Big Blue and the Concrete Wave: IBM Corporate Office in Boca Raton, Florida


Angela Pedrao


Newsletter, corporate modernism
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The International Business Machines Corporation, widely known for its acronym “IBM”, and nicknamed the “Big Blue”, commissioned its facility in Boca Raton, Florida, to the office of Marcel Breuer and Associates. The project architects were Marcel Breuer and Robert Gatje (longtime partner at this firm). Breuer, a respected, well-known architect and mature designer, received this commission at the height of his career. He was a former student in the Weimer Bauhaus, and had been a close disciple of Walter Gropius, whose decisive and formative influence lasted throughout his long career, and became a defining friendship until his later years.


The IBM project responded to the need of a rapid and significant expansion of the company in Florida, which would include offices, laboratories and manufacturing facility. The complex would function for the research, development and construction of what was then, state of the art computer devices. The company moved to Florida to isolate itself from the corporate interests of New York.  This was necessary in order to develop new ideas. The company had already established connections in the state, with NASA as one of their clients. Under the same roof, the company intended to streamline all phases inherent to what was then known as “data entry systems.” The System/ 360 model 20, which was then the first financially accessible computer for daily use of businesses. In the early 70’s IBM Boca Raton would develop what we know today as personal computers (PCs).


For Marcel Breuer and Associates, this would be the latest of several high-profile projects which would push them to the forefront of the architectural discussion. Although sometimes considered controversial works, their consistency and integrity would keep attracting attention to what they designed. Major institutional and corporate experiences dated back to the early 1950’s and into the 1960’s with projects such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development Headquarters (HUD), UNESCO Headquarters in Paris and an earlier work for IBM in La Gaude (France). Both projects had raised eyebrows with the heavy boldness of the use of concrete. Stepping each time a bit further into the application of the precast technique (which Breuer would oppose to the traditional poured concrete, naming the former as “old concrete”). Breuer understood his craft as a formal response to a combination of problems. An example is protection from the sun with brise-soleil. In his early projects, he used them as elements on the surface of the facade, while later he actually merges this function into structural parts of the building, as in this Boca Raton project. This is not only a technical feature, but also a time and cost effective one. His sensibility raises these solutions to a sculptural quality that would transcend the material while achieving an undeniable architectural unit. As Breuer himself stated, concrete was a universal building material, which could mold itself to his philosophical pursuits.[1] The office would receive more significant institutional and corporate projects, as it proved to have the ability to translate the intangible values these organizations were eager to express into form. 


The professional collaboration of IBM with Breuer happened at a crossroads in architectural history. The company was at the forefront of defining new ways of relating to the environment, while designing and conceiving devices such as typewriters, calculating machines and later computers. These interfaces would dramatically change routine working functions. As IBM interfered with these mechanisms, the actual buildings they occupied became part of this logic. On the other hand, Breuer had defined himself as an eager experimentalist, consistently pushing the limits of modern architecture, in an exercise of condensing its parts to a single fluid block of significance, as if in search for the essence of architecture itself.


The person responsible for the design efforts of IBM was architect and industrial designer, Eliot Noyes. Like Breuer, Noyes had been a Gropius student, at Harvard. During his long tenure at IBM Noyes hired (in different times and capacities), names such as Charles Eames, Paul Rand, George Nelson and architects such as Marcel Breuer, Egon Eiermann, Eero Saarinen, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and Paul Rudolph. Noyes was hired directly by the president of the company Thomas Watson in 1956 as “consultant director of design”[2], charged of reinventing IBM’s corporate image. IBM had pioneered the early stages of communication technology and data management and was actively positioned in conceiving and transitioning the appearance and use of interface equipment. Through this research, the corporation entered into a whole new realm of understanding of how these objects would look and how they would be used. IBM was actually re-dimensioning the space/time routine of everyday functions, and although not entirely aware of this, Thomas Watson had a strong hunch of it. To engage in this effort, Noyes was appointed as responsible for the development and integration of all aspects of design to a degree, depth and longevity rarely seen in corporate environments. He oversaw every design related issue (including the logo, basically well in use today), together with all buildings related to IBM, interestingly this did not imply into a uniform all alike building standard, although he did pursue certain principles (such as modularity, the use of a courtyard, and the idea of patterns –related to the sequences of the computing language).

In a press release of 1967,[3] IBM announced their purchase of 550 acres from the Arvida Company in November of 1966, in the area called University Park, in Palm Beach County (since then county lines have shifted). The property was 3 miles from downtown Boca Raton and adjacent to the Florida Atlantic University. The same document describes the company’s intent to develop the System/360, Model 20 Computer, the most cost effective and user accessible computer model at the time. A subsequent memorandum of the company[4] addressed to Mr. T.J. Watson Jr reports that Marcel Breuer and Associates Architects had accepted the commission for the design of the Boca Raton Project.


The new IBM manufacturing/development complex comprised 620,000 square feet (57600 m2). The area was divided into a three-story administration and product test building, a three-story development laboratory building, a manufacturing building, cafeteria, a materials distribution center and a utility plant.


The administration, product test and development laboratory buildings were elevated at three-stories high on branched columns resembling trees, a recurrent symbol of IBM. The trees had also been featured prominently in the IBM Pavilion (designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen) at the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair, as a sustaining, structuring symbolic element of a growing company, bringing a sense of controlled expansion worldwide. In Boca Raton the “Y” shaped buildings were arranged opposite each other, and then this set of opposing “Y”’s were doubled on the site, placing a lake in the center which became a focal point. This space plays the role of a “courtyard’, an integrating element in Noyes concept of space. The lake was connected to the ocean, and served to balance and control the water level directly linked to the fire system of the buildings.

