Princeton University is the quintessential “Ivy.” Wrapping all around its towering academic reputation is its physical setting. Verdant, venerable, and cloaked in ivy, the Princeton campus draws groups of admiring tourists year-round. It’s also the subject of a Reunions lecture on Friday, June 1 (see sidebar on page 13).

But while the average tourist may drink in tour highlights and come away charmed, a small group of recent visitors looked more closely, past the azaleas and the ivy and the iconic historical buildings, and were appalled by what they saw.

That little group of visitors were far more knowledgeable than many who arrive to gaze at Nassau Hall, and were also far more invested in the university. They are all graduates of its architecture school, Class of 1969, and they had arranged to meet on campus a month or so before the general reunions to have a look at buildings from the modern era, and to share opinions on the university’s architectural direction.

In an E-mail from Germany, where he was preparing to chair a conference on commercial vehicle telematics, Michael L. Sena, author of the recently published book “Beating Traffic,” explained what had brought the school of architecture graduates back on campus.

“One of the reasons we organized our reunion was because a few of us had been back to the campus after many years of absence, and we were horrified by what we saw,” writes Sena, whose practice is based in Sweden. “Perhaps I am too harsh. No, I am not too harsh. Something needs to be done before the entire campus is destroyed.”

Issues raised by Sena, and repeated by classmates who toured the campus with him, include early obsolescence, poor choice of building materials, “name shopping” for star architects, stark plazas, poor landscape design, disregard for ecological considerations, and, perhaps most of all, building choices that don’t in any way say “Princeton.”

Another participant in this mini-reunion, Graham Hunter, is a sole practitioner in Perkinsville, Vermont. “I do small-scale design,” he says. Working from a barn that is both his home and his office, Hunter designs churches, homes, and small offices, and consults on green building. “I haven’t done anything huge,” he says. “In New England a good part of building is putting on an addition or working within a village context. You don’t put up a lot of glass towers in a New England village. Zoning or common sense won’t allow it. I take a lot of visual cues from my surroundings.”

He doesn’t see that the same common sense approach has been followed at his alma mater. Speaking of the cluster of dorms across Washington Road from the new stadium, he says “you stand on the walkway looking at the new dorms, Scully and Bloomberg, and there’s nothing that says Princeton per se. It could be any school, any city, anywhere. When walking in the crescent with the new dorms, you’re just aware of a wall of buildings on one side and a natural environment on the other side. It calls out how different the buildings are from the others on campus.”

He sees the same issue in many post-1960s university buildings going up along Washington Road and crossing over to the E-Quad. “Between Washington Road and the stadium there’s this urban complex they’ve dropped in. Stand with your back to the Gehry building, and there are these big boxy buildings with a concrete plaza where they’ve plopped down some sculpture. I feel I’ve just been transported out of bucolic Princeton and into New York City,” he says. “It’s a jangly feeling. Boy, that plaza is as inhospitable space as you would want.”

As for the Gehry building, a science library going up on Washington Road and Ivy Lane, Hunter is waiting to render a full opinion until construction is finished and “the tarps are off.” Sounding every bit the Vermonter that he is, Hunter speaks slowly, stopping to think before giving an opinion, striving to be fair. The Gehry building might just be fine, he says. But he indicates that he isn’t too high on the chances.

“It’s starchitecture,” he says. “You’re not anybody until you have a Frank Gehry building on campus.” He suspects that the building will resemble all Gehry buildings, will look like “a couple of melted ice cream cones with some tin foil thrown on the top.” Gehry is hired, says Hunter, “to bring a signature building to an institution rather than have an institution get a good building that fits in.”

“This is not new,” says Hunter. He recalls that when he was studying architecture at Princeton, elements of a classical building education were already being phased out and replaced by an emphasis on urban planning.

He recalls one of his professors, whose lectures on the importance of color were about to be canceled, talking about the dedication of the Princeton University Chapel. At that event, in 1928, the university’s president, John Grier Hibben, said “Princeton has added 400 years to its history by adding this building.” (Woodrow Wilson, going even further, is said to have pronounced that the chapel added 1,000 years to the university’s history.)

“Now,” says Hunter, “you hire an architect to build a building that looks like Bilbao [Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Spain]. Twenty years from now people may drive by and say ‘what the hell is that?’”

