Note: This article was adapted from an essay published by the online Wild River Review, www.wildriverreview.com.
What do sex, art, culture, and Princeton architecture have in common? Not terribly much, other than the fact that I’ve spent time thinking and writing about aspects of each of these topics. As Wild River Review’s contributing photo editor, I’ve covered a wide array of topics: from the racy — a walking tour of the Museum of Sex in New York City, to the imaginative — a fictitious meeting of Francis Bacon and Vincent van Gogh, to star gazing — Patti Smith and Sam Shepard at the 2007 PEN World Voices celebration. On firmer ground, I’ve also contributed pieces on architecture, a piece on the Frank Gehry-designed Lewis Library building at Princeton University, for example.
Perhaps my eclectic taste in subjects is reflected in my taste for buildings. The Princeton campus contains some of the finest range of architectural styles anywhere — from the late-19th-century Collegiate Gothic spires to the shiny metallic and glass forms of today. I was initially drawn to the more outlandish designs such as William Potter’s Victorian Gothic Chancellor Green Hall (1873) and Alexander Hall (1892), Alan Chimacoff’s Bowen Hall (1993), and Charles Gwathmey’s McDonnell Hall (1998). These forms, textures, and colors stood out as visually exciting.
Later I came to appreciate the more subtle aspects of the campus architecture. While most of the attention is paid to the older Collegiate Gothic buildings of the core part of campus, I noticed that the newer buildings had some special attributes that had been neglected or worse, abhorred. As I learned more about the university’s buildings and architects, I proposed a short book on the subject because I thought that people might want to know about these hidden gems. The university had published a series of small booklets on various topics, such as campus gargoyles, and my idea fit in nicely. I began the research and photography for “Princeton Modern: Highlights of Campus Architecture since the 1960s” in 2007, and the final product was recently published by the Princeton University Office of Communications.
How did this project come about? As I walked the campus during my first few years as a senior production editor at the Princeton University Press in 2002, I became very familiar with specific buildings and outdoor spaces. What attracted me to these buildings was partly experiential. Buildings have personalities, and I was able to spend time “conversing” with them to find their otherwise hidden traits. A certain color or form or material would draw my interest, even in passing. Soon I would take a sideways glance at a building to see how the light affected the sheen of the cladding or to see how the clouds reflected in the upper-story windows. Princeton’s intimate setting allows one to get up close and personal, and daily access gave me the freedom to explore: one day I would sit in the octagonal reading room of the Victorian Gothic Chancellor Green; another day head down to the magnificent glass colonnade of Rafael Vinoly’s Icahn Laboratory; or, step into the new contemporary display at the Princeton Art Museum to see the Jean Michel Basquiat paintings.
Chancellor Green Hall, designed as Princeton’s first free-standing library and later adapted for many other uses, was under renovation in 2004, and I asked the project manager if I could photograph the process. Capped by a remarkable stained-glass octagonal skylight that floods its open rotunda with dappled light, I’ve since decided that William Potter’s first major design commission as a 19-year-old is every bit as eclectic as Frank Gehry’s Lewis Library is today.
So it’s not that modern buildings are necessarily more flamboyant than older ones. They have just not gotten their due at a place like Princeton, revered for its older campus. But when you have Frank Gehry, Cesar Pelli, Robert A.M. Stern, Robert Venturi, and Rafael Vinoly designing buildings for the campus, it is down right foolish not to pay attention. Since the 1960s the university has attempted to bring in architects with a proven track record to create a lasting impression. Beginning with the cylindrical forms added by Charles Gwathmey to Whig Hall’s 19th-century marble exterior in the 1960s, Princeton’s modern architecture hits the mark again and again.
Gehry’s library building broke ground in 2005. I had always wanted to photograph a building from start to finish, and the model for Lewis Library was striking. I ended up spending two years climbing half-finished stairways and looking through steel ribs from several stories up trying to envision what the finished building would look like.
I found out later that Gehry prefers his buildings in their most skeletal stage. The innards and overall structure are strongest when they’re exposed. As a photographer interested in highlights and shadows, solids and voids, the unfinished state appealed to me, especially in a building with so many contrasting forms and materials. In the course of visiting the building under construction, I also began to notice the deliberate attention paid to particular vistas from inside-out. A view through the main atrium framed Richard Serra’s striking sculpture out the lower level. Another window on an upper floor perfectly framed a pin oak tree. The architect chose to have visitors experience the building in a specific way. In this case, the world outside its walls was just as important as what was inside. The building converses with its setting. When the building was fully completed structurally but not wrapped, I wrote an essay about it [U.S. 1, October 15, 2008].
Only as an insider myself was I able to get a sense of the importance of the university’s modern architecture. Princeton’s campus is small and intimate, and not exactly inviting to outsiders. Visitors tour the campus on a daily basis, but they are mostly prospective students and their parents. The general visitor views the campus from the road, which does not do much justice to the buildings. The campus is laid out in a series of cloistered quads. Many of the prominent features of these buildings face inward, while the side facing the street or main thoroughfare is more subdued. Attention is focused on the quad rather than on the outside world.
Some of the more interesting details are relatively hidden from the street. For example, most people see Vinoly’s Icahn Laboratory from Washington Road. They have no idea that the side that fronts the ellipse (a series of buildings that creates an ellipse) is like a completely different building. The glass facade of the colonnade creates extraordinary vistas from every floor on the interior.
There are those who automatically reject these upstarts that have invaded what they like to think of as Princeton’s formerly regal campus. When interviewed for a May 30, 2007, story for U.S. 1, architecture school graduates from the Class of 1969 were quick to condemn some of the newer buildings as blasphemous insults. So many yearn for the Collegiate Gothic style. Whitman College was recently completed using the techniques, materials, and design style from that genre. One cannot see the difference between this cluster of buildings that was completed in 2008 and Blair Hall from 1897.
But architecture must change with the times just as academic pursuits change. Several graduates from Princeton’s own architecture school have produced game-changing ideas and buildings. Robert Venturi, for example, has written several books about the value of vernacular commercial building styles to architecture, and that rather than purity of form and function, a building that is complex and contradictory can be more interesting. In what has been dubbed Princeton’s “Venturi Age” — the decade between 1983 and 1993 — Venturi designed four buildings and later a significant addition that created the Frist Campus Center.
After several years of research and thinking about Princeton’s architecture, I have to agree with Venturi’s premise — a built environment that contains a mix of architectural periods and styles is more interesting than one with a uniform look. Too many Gehry’s are like too much of anything. After awhile what was initially unique becomes commonplace. The aim of Princeton Modern is not to condemn the old and celebrate the new, but to open the channels of communication between them.
Author Event, Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Princeton. Tuesday, June 1, 6 p.m. Book launch party and slide show in conjunction with the release of “Princeton Modern: Highlights of Campus Architecture from the 1960s to the Present.” The campus features modern architecture by Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, and Rafael Vinoly. The 64-page full-color book featuring text and photos by Dale Cotton is intended to serve as a walking guide. Jon Hlafter, Princeton University architect emeritus, is a speaker at the event. Free. 609-497-1600 or www.labyrinthbooks.com.
Dale Cotton has been a senior production editor at Princeton University Press since 2002, a contributing photo editor with Wild River Review since 2006, and a freelance photographer since 2004.