Due to open in 2007, the $6.87 million Paul Robeson Center for the Arts will expand the Arts Council of Princeton building, built in 1939, from 9,900 square feet to 16,740 square feet. On Thursday, February 9, architect Michael Graves talks about his plans for the new building in the kick-off event of the Arts Council’s new art and architecture series.
The project has been roiled in controversy for years, concerning its impact on the Witherspoon Street neighborhood where the building is located. Now the building is becoming a reality. We asked Graves, who has lived in Princeton for 43 years, to share his thoughts about the significance of his first building in downtown Princeton.
1. What’s the personal significance of designing your first commercial project in downtown Princeton? How does the design reflect your feelings about Princeton?
I couldn’t be happier that construction of the Arts Council expansion is finally underway. By the way, it’s actually not a commercial project, although it’s at the edge of a commercial area in Princeton’s downtown. It’s a not-for-profit institution that offers programs and services for the entire community, and we’ve tried to develop its character to reflect that.
I met the Arts Council’s founding director, Anne Reeves, in the 1970s, when she asked me to paint a mural in the John Witherspoon Middle School here in Princeton. In her pitch to me to take the commission, she rightly argued how important the arts are to any community, as they affect the quality of life for all inhabitants. Given my long teaching career at the university, it’s easy to see that I’m a great proponent of lifelong learning, of continuing to develop one’s curious mind. I think that institutions like the Arts Council offer so much to people of all ages and are essential to the cultural well-being of our
One of the things I have always liked about Princeton is that it’s not a suburb. It’s a vital and diverse self-sufficient community with a little bit of everything: living, working, shopping, recreation, education, healthcare, worship, and so on. The Arts Council is an important part of that well-roundedness.
A few years ago, my office designed an arts center in Indianapolis, in the Broadripple section of town where I grew up. Every time I go back there, as we continue to work with them on new projects, I am delighted to see how the institution and community have both prospered. I’m sure that when the Arts Council opens and its new executive director, Jeff Nathanson, gets the expanded programs underway, we’ll see the same positive effect here in Princeton.
2. What was the biggest challenge in designing the building and why?
Was it something unexpected or something you knew would be difficult all along?
The biggest challenge was reconciling the tiny site with the Arts Council’s expansive ambitions. We always expected that the site conditions would challenge the program and the design. What we didn’t expect was the initial negative reaction of the neighborhood. I had thought that the Arts Council’s adjacency to a residential neighborhood was positive because of all the offerings for youth and adults. However, some of the neighbors were unhappy about the growth
of the institution and the building on that site.
3. In what way(s) do you feel the building will address critics’ concerns?
Now that it’s becoming a reality, what do you believe the new building will do in a positive sense?
The Arts Council has been very diligent in listening and responding to community concerns about the programs and the operation of the facilities. Tom Rowe, the principal-in-charge of the project for our office, and Diana Nelson, the project architect, have worked hard to create a building that disrupts little on the neighborhood side and makes a larger, positive gesture toward the downtown. The existing building is quite gentle along the Green Street side facing the neighborhood. Its design will remain the same but will be restored and visually improved. Also, the site’s been organized to discourage traffic going through the neighborhood.
On the other side of the building, the addition at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place is oriented toward the library, the shopping area, and the university. Its scale is appropriate to this larger institutional and commercial context. What I especially like about the building is its presence at the corner, its external visibility as well as the visibility of what is going on inside.
4. The building was originally a WPA project, with the goal of course being employment of builders and other workers. What is your hope or goal for this building, for example, as a transition or connector between the Witherspoon neighborhood and downtown Princeton, or
Actually, employing people was only one of the goals associated with the construction of the existing building. It was intended as the local community center, and so this ongoing use is completely in keeping with the original intentions. I hope that the immediate neighborhood uses it as much as possible. I also see it as a positive symbol of the broader cultural vitality of Princeton. I am occasionally asked whether I would have rather seen the Arts Council move to another site where they could have had another building.
Personally, I think that being downtown and part of the rest of the action is what it’s all about.
5. What is your favorite design detail (big or small) of the new building and why?
I love the entrance rotunda. Urbanistically, it is a kind of hinge that turns the corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place. Because of its two-story gridded glass wall, the activities inside the lobby on the first floor and the Communiversity Room on the second floor will be visible and create a refreshing liveliness. I also love the tall column at the entrance. The Paul Robeson monument is located near its base. Since the building is called the Paul Robeson Center, it’s a wonderful reminder of the rich artistic history of Princeton.
Michael Graves, Thursday, February 9, 7:30 p.m., Arts Council of Princeton, Contemporary Gallery, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street. Kicking off a new architecture and arts series, architect Michael Graves talks about his designs for the new Paul Robeson Center for the Arts. He will also talk about his recently published book, "Images of a Grand Tour." Must register; seating is extremely limited. Call 609-924-8777, ext. 106.