It’s always nice to run into a guy at the top of his game, and that’s how I felt last week when I ran into Bob Geddes, the retired dean of architecture at Princeton University, at a breakfast meeting of Princeton Future, the privately initiated planning group that Geddes himself helped to found.
And it’s especially nice to run into such a guy at an event that’s in his honor, and nicer yet when the honor is the guy’s 90th birthday.
That was the happy circumstance last week at the Princeton Public Library, when the Princeton Future group gathered to pay a little tribute to Geddes, who along with Sheldon Sturges and the late Bob Goheen, the president of Princeton who appointed Geddes to his architecture post, helped to found the group in 2000.
I have known of Geddes since the late 1960s, when one of my college roommates studied architecture at Princeton. And I met him once in person, sometime in the 1990s when I sat at his table at an annual dinner of what was then called the MSM Regional Planning Council. That meeting, coupled with the publication last year of Geddes’s book called “Fit” — subtitled “an architect’s manifesto,” became the grist for a column in this space on December 12, 2012.
In that column I wrote that when guys like Geddes speak other guys like me should be taking notes. My take away from the Geddes book was the following:
“We need a better way to evaluate architecture,” writes Geddes. “It should replace the modernists’ ‘Form follows function’ and the always fashionable ‘What does it look like?’ . . . Architecture should embrace fitness — order and organization, growth and form. The ‘oath of architecture’ should be loud and clear: make it fit.”
Last week someone gave me the heads up that Geddes would take advantage of the moment — a time when the governments of the old borough and township have consolidated, when the university has a brand new president, and when the town is undergoing a massive redevelopment on one of its key access points — to offer some advice on how Princeton should move on from here. So I went to take notes, and hope that I wouldn’t be called on to say anything.
The note taking paid off. Geddes had — fittingly — some thoughts to share. Number one, architects and concerned residents in a group like Princeton Future need to keep all their global concerns in balance. Here Geddes referred to Clifford Geertz, the late anthropologist at the Institute for Advanced Study. “You live in a global space,” Geddes said, “but in fact you also live in the here and now.” To the people involved in Princeton Future, the architect added that “it’s the opposite of globalization — you bring the local knowledge.”
For Geddes and Princeton Future, the embodiment of that idea was plain as day outside the front door of the library: Hinds Plaza, which has become a vibrant outdoor community center. After Princeton Future and other concerned citizens persuaded officials that the town’s new library should remain at its present site in the central business district, they then turned their focus to the parking lot next to the old library. Some people in town envisioned anther office building there. Geddes and Co. argued for a plaza — a place to celebrate the here and now.
For me the tip of the cap to the “local knowledge” was a reinforcement of the tack we take at this paper — and at our nine sister publications covering communities throughout central New Jersey. The fact that your neighbor was honored for her breakthrough research on the ecology of Antarctica is magnificent; the knowledge that her kids go to the same elementary school as your kids is the “here and now” that ties you together.
But people can become too focussed on a single entity, Geddes said, when “our opportunities are in groups.” The Princeton Future people may have thought of the opportunity in looking at four or five different neighborhoods in Princeton and relating them to the overall community. I thought of the merger between U.S. 1 and the papers of Community New Service. That’s an opportunity.
From his 90th birthday perspective, Geddes also saw some possibilities of change for Princeton Future. Perhaps it is time for Princeton Future to broaden its vision to consider its neighbors in adjoining townships.
How would that work, people wondered. Would other communities object to being part of “Princeton” future? Where would you draw the limits on this expanded sphere of planning influence? Geddes looked around the room. “Where’s Rich Rein?” he asked. Hiding behind my reporter’s notebook wouldn’t work, so I raised my hand.
“U.S. 1 is the new reality,” Geddes said, as he pointed me out to the group. He then explained better than I could how U.S. 1 had helped define a new community that transcended municipal boundaries. Maybe Princeton Future could follow the newspaper’s example.
Being the reporter and not the participant, I quickly got back to my note-taking. Thinking back on the moment a few days later, I am not sure I would urge Princeton Future to do anything much different than it is doing now — why tamper with success?
But if the group does consider a slightly broader approach, I can share the process we used almost 30 years ago to answer the same questions the Princeton Future group had last week. Would other communities object to being part of “Princeton” future? We found that some did, and many did not and in fact welcomed being considered part of Princeton. We let them decide and didn’t argue either way.
Where would you draw the limits on this expanded sphere? That was trickier. We had companies in Edison tell us they were a “Princeton” company. Ultimately I came up with a gastronomical equation. The greater Princeton business community was defined as an area limited so that a person on one edge could arrange lunch with a person on the other edge and not spend more than two hours to meet at a central location, have a leisurely lunch (often with a drink or two back in those days), and return to their offices. In other words, it had to stay in the here and now.