If you were a high school career counselor and a student asked you what it would take to be a famous architect, you couldn’t go wrong by answering, “A big ego, mixed with an ample amount of arrogance and attitude.”
Some of my best friends are architects, but I doubt they would deny that characterization — especially as it applies to the people occupying the metaphorical architectural pantheon (it has to be metaphorical because the famous architects would never agree on a plan for a real one). Around Princeton we have had our share of star architects presenting their design visions. One of my favorites, both for his designs and his cheeky attitude, was Michael Graves. Early in his career, I interviewed him for People magazine. The occasion was the completion of his first major public building. During the interview I kidded him about his growing line of non-architectural creations for stores such as Target.
Don’t worry, he told me. We have our limits. We won’t be doing bed sheets. A year or so later I noticed that his firm had added bed sheets to the product line. Not shy, these architects.
I have never met Frank Gehry in person, but I heard plenty about him in 2008 while the Lewis Library was being constructed at Washington Road just south of Ivy Lane. It’s a complex layering of twisted shapes and forms, so complicated that the contractor had to construct a 20-foot mock-up of certain sections of the building to allow the builders to practice assembling the structure before working on the real thing. Mindful of a lawsuit MIT had filed against Gehry for leaks and other maintenance issues associated with a Gehry building there, Princeton was cautious throughout the construction process, at one point even spraying the building with fire hoses to check for leaks.
If there had been any leaks I doubt you would have heard any apologies from the architect himself. Gehry spoke once at Princeton in the 1980s, and was challenged by a member of the School of Architecture: “Mr. Gehry, do you have nightmares? Is that how you concoct this stuff?” Gehry didn’t even answer and explained later, “I just figured he was an idiot.”
In 2009 Gehry was challenged by Fred Kent, the director of the Project for Public Spaces in New York, at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Kent asked why so many major projects designed by famous architects fail to relate to the streets and sidewalks around them. Gehry told Kent he was above this sort of criticism. But Kent pressed the architect, as James Fallows related in the Atlantic magazine:
“The questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. ‘You are a pompous man,’ he said — and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture . . . a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times.”
In the past week we have been introduced to another high-powered architect, David Adjaye, the New York and London-based architect who has been retained to design a new and enlarged Princeton University Art Museum. And we have reflected on the life of another one, Robert Venturi, who died September 18 at the age of 93.
Though many people may have never heard of David Adjaye before, he nevertheless brings with him the kind of impressive credentials that prestigious institutions seem to like in an architect. As the university press release noted, “Adjaye was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents and his influences range from contemporary art, music, and science to African art forms and the civic life of cities. . . . He is also known for his collaboration with contemporary artists on installations and exhibitions.
“Most notably, he designed the central pavilion and main exhibition spaces for the 56th Venice Art Biennale with curator Okwui Enwezor in 2015. His largest project to date, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2016, and was named cultural event of the year by the New York Times.” From 2008 to 2010 he was a visiting professor at Princeton.
Oh, and I almost forgot: It’s not David Adjaye, it’s Sir David. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017 and was recognized as one of the 100 most influential people of the year by Time magazine.
But the real measure of Sir David’s status as a star may come when the university and the architect resolve an open question about the Princeton museum project. The press release was vague about what would happen to the current museum. The Princeton Alumni Weekly interviewed museum director James Steward, who said that he expected that the new museum would incorporate the existing Venetian Gothic Revival wing and the Marquand Library, but said final decisions would be made during the design phase. It would certainly make sense: A museum that presents art and artifacts from the near and distant past actually is housed in a physical structure that incorporates architecture from the past as well as the present. That’s a quaint idea, and we shall see if Sir David’s ego will allow him to share the spotlight in this center-stage campus location.
One architect whose ego never kept him from sharing the spotlight with existing buildings was Robert Venturi. A 1947 Princeton graduate, Venturi made his name by providing an antidote to the unadorned, geometric structures of the modernist architects. When Mies van der Rohe said “less is more,” Venturi responded: “Less is a bore.”
Last year, in a celebration of Venturi’s work, the Princeton Alumni Weekly printed an essay by Gary Wolf, a Boston-based architect, who wrote that Venturi’s 1966 book, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” reminds us that the essential concerns for sustainable design are “designing in context, recognizing the complexity of the American city, acknowledging the limits of systems, welcoming the heterogeneous and the hybrid, and, implicitly, preserving historic buildings.”
At Princeton Venturi had his share of stand-alone creations: Wu Hall, the Lewis Thomas Laboratory, Schultz Lab, and Fisher-Bendheim Hall. But he also had to swallow some of that architect’s pride and design “in context,” including additions and renovations that turned the old Princeton Inn country club into the residential Forbes College, and re-shaped the Palmer Physics Lab into the new Frist Campus Center.
But Venturi did not totally swallow his pride. The architect (and co-author of “Learning from Las Vegas”) loved bold signs, like the “Trenton Makes, The World Takes” sign on the Delaware River bridge he saw while riding the train between his native Philadelphia and points north as a kid. In the year 2000 Venturi designed an addition to Trenton’s fire station on Perry Street, with huge letters proclaiming “Trenton Fire Headquarters.”
He envisioned something similar on the arcade that stands outside the original building at the Frist Center. His sign would have said, simply, Frist Campus Center. But the Princeton Planning Board deemed that his letters would constitute a sign of 236 square feet, and the limit was 16 square feet under town ordinances. As W. Barksdale Maynard explains in his 2012 book “Princeton: America’s Campus”:
“Venturi argued the letters did not constitute a ‘sign’ but instead were integral to the architecture. ‘There’s a tradition of classical buildings having words on their facades,’ he explained. . . But the planning board stuck to its ruling: the letters . . . had to be radically shrunk, or eliminated.
“‘We were just outraged,’ [Venturi’s wife and fellow architect Denise] Scott Brown remembers of the meddling planning board. ‘It was an untoward invasion of campus, design review gone berserk.’”
But Venturi “knew he was beaten, and he soon eliminated the letters from his plans — all except a trace, a mere line of bumps across the top of the arcade: just the uppermost few inches of the vanished signage. ‘Its graphic frieze had to be modified to pass a local ordinance that minimized vulgarity,’ he explained. ‘We made the ‘sign’ ambiguous and therefore mannerist!’ ‘Some in town felt that we tricked them,’ Scott Brown says with a smile, ‘but there are ways a powerless person can fight back.’”
Powerless? Not exactly. An ego and some attitude? Absolutely.