Can an architectural statement move people to action? Princeton University is betting $330 million or so that the statement being made by the new Lewis Center for the Arts will draw more students into the arts and promote more interaction between the university and the surrounding community.
My bet is that it will succeed — who would bet against $330 million of buildings and landscaping designed by award-winning architects and carefully sited on 22 acres of prime land at one of the key gateways to the university and town?
And I am willing to make a side bet: That the success of the Lewis Center, at least from the surrounding community’s point of view, will be attributed to some small detail none of us has yet considered.
It will be a little nudge, or a series of little nudges, that carries the day.
We all know about nudges — some people even live with them. In 2008 two economists from the University of Chicago and Harvard, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, wrote a book called “Nudge,” about the little things that affect our economic decision-making. Sylvia Neutel, a landscape architecture student at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, later applied the theory to the design of buildings and landscapes.
In Princeton we have seen a few nudges yield impressive results. Back in the politically charged days of 1970, Princeton’s graduating class successfully argued that the main gate leading to the campus, the FitzRandolph Gate, be left permanently open “in a symbol of the university’s openness to the local and worldwide community.”
Until then the gate had only been opened once a year, at the time of the university’s graduation ceremony. And since the gate was directly opposite the T intersection of Nassau Street and Witherspoon, the street leading into the heart of Princeton’s minority community, its closure was viewed by some as a symbolic sign of the university’s separation from that part of its neighboring community.
I recall thinking that the opening of the front gate would have no practical effect whatsoever. After all, less than 50 yards from either side of the FitzRandolph Gate were two other openings to the campus that had never been blocked. Whether you were from Birch Avenue or Beijing you could stroll onto the campus at any hour of the day or night.
I was wrong. With the gate open kids from throughout the town descended on the front lawn of Nassau Hall. Eventually the kids figured out that was not the greatest place to have a party. But, I believe, the community did begin to feel that the university was more welcoming, and the university began to feel that it could be more welcoming. A little change in the physical environment had a big impact.
We saw something similar happen in 2004, when the municipality replaced the old public library and created a public plaza on what had been an adjoining parking lot. In some early renditions of the new building, the entrance was shown facing Witherspoon Street, 20 or 30 feet away from the corner of the building adjacent to the new plaza. But, as retired Princeton University architecture dean Robert Geddes explained to me a few years ago, the architects had second thoughts and moved the entrance to the corner of the building, with doors opening to both Witherspoon Street and the new Hinds Plaza.
Hinds Plaza is now one of the most successful public places in Princeton. It is the home of major library events, as well as informal gatherings — the march for science, for example, began there. When nothing else is happening, people sit — singly or in small groups — to chat or read or enjoy a coffee or a brown bag lunch.
Sometimes the nudges are negative. Until now the university’s Lewis Center for the Arts has been concentrated in 185 Nassau Street, the old elementary school building. The university acquired it many years ago and gradually retro-fitted it to house dance studios, a small theater, and various rooms for visual arts classes. From the front the building still looks like an old elementary school, separated from the street by a four-foot high wrought iron fence. A narrow opening in the fence leads to the front door.
But the real entrance is around the back, through a small doorway separated from the parking lot by a 10-foot high colonnade that runs the length of the building. Is a visitor welcome? In an appraisal of the new Lewis Center that I wrote in the October issue of the Princeton Echo, I noted that “for the past 35 years or so I have lived less than 200 yards from 185 Nassau Street, and have received countless notices of events happening there. I have gone to three or four.”
The new Lewis Center has at least two statements to make. One is to Princeton undergraduates who may consider taking a course or two in the arts or even concentrating their studies in the arts. In recent years there has been dramatic growth in areas like neuroscience and operations research and finance engineering, both of which operate out of gleaming new buildings, not old kindergarten classrooms. The new Lewis Center tells arts-oriented students and prospective students that they have a place on the campus, as well.
The other statement is to folks in town, who as an engaged, critical audience would be a vital part of the young artists’ creative process. The new Lewis Center occupies a corner on one of the main entrances to the campus. An 18-foot wide stairway beckons commuters from the new Dinky train station. A 735-car garage, available to the public for free on nights and weekends, is visible from the plaza that sits between the three arts buildings. The plaza offers more than 360 linear feet of outdoor seating.
A bar has been created in the old Dinky passenger station. The old baggage building has been transformed into a sit down restaurant. The overall site not only says “come in” it also says “stay a while” and “spend some money” while you do.
We will be able to see with our own eyes how successful the center is in reaching out to the community. The New York-based nonprofit, the Project for Public Spaces, has enumerated some of the characteristics of a successful place. “Great public spaces are those places where celebrations are held, social and economic exchanges occur, friends run into each other, and cultures mix. They are the ‘front porches’ . . . where we interact with each other.”
There may be some other elements that will nudge people into the new Lewis Center and encourage them to stay. An alcove where buskers perform at odd hours. A painter or a painting class that sets up the easels outdoors. A enterprising person with an ice cream cart. People attract more people.
The catalyst for the Project for Public Spaces was William H. Whyte, a 1939 Princeton alumnus whose 1956 best seller, “The Organization Man,” led him to a study of the suburbs to which the organization men and their wives and boomer babies were moving and later to how urban spaces could be used more efficiently.
Whyte, who died in 1999, was a great admirer of the Princeton campus, which has retained its scenic wonders despite its densely situated buildings. I think he would applaud much of the new Lewis Center, as well. But he would be the first to say that some of the greatest amenities of public spaces turn to be things the architects never intended and did not even consider. “A good new space builds a new constituency,” he wrote. “It gets people into new habits — such as al fresco lunches — and induces them to use new paths.”
It will be worth watching what nudges people into the new Lewis Center.