By all accounts Princeton University is a world class university, in the top 10, in fact, in most polls, and even No. 1 in some others.
As befitting a university of its stature, Princeton University now also has a first class arts center. Just completing its first full academic year of service, the Lewis Center for the Arts is a monumental testament to the importance of the arts at Princeton, and — some might say — a testament to the importance of Princeton as well.
Bootstrapped by a $101 million donation by Peter B. Lewis, a member of the Class of 1955 who turned Progressive Insurance, a company co-founded by his father, into one of the largest automotive insurance companies in the world. The Lewis Center project was augmented by many millions more in gifts and included the ancillary work on the train station, the bar and the restaurant that now occupy the former Dinky station and nearby baggage room, and the WaWa convenience store — in