Breuer’s designs for the UNESCO Headquarters and IBM La Gaude, both in France, had also used “Y” shaped plans. This shape allowed a core grouping of the main services such as stairs, elevators, restrooms, electrical and air conditioning systems.  This layout enabled the shortest distribution lines to each of the three wings. The “Y” shape is on one hand a functional and economical solution, and on the other it offers a continually concentric curve to the façade; a protective open space that gives a pedestrian friendly scale to an otherwise desolate area. This ingenious floor plan could easily allow the future expansion of the building with the simple addition of another module, without any interference with the existing complex.


By contrast, IBM Boca Raton’s ground floor was occupied by offices, set back and punctuated by tree-like columns, accommodating a12 feet (3,6m) covered walkway that connected the full length of the buildings. These offices were enveloped with aluminum and glass. The second and third floors were draped by the hybrid structural, load bearing enclosure skin. The columns were the only poured in place concrete on site besides the staircases. The panels were 33 feet (10m) high by 8 feet (2,4 m) wide. This structural arrangement allowed for a 60 feet span of column free space. In La Gaude, that same space had been of 40 feet, due to the code in France where the workspace was required to receive daylight. The precast panel design was similar to that developed at IBM in La Gaude, in its structural capacity, and its ability to shield the interior from the sun with its built-in deep creases. For the Boca Raton project however, given the strength of the sun of Florida, the architects opted for deep fins that projected out of the building[5], slender in comparison to the French version. In La Gaude, the hybrid columns and panels were hollowed to receive mechanical ducts, electrical cabling and heating elements. In Boca Raton, instead of thick columns and panels, a leaner more elegant result was achieved, apparently dropping the solution of incorporating any added services to the structural pieces.


While commenting on simplified solutions and specifically referring to the sun-shades (brise-soleil), Gatje says: (…) “Where others try to break up their buildings, Breuer tried to simplify their envelope.”[6] It was in concrete, with the sun playing over its ridges and fins that Breuer built “ephemeral facades”. The ensemble of the Boca Raton buildings snake over the site as a vertebra, elevated by expressive solid concrete columns, which bifurcate to support the volume above, forming a single continuous structure. This monolithic sequence rests lightly and fluidly over the landscape. The elevated buildings allow the uninterrupted view of the site.


Punctuating the end portions of the buildings, or indicating entry points along the curves of the buildings are brick walls positioned in full vertical length, reminiscent, according to Gatje, of what, Gottfried Semper[7] refers to as “earth”, a principle he feels that although never heard from Breuer, was always present in Breuer’s work. It consisted of the ever present wall of stone, or of exposed brick, as a symbol of connection to the earth. The entry doors located at the end points of the linear buildings, were heightened by deep, thick frames of concrete, contrasting with the laced lightness brought by the shadows produced by the concrete fins of the precast panels.


The interior spaces overall had a stern, sober quality. The lab spaces contained the large scale computing machines, while the office spaces were occupied with minimal, functional furniture. Simple finishes were used on clean surfaces, mostly leaving building materials exposed.

There was a relative discomfort towards the new type of electronic equipment forcefully brought by a company such as IBM. These objects caused an initial sense of displacement as they reorganized time and space around them. These interfaces were a new way of interaction between man and nature (the environment), and together with the use of architecture, they represented an innovative and ambitious approach to the sense of dwelling with the proposition of an integrated design philosophy. The buildings presented by Breuer in the Boca Raton complex (in a total of three different typologies throughout the site), respond with a sense of steadiness and grounding. At the time, in the words of a 1971 Architectural Record article[8] on the IBM Boca Raton: “These buildings … bear a striking family resemblance. Taken separately, each is vigorous, and vibrant. Taken together, they begin to embody an expression of our corporate and cultural values that like it or not, tells us a great deal about who we are and where we have been going (…)”.


Breuer was consistent throughout his practice about the problems he addressed, and the principles he used to address these questions. He clearly stated his concern: the “line beyond which design, building and planning become more than just rational, and the roof over our heads takes on the significance of architecture.” He does not cease to ask himself this question, which leads him towards his ever-experimental craft of architecture and design. Although deceptively simple, the IBM building in Boca Raton, proudly bears the fruits of Marcel Breuer’s long years of searching into the very nature of architecture.


About the Author 

Angela Pedrao is a Brazilian architect and urbanist. She has presented several papers and published articles centered on the modern movement, with a special interest on the theoretical aspects brought by the development of design and its social impact. She was one of the founders of DOCOMOMO Brasil, and has lived and worked the last 15 years in Miami where she is currently a Senior Designer at DLFC Architects.



[1] In Manuscript of speech: [“Reinforced Concrete,”] Cimenteries Cementbedrijven, Brussels, Belgium,

[2] John Harwood, The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

[3] IBM Press Release, March 15, 1967, Courtesy IBM Archive

[4] IBM Memorandum addressed to Mr. Thomas J. Watson, President of IBM, June 9, 1967, Courtesy IBM Archive

[5] Robert Gatje, Marcel Breuer a Memoir (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2000)

[6] Gatje, p.169.

[7] Gottfried Semper, a 19th century German theorist, who described how materials should express themselves according to their properties, and their resulting form be the result of creative ideas. The materials further relate to more primitive instances that remit to the sense of dwelling. In: Historia de la Teoria de la Arquitectura, Hanno-Walter Kruft (Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 1985), p 541-543

[8] “IBM in Boca Raton: Breuer Builds on Florida’s Flood Plain” in Architectural Record, February 1971.