Sena agrees — emphatically. In his E-mail he decries Princeton’s infatuation with starchitecture, saying “if the buildings had redeeming qualities as objects, their architects, could, perhaps, be forgiven for producing isolated objects in what had been a cohesive village for living and studying. But the buildings themselves are ugly. The ‘thing’ Gehry is putting up . . . has to be the absolute worst! What are the people who are paying for these buildings thinking? Who are they, anyway? Who is handing out these commissions like candy to children, and is anyone actually looking at the buildings before they are built?”

Stefanos Polyzoides is a principal in Pasadena-based Moule & Polyzoides. He is a founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which is an approach to building that blends newness with historical continuity, and never forgets context.

“Each project is developed as an integral part of a larger order,” he writes on his website. “All of our projects are informed by our understanding of architectural history and regional building traditions, consideration of existing urban settings, respect for the functional and spiritual purposes of architecture, and sensitivity to place and fragility of natural ecosystems.”

Needless to say, Polyzoides is not a fan of Princeton’s Gehry building. Never mind 40-year obsolescence. “It will have the shelf life of a Twinkie,” he says. He says colleges everywhere are entranced by the idea of starchitecture that this building embodies, but he thinks it is a shame that an institution of Princeton’s stature has been taken in.

“My thoughts were that we live in a time where architecture as a profession is detached from campus planning,” he says of his general impression upon returning from his tour of the campus. “Architects have generated an aura — through art, expressed in buildings, you can put your place on the map.

“Nowhere is this less true than in Princeton!,” he exclaims. “Princeton doesn’t need anybody to put it on the map. It is already famous, already wealthy. Its late-19th and early-20th century buildings are so stellar, so unique. Architects must work to the weight of the university itself.”

But this is not what has been happening at Princeton, says Polyzoides. “The I.M. Pei building looks like something out of a Denver office park,” he says. “The math building looks like a territorial jail in Montana. The Gehry is the equivalent of a McDonalds.”

Whether the Gehry, still awaiting its unveiling after many delays and one change in the general contractor, will last as long as a Twinkie, a mid-range SUV, or an under-sized Cape Cod on a Princeton back street is an open question. (In January a 1980s Gehry building at the University of California Irvine was demolished. A report in the Orange County Register quoted university sources as saying that it was “falling apart, and needed major, costly repairs.”)

But not far from the site where the Gehry building is rising, an entire group of campus buildings is slated for demolition this summer. Hunter says that he thinks it’s “gutsy and astonishing” that the university is about to tear down five dormitories in Butler College that were build in 1964. One of the buildings, 1942, was a gift from that class. “My father was in the Class of 1942,” he says. “He is deceased, but there are still living members of that class. I’m shocked to see that it is being torn down.”

Alumni from that class may not be happy, and Hunter is “shocked” that buildings that were just going into service when he was an undergraduate are already obsolete, but, in fact, he says that the buildings were “always a little strange.” He goes on to say that the dorms, made of multi-colored brick, look like “heavy duty parking garage structures made into dorm rooms. They never fit in.”

Still, the Vermont proponent of green building says “as an architect, the idea of building something that is considered completely disposable in 40 years is irresponsible.”

Polyzoides has seen architectural renderings of the dormitories that will replace the 1964 buildings, and predicts that they, too, will be ready for the wrecking ball within 40 years. (Type “Princeton dormitory renderings 2007” into Google for a look at the proposed buildings.)

David Johnson, of the San Francisco firm Christiani Johnson Architects and another Class of ‘69 participant, designs mixed use neighborhoods, multi-family homes, commercial buildings and offices, and custom homes. A current project is giving him insight into what he and his classmates see as poor architecture choices at Princeton University.

“We’re doing a huge student housing complex for U.C. Berkeley,” he says. “We’re faced with a budget that is quite restricted. The buildings won’t last 100 years, or even close. Berkeley doesn’t place the priority on buildings.”

This, Johnson suspects, is the case at many universities, including Princeton. Speaking even more slowly than his Vermont classmate, taking even longer pauses before speaking, he expresses some sympathy. There are so many demands on a university budget, he acknowledges. But he can’t help but think that a school with Princeton’s resources could do better.

“There’s one white building near the PJ&B station that’s falling apart,” Johnson says, speaking of Spelman Hall, the building with large plate glass windows that sits near the Dinky station. “It’s not even 40 years old,” he says. “It’s corners are drooping. Nothing’s lined up.” During his recent campus tour he saw a number of other buildings, “from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, already falling apart, materials falling off, patchwork done.”

Polyzoides says that even buildings that the 1969 architects admired, such as Wu Hall, a Venturi-designed dorm, for example, are not faring well. “They used aluminum windows,” he says. “They look just awful now.”

