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This article by Christopher Mario was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on September 16, 1998. All rights reserved.
A Great Stage, But the Plays Are the Thing
by Christopher Mario
On October 24, 1914, a New Jersey zinc mogul named
Edgar Palmer, Princeton University class of 1903, handed his alma
mater the keys to a brand-new 45,725-seat concrete football stadium
named in honor of his late father, Stephen. Constructed in just four
months and paid for in its entirety with $300,000 of his own money,
Palmer’s stadium would witness 461 football games and slightly more
than 82 years of Princeton history before falling victim to time,
weather, and finally the wrecking ball in March and April of 1997.
This Saturday, September 19, a new chapter in Princeton football
will begin when the Tigers meet Cornell for the inaugural game at
Palmer Stadium’s as-yet-unnamed replacement. Although no modern-day
Edgar Palmer has yet to pony up the $25 million the university is
seeking as a naming gift, the new state-of-the-art stadium was built
on schedule — 18 months — and pretty much within budget —
$45 million, more than $20 million of which has already been raised.
A projected sell-out crowd of nearly 30,000 students and alumni,
and friends will attend the inaugural game, and amid a sea of orange
and black they will help the university begin a new era as Edgar
stadium begins its long slow slide into historical obscurity.
For a university obsessed with its history, an institution that thinks
not in years but in centuries, a school whose famously loyal alumni
reverently don their wacky class jackets and get misty-eyed singing
"Old Nassau" at the annual P-Rade each June, surprisingly
few tears have been shed over Palmer Stadium’s passing. People have
talked of their memories of great games, of Jesse Owens’s
long jump in 1936, of the infamous "Twelfth Man" showdown
against Dartmouth a year earlier, when a cook for a Princeton diner
sneaked onto the field during a blizzard and joined the Dartmouth
line for one play before the cops threw him out.
But the building itself? University president Harold Shapiro may have
summed up the feelings of many alumni in his no-tears farewell to
the stadium in the program for Palmer’s last game on November 23,
1996: "I am sad to see it go, but it has served us exceedingly
Built to a design that overreached the capabilities
of concrete construction technology circa 1914 and plagued by
problems as early as 1925, Palmer Stadium was for most of its life
little more than a squat and brooding pile of crumbling cement,
by corrosive elements that seeped in through cracks and attacked the
steel reinforcing bars. (In response to an inquiry about why Palmer
Stadium lasted only 82 years while concrete structures built by the
ancient Romans still stand, Princeton civil engineering professor
George Scherer wrote in the Princeton Alumni Weekly that while modern
reinforced concrete offers "enormous freedom" in design, the
lesson of Palmer Stadium is that this material is not
In its last decrepit days Palmer Stadium even suffered the ignominy
of having giant nets draped from the undersides of its stands to keep
falling chunks of concrete from landing on fans’ heads. Throughout
its history, Palmer was a backdrop for fond memories, certainly, but
not really the kind of building people could cozy up to and love.
Which perhaps begins to explain its replacement. A stark and
monument to architectural modernism designed by a fashionable New
York architect from South America who had never seen even one football
game when he won the commission, this new stadium, like Palmer, is
unlikely to make even the most die-hard Princeton fan feel even
warm and fuzzy.
Yet despite early concerns and complaints from alumni and others about
the university’s choice of architect and his aggressively modernist
approach, nearly everyone now seems to agree that the new stadium
is just the thing, the logical successor to Palmer. Maybe that’s
at Princeton, an institution that thinks in centuries, people realize
that what’s important about a stadium is not the stadium itself, but
what happens inside it. Buildings come and buildings go, but Princeton
history marches on.
If Palmer Stadium was a stage upon which Princeton football history
was played, Palmer’s replacement is a machine, a carefully engineered
and strictly utilitarian building meant to perform its function and
then get out of the way.
