The first thing to know about Bob Hillier’s new architecture firm on Witherspoon Street in downtown Princeton is that it is not Hillier Architecture and not the Hillier Group. Those names went away when he merged his world-renowned architecture firm with RMJM, which has an office in Alexander Park, in 2007. The new firm is just J. Robert Hillier.
The second thing to know is that while J. Robert Hillier is a “new kind of practice,” the direction of the firm is something Hillier says he has been following for 30 years.
Hillier’s new-old direction includes more personal projects that focus on building a neighborhood concept through urban thinking, even in more rural areas. “People are tired of spending too much time in their cars,” he says of the growing move away from suburbia to more intimate (and peopled) settings. “They want to live downtown.”
Hillier (who also has taken over as chairman of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce for Larry Krampf) bases his pronouncement on what he’s seen in his 40-plus years as an architect. The moribund, American concept of privacy traditionally has been “give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above,” he says. Privacy in this country has meant accumulating large tracts, putting a house somewhere in the middle of it, and staying as many acres from our neighbors as we can get.
That concept, he says, is morphing into a more European style of privacy, in which higher density and a greater focus on the community enhances diversity and creates a more interactive place to live. The idea is that if a community achieves the right critical mass, the right population density, it will become more self-reliant. As stores, theaters, and businesses open, the need to drive someplace else for food, clothes, and entertainment drops.
Hillier’s new firm is focusing on exactly this approach, hoping to make good on his long-standing assessment that Princeton is “the best little city in America.”
That phrase has brought Hillier his share of people who disagree. The ultra-modern, glass, polycarbonate, and metal duplex Hillier designed at 166-188 Quarry Street, two blocks or so away from his new office, is a prime example. Introduced onto a street lined with classical front-porch-and-a-piece-of-yard houses, the almost space age-looking duplex has garnered what can most charitably be called mixed reviews from the neighbors.
Those who criticize the duplex worry that the introduction of such modern, expensive designs (each half of the duplex sold for about $900,000, about three times the going values of other properties on Quarry Street) stand to ruin traditional front-porch values in the tightly-knot neighborhood. Proponents say the fresh approach bodes well for Princeton’s future by diversifying the architecture, flavor, and makeup of the residents (U.S. 1, June 4, 2008).
So when Hillier says he wants to approach Princeton and surrounding towns with the attitude that “all suburbia’s problems are urban in nature,” people are quick to notice.
But Hillier also is quick to point out that this approach began for him 30 years ago, when his original transformed an old commercial site a block and a half from Nassau Street into Willow Street, a row of contemporary homes heavy on sun-filled rooms, large windows, and efficient design.
He has since done many projects that use current and futuristic practices rooted in a more urban approach, in and around Princeton.
The latest incarnation of Hillier’s architectural life embraces contemporary green practices and acknowledges environmental sensitivity by paying attention to how land is used around a structure.
On the second-floor wall of his new (and temporary) office space hangs a site map for Hilltop Village, where Hillier is putting his refined set of rules into practice.
On this parcel, a 20-acre wooded property on Bunn Drive, he is designing an environmentally friendly 143-unit complex for the over-55 crowd that he refers to as “a modern version of an Italian village town” due to its piazzas and narrow pedestrian streets.
The complex features sod roofs, cisterns for collecting rainwater, and underground parking. The architecture shoots for self-containment and efficient use and reuse of the natural world – solar, rain, natural light, and so on.
The building, however, takes up only about 18 percent of the land, leaving 82 percent to stay in conservation. This is the same site on which developer K. Hovnanian had hoped to build 140 units that would have occupied about three quarters of the parcel.
Conservation on development lands is a major tenet of Hillier’s rules of operations. “We want to take land use and design it for best use,” Hillier says.
Under the firm’s four-point directive, all projects must leave at least 50 percent of land untouched for conservation or nature; solve a community need; take into account the context of the immediate neighborhood; and feature “distinctive, esthetically sound architecture.”
Hillier has other projects, including one in his town of residence, Solebury, Pennsylvania, near New Hope. But Hilltop Village is the first major one since the doors of J. Robert Hillier opened on August 1.
That date reflects the end of Hillier’s “gardening period,” a British term that usually refers to the time between your employment in a company that has bought your business and the day you can start a new company in that field. The deal was part of the settlement with RMJM, a deal which also stipulates that Hillier cannot bid on projects RMJM is or could be bidding on.
While in the garden, however, Hillier experienced no professional downtime, as he has entered the publishing world. He co-founded the online magazine Obit, which celebrates the lives of the recently deceased, in 2007. He also owns, with wife Barbara, the controlling share of Town Topics newspaper, as well as Princeton magazine, which he just acquired with some other investors from a publisher in northern New Jersey.
Hillier says he fell into publishing because he is an opportunist. He bought into Town Topics because it was for sale a few years ago, and he wanted to continue the Princeton institution. According to a recent New York Times article, Town Topics is returning a 26-percent profit.
Last year, when Princeton magazine became available, Hillier bought it as well. He recently told the New York Times that advertising revenue has increased by 40 percent.
The space at 190 Witherspoon Street, the former location of Jefferson Plumbing, is a permanent address, but a temporary office space. The office now is the front, glass-paneled space right up on the sidewalk. The rear part of the site is a garage that Hillier’s team is working to redesign as its main space, pending review by the Borough Zoning Board. Should he get the OK, Hillier plans to make the spacious inside into a model of natural-light and green-tech design, and a heavily landscaped front lot that will accommodate four cars.
Hillier, of course, sees no end in sight. “A friend of mine once told me you only retire from jobs you don’t like,” he says. “I don’t believe in retirement, I love what I do.”