Johnson says that he and the classmates with whom he toured all come from a modernist approach, and yet, he says “we were not impressed with the modern buildings. They are not good examples. These buildings could be anywhere, Madrid or Minneapolis. They have nothing to do with Princeton or with the college.”

A problem he mentions again and again is skimping on materials. “Architects are struggling to use brick a lot,” he says. “Their budget doesn’t include stone. But brick isn’t a Princeton material. Even Nassau Hall is stone. All of the collegiate Gothic buildings are stone.” Architects, working within a university-designated budget, however, can now only afford “brick, plaster, or some lesser material.”

Another trend that contributed to coveys of ugly, shoddily-built dorms, classrooms, and labs on the Princeton campus, says Johnson, was the building boom that began in the mid-1960s, at the time when Americans started clamoring for higher education in greater numbers than ever before. “It’s not just Princeton,” he says. “I’m in California, and I saw the same thing happen at Berkeley and at Stanford.”

While collegiate architecture has become pedestrian or outlandish elsewhere, it particularly stings the Class of 1969 architects that Princeton, a school with a vast endowment, has not been able to do better. As Johnson puts it, “Princeton is so wealthy. It has so many wealthy alumni. It’s a unique spot in the United States. It was so beautiful a couple of weeks ago when I was there. It’s the place that has the money to do it right.”

Johnson and his friends do express a reason to hope for a better future, though. During their visit all were generally impressed with Whitman College, the university’s sixth residential college, designed by Demetri Porphyrios, who earned his doctorate at Princeton. It is a gift from eBay’s Meg Whitman that is nearing completion south of the Dillon gymnasium. Whitman (Class of 1977) and her family donated $30 million for the construction.

“Whitman College will open eyes,” says Johnson. He cites its “quality of materials, siting, and the way it relates to the rest of the campus.” While he and his classmates insist that Princeton does not need to be wedded to the collegiate Gothic style of architecture, and that sticking to it slavishly would be “stultifying,” Whitman was indeed built in that style, and with its signature stone exterior.

Johnson says that Whitman echoes the best of Princeton architecture, namely the Holder Courtyard, and also the scale of the older buildings, including 1901 Hall and Patton Hall.

Sena approves of Whitman College too, calling it “the only bright spot.” He says that he likes the building, with some reservations, “not because it is being built in the same neo-Gothic style of much of the rest of the campus, but because it attempts to be more than an isolated event.

“Although it is much too large as a single building,” he continues, “it creates an environment within and around it, much like Pyne and Holder and McCosh and all the other buildings do. These buildings were not designed to stand out, but to fit in. Perhaps they had a feature that did a little shouting, like Holder Tower or Blair Arch, but these served more as points of reference for moving around the campus than as architectural statements.”

The new building gets Hunter’s vote, too.

“Whitman is interesting because it very much takes visual cues,” he says. “This is a recreation using modern techniques, high tech wiring etc. It is clearly designed to fit in, while others are designed to call attention to themselves. After trees grow up around it and the lawn has grown in, it will really fit in very well.”

Polyzoides sees Whitman as an improvement on most dormitories erected since the 1970s, but he has some reservations that relate not just to its scale — too wide — but also to the way it will function. “It has double-loaded corridors,” he says. This means that there are rooms on each side of its interior hallways. While this may not seem like a big deal, Polyzoides, attuned to the interactions architecture encourages, says “the greatest thing about my life in Princeton was the vertical system of entry.” This configuration, built around entryways rather than corridors, allowed for random meetings, and generated connections.

With this single reservation, which is significant for Polyzoides, the opinion of the 1969 architects is that Whitman College will be the first example, in more than 40 years, that the university has used its resources to create a building worthy of its history. The last four decades, which will begin to end with the destruction of the Butler dorms this summer, have seen the construction of a hodgepodge of ill-fitting buildings on campus, they say.

Summing up Princeton University’s 40-year-old building boom, Hunter says: “They had the opportunity to establish a new stylistic form, but they haven’t established a new style yet. They would have to go to five times the campus’ current size to have any one style win out. In a lot of the buildings, it could be an office, a lab, a library. It’s not a city hall, not a state capital, not a church. What is it? It’s just a building. Too bad.”

“The emphasis should not be on novelty or on experimentation, but on permanence,” Polyzoides adds. “We saw struggle where we expected mastery. We saw confusion where we expected intelligence. We saw dickering with fashion like a Denver suburb in the throes of playing the fashion game. It’s not like collecting paintings. Princeton has a glorious history. It doesn’t need objects to express itself.”

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