Composed almost entirely of precast concrete and prefabricated steel,
it sits in the same location and along the same axis as Palmer
A tall, unornamented, horseshoe-shaped structure of textured
concrete defines the exterior, with the stands dropped into the
like a gift inside a box with curved ends. Although slightly larger
than Palmer, the new stadium actually seats about a third fewer
a total of just under 28,000, including a few hundred in the closed
end of the horseshoe below the scoreboard, where front-row seats are
just 17 feet from the end-line (just two feet more than the minimum
distance required by NCAA rules).
Because it’s approximately the same overall size of Palmer but has
significantly fewer seats, the new stadium affords lots of space for
all the things Palmer lacked. Like enough restrooms. But also
concession areas at ground and mezzanine levels all around the stadium
behind and under the grandstands; huge fully equipped locker rooms
for home and visiting teams; spacious ticket offices and capacious
entrance gates; and full handicapped accessibility including elevators
and spaces for literally hundreds of wheelchairs on a mezzanine
the upper and lower stadium decks with unobstructed views of the
At ground level, in the space between the base of the concrete
structure and the backside of the precast concrete stands, there’s
a wide asphalt-paved avenue called the concourse. In addition to
access — not only to the concession areas and other amenities
contained in the horseshoe structure, but also to the gates that lead
to the stands — this concourse is envisioned as a multi-purpose
space that will be used not only during the football, soccer, and
lacrosse games that will be played at the stadium, but all year
Augmented by larger open-air plazas at the curved ends of the stadium,
where the architects left large pie-shaped gaps in the stands to
limited view corner seating, the concourse will be open continuously
and will be available for a variety of formal and informal social
The concourse is criss-crossed by white-painted metal bridges flying
over the pavement and leading from the horseshoe structure to the
upper deck of the stands. Suspended from the metal beams that hold
up the concrete stands, which are punctuated by rectangular holes
that let natural light filter onto the concourse, the bridges and
the rest of the metal structural elements create an atmosphere more
sci-fi than sports. The concourse gives the impression of a super
high-tech factory, or maybe a really big Enterprise, a far cry from
the dark and dank colonnade that surrounded Palmer Stadium.
Around the top of the horseshoe structure, a single continuous room
runs from one end of the horseshoe to the other with a ribbon of large
windows that provide a panoramic view of the stadium and the field.
Much of this giant room will be left unfinished for future use, but
a number of areas are just being completed, including a President’s
Lounge for private receptions and a huge collection of high-tech press
boxes that are nothing short of luxurious.
All very nice. But what the near-capacity crowd expected
for the stadium’s first game on September 19 will find most pleasing
is the superb view of the field from practically every seat in the
stadium (fans in the very bottom row may complain that they can’t
see over the players on the sideline, but that was also the case at
Palmer Stadium). And for the vast majority of great seats the fans
can thank a man named Chan-li Lin.
A graduate of MIT who grew up in Clinton, New Jersey, Lin has spent
the last three years of his working life laboring exclusively on the
plans and the construction of Princeton’s new stadium as project
for Rafael Vinoly Architects.
"My boss, Rafael, gives direction to the design, and I basically
draw the plans and focus on the details," Lin explains of his
role. Although not a football fan himself, Lin spent a lot of time
at a lot of football games to prepare for the Princeton job, visiting
every Ivy League stadium and a number of larger stadiums as well.
Based on what he learned, Lin developed a seating plan for the stadium
that will give fans a view of the action on the field unparalleled,
he believes, in any similar stadium.
"People say that the bowl is the best configuration for football,
so we tried to make the tightest bowl around the field possible,"
Lin says, a job made easier when the university decided to create
a dedicated track and field venue outside the new stadium, between
it and Jadwin Gym, rather than inside the stadium around the field,
as was the case at Palmer. "And we didn’t want a lot of seats
in the corners, which place the spectators farther away from the
so we eliminated them."
Lin’s visits to the other Ivy League stadiums provided little help
beyond the idea of the bowl, however. "There was not much we could
learn in terms of technical aspects or esthetics. These places are
pretty old," Lin says of the major Ivy stadiums: Harvard Stadium,
the Yale Bowl, and Penn’s Franklin Field.
