building was important to the Architectural content;  the remaining structure remains a vibrant piece of New Haven’s history (like the building or not) and should not be wasted as an empty edifice of “post industrial” New England.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on July 12, 2017  9:34am

@JCFremont: They said that about the old industrial brick buildings in Boston that were revived and re-purposed and are now valuable real estate.
Americans don’t seem to have the same appreciation for the age or significance of buildings as they do in Europe.
We’ve lost the harbor waterfront in New Haven because I-95 was put in the wrong place. There’s no Sen. Ted Kennedy to come up with billions to bury it the way they did in Boston, so we’ll have incremental changes only, like the Boat House and the bike trail.
Politicians make lousy city planners, so let’s keep an eye on them.

posted by: LorcaNotOrca on July 12, 2017  9:46am

Glad to see this… not like anyone’s doing anything else with the building.  Naturally I can’t help but think about using this as a space for City Wide Open Studios. If the Goffe Armory is fair game, why not this? Might need more work before tons of people can pour in, and maybe it’d cause a traffic glut at IKEA, but something small scale?

I know New Haven probably won’t do that though… too much potential to inspire any meaningful action!

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 14, 2017  11:07am


CWOS used the Pirelli Building in 2002, before anybody knew what was going to become of this architectural white elephant….

posted by: HillNorth on July 17, 2017  4:51pm

I realize it is right on trend to poke IKEA and say nasty things about this EMPLOYER. Kind of like New Haveners sticking their tongues out at the big bad job creator. That building is an eyesore. There, I said it. It a big hunk of concrete that serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever.
It is unfortunate that IKEA because of narrow minded short sighted people can’t turn that place into usable, profitable space.
IKEA is a terrific employer. Show me what company gives it’s part time workers paid sick, personal and vacation time? Health care? CHECK. Decent salary? CHECK. Excellent working conditions? CHECK. A store manager who will roll up his sleeves, stock shelves, run a register and wash dishes if the need arrives! A staff kitchen so employees are fed. One day the staff cafe wasn’t up and running, the Manager of the entire store bought pizza for everybody! Hot days and they bring in cold water for their workers. What other employer does that?
Stop poking the good guys.