"At Harvard, they’re using precast concrete seats to update and
replace the originals, and from that we learned that precast was a
cost-effective alternative," Lin continues. "The Yale Bowl
is in a way spectacular, very monolithic and carved into the ground,
but even though we adopted the bowl design, we wanted something more
airy and open. And Franklin Field has the colonnade around the
which we transformed into a bigger and more generous concourse. But
for the most part many stadiums tend to look gloomy and heavy, which
is why we decided to use concrete elements with a steel skeletal
to give a sense of lightness."
Nor did Lin and his boss Rafael Vinoly look to Princeton’s campus
"There was a desire on the part of the university to somehow
the old stadium, and therefore we used the horseshoe shape and also
included some relics from the old stadium," including the concrete
"Palmer Memorial Stadium" sign that stood between Palmer’s
towers over the main gate and now sits inside the new stadium on the
concourse. "And as far as the surrounding buildings, we made the
color of the precast concrete in such a way that it doesn’t clash
with the colors of adjacent buildings," referring specifically
to Fine Tower on Washington Road, just to the west of the stadium.
"To that extent we did try to relate to the campus. But not
Definitely not stylistically. Here’s why: Lin and his boss Rafael
Vinoly are modernists.
Developed in the 1920s and ’30s by Mies van der Rohe,
Walter Gropius, and a French architect who called himself Le
among others, modernist architecture rejected historical allusions
in buildings, stripping away ornament and decoration and instead
the structural components of buildings themselves.
As Lin explains it, modernist architects "try to make a building
design not fussy or related specifically to any building style or
era." At Princeton’s new stadium, that approach resulted in a
building that tries, in Lin’s words, "to give a straightforward
response to a given program without decorating too much."
Bloodied but unbowed by the post-modern movement — which reacted
against the perceived sterility of modernist buildings beginning in
the 1960s and continues to this day in the works of Robert Venturi,
whose Wu Hall on the Princeton campus has become a post-modern
and Princeton’s own Michael Graves — modernism has made a comeback
in recent years. And one of the strongest proponents of resurgent
modernism today is none other than Rafael Vinoly.
A native of Uruguay who did much of his early work in Argentina,
(pronounced Vin-yoly), 53, was virtually unknown in the U.S. until
he won a competition to design a $1.6 billion performing arts and
convention center in Tokyo a few years ago, according to a story about
the architect in the Wall Street Journal. Since then, Vinoly has
hot stuff in the architecture world, winning major commissions all
across the country, including the new Regional Arts Center soon to
be built in Philadelphia. No less a personage than Herbert Muschamp,
architectural critic of the New York Times and a well-known proponent
of modernism, has declared Vinoly "the most elegant architect
now practicing in the United States."
Not everybody agrees, of course. And while Vinoly’s new-found
stardom provides vindication — if any is needed — for the
Princeton trustees’ decision to entrust their $45 million stadium
project to a man who not only had never before designed a stadium,
but hadn’t been to a single football game in his life, some people
will inevitably remain unimpressed by Vinoly’s handiwork when they
see it at Princeton. (And some are sure to be less impressed when
they discover that the $45 million compares to $30 million as the
going price for a college football stadium of this size.)
"Can the June 10 cover photograph possibly convey what the new
stadium looks like? I pray it does not," a 1982 Princeton alumnus
wrote to the Princeton Alumni Weekly recently. "Princeton’s new
stadium appears from your photograph to be the most forbidding and
uninspiring piece of public architecture in existence outside a
Extreme words, but not terribly surprising ones given the style of
the new stadium. According to an architect with a nationally known
firm who spoke on condition of anonymity (with over $200 million in
construction projects under way right now, Princeton University is
one potential client that no big firm can risk annoying), Princeton’s
new stadium represents an extreme position in an ongoing debate in
the architectural world over what stadiums ought to look like.
"There are two different movements in stadium design right
this architect says. "One is a quasi-historical, classical style
made of brick. The other is modernism."
Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the wildly popular baseball stadium in
Baltimore, was the original and remains the most famous of the first
kind of new stadium. Designed by HOK (Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum,
which nearly 30 years ago designed the Squibb headquarters on Route
206 in Lawrenceville), Camden Yards’ famously intimate setting and
unobstructed views depend on some very advanced technology. But unlike
a modernist stadium, Camden Yards hides its technology behind
bricks and friendly arches, and tops it all off with whimsical touches
like the twirling birds atop the old-style scoreboard — which
nevertheless incorporates a very new-style giant video screen.
Princeton’s modernist stadium, on the other hand, "says here’s
the structure, look at it," our architect explains. "The
movement does away with old details, with trim, with decoration. It
says that the beauty of a structure is the structure itself, and that
it shouldn’t be hidden. It says that buildings are a series of systems
that fit together, and a good architect will express those systems
and let you see them."
Not so many years ago, the modernist view was architectural orthodoxy.
But with the success of the post-modern movement, this view has become
controversial. It’s fine to show off a building’s structure,
critics say, but what’s the point if only other architects get it?
"Modernist buildings tend to be very abstract," our architect
says. "But the problem is, the average person doesn’t pick up
on the parts that have been abstracted. They just see a big glass
There are three major criticisms of modernist buildings: they don’t
have a sense of place, they don’t relate to their surroundings, and
they don’t provide even the most rudimentary cues to help people do
some pretty simple things, like find the front door. Each of these
criticisms can be directed at the new Princeton stadium, our architect
"This stadium could have dropped out of the back of an airplane
and could have landed anywhere on any campus in the country and it
would still be the same. Nothing about it says Princeton," our
architect says. "It could be argued that this stadium doesn’t
take advantage of its site and its campus, which has the best
gothic architecture on earth. But Princeton is not afraid to hire
architects who want to make statements. And the statement here is,
this is a new stadium."
But even if you’re not a fan of modernism, as our architect most
is not, you can still appreciate the new Princeton stadium and respect
its ingenuity if you know what to look for and what its architect
had in mind.
"Vinoly wants you to see that this particular building is a kit
of parts," our architect says. "He’s more interested in
than history. He wants to express the parts, the pieces, and let you
see them, and let you see how they all fit together. And if you look
very closely and study it for a while, you’ll begin to understand
what it’s all about."
Given its modernist esthetic, the new Princeton stadium will
strike some as forbidding, monolithic, even a bit puzzling. Yet
the complaints of alumni like the one who wrote the letter mentioned
above, it’s hard to find anyone who’s not tickled absolutely pink
by how things have turned out — including those who were early
critics of the stadium plan.
"By and large it has worked out very well. It’s a terrific
says one such early critic, Eric Jones ’54, an investment manager
in Rochester, New York.
In April, 1997, Jones wrote to the Princeton Alumni Weekly that "a
costly fiasco appears to be brewing with the plans for the new
and called for increased involvement of alumni in the stadium’s
Jones got his wish. The Stadium Advisory Committee, a group of alumni,
staff, and faculty that included such Princeton football legends as
Stas Maliszewski ’66, Cosmo Iacavazzi ’65, and Dick Kazmaier ’52,
played a central role in the new stadium’s planning.
"We were supposed to give alumni input. We gave a lot," says
Maliszewski, a pension fund manager in Chicago who is also president
of the Princeton Football Association, a group of alumni that supports
the Princeton football program. "Taking the track out and putting
it in a separate facility and making the size of the stadium about
30,000 seats were the two primary recommendations."
Maliszewski and his group worked closely with the architects and
staff, and with the stadium nearly complete, nobody has any
"We worked on every aspect of this thing, and we’ve seen it from
the ground up," Maliszewski says. "And as one who has been
there, I can tell you that if you ask any athlete, I don’t care if
they’re playing tiddly winks, what kind of arena they’d like to play
in, they’d tell you they would like one where the crowd completely
surrounds the playing area. And I think we’ve accomplished that."
Cosmo Iacavazzi, captain of the undefeated 1964 Princeton team, agrees
with Maliszewski’s assessment. "We alums are very pleased with
the results," says Iacavazzi, an energy efficiency management
consultant who lives in Princeton. "The stadium is absolutely
gorgeous. Very striking. First class. And very appropriate for
the grandeur of it all, the first-class approach in design and
and the total package."
Although the architect had already been chosen and much early concept
work was already complete when the Stadium Advisory Committee made
its recommendations, the committee saw all of its core recommendations
adopted in the final plans, Iacavazzi says.
"We wanted a modern, up-to-date stadium that offered some
with the past, something that had a connection with Palmer Stadium,
but could stand on its own," Iacavazzi says. "And we wanted
a sense of intimacy between the fans and the players. It was a good
Much of the credit for the success of the collaboration goes to Rafael
Vinoly himself, Iacavazzi believes.
"He was part of the committee, and responded to the alumni and
the committee’s concerns," Iacavazzi reports. "And I must
say he did an outstanding job. Not only in terms of the finished
but also in the communication of the project step by step."
Of course there were disagreements and controversies. That’s
in a project of this size involving so many people and interests,
"As far as I’m concerned, the end product speaks for itself,"
says Iacavazzi. "You always get some controversy up front, but
performance makes it all go away," Or as some sportswriter will
certainly say, it’s not where you play the game that counts, it’s
whether you win or lose.
Architect Rafael Vinoly, the man who designed the new
Princeton Stadium, will offer "The Architect’s Perspective"
on Saturday, September 19, at 10 a.m. in McCosh 10 on the Princeton
University campus. This discussion is free and open to the public.
The actual dedication of the stadium occurs on the field at 1 p.m.,
followed by the kickoff at 1:15.
Vinoly has detailed drawings and accompanying discussion of the
at his website: http//www.rvapc.com/mainpton.htm.
At many of the football games played at Palmer Stadium
in its last years, upwards of 40,000 of the stadium’s nearly 46,000
seats were empty. Average home-game attendance was a paltry 12,000.
The university hopes its new football venue will help make those kinds
of attendance figures a distant memory.
Spurred no doubt by a rock-bottom $5 ticket price for the inaugural
season, 6,500 people had bought season tickets for 1998 by early
the best showing in recent memory.
Thanks to its great sightlines, the new stadium virtually guarantees
each and every one of those 6,500 season ticket holders a great view
of the action. But can a new stadium also guarantee a great game?
Probably not, says Princeton head coach Steve Tosches. But it
can’t hurt. "We spent all last year on the road and got off to
a great start, 4-1," Tosches says. "But then we lost some
ball games and we started feeling maybe all the roadtrips were wearing
on us. Sure you want home games, but when all is said and done, a
home stadium doesn’t mean automatic victory. You still have to do
the things a good team needs to do."
It’s not the stadium, it’s what happens on the field. Yet Tosches
believes that the new stadium will have two positive effects on the
team this year and into the future: first by boosting morale, and
second by increasing fan involvement in the game.
"It’s a beautiful facility," says Tosches, now in his 12th
year as Princeton head coach. "The intimacy, the closeness, how
near the fans are going to be to the field. The noise level will be
incredible. It’s just the perfect modern stadium suited for the Ivy
League games. And the best thing is, because of its size, even when
half-full it’s going to seem like a big game."
And for the 1998 team, there will be an added benefit: the knowledge
that this team will be the first to inscribe its record on a new page
of Princeton history.
"We’re very excited about the opportunity to get in there,"
Tosches says. "From the close of the ’96 season through the
and construction and being on the road, we’ve kind of paid our dues.
Now it’s finally time. We’re anxious and honored to be the first group
that will play there. This university is steeped in history and
and here’s the facility that’s going to stand for the next 100
After the stadium inaugural on September 19, there will be four more
home games this season, all at 1 o’clock. On October 10, the Tigers
meet Brown; on October 24, Harvard; on November 7, Penn; and the
ends November 21 against Dartmouth. For tickets call 609-258-3538.
Corrections or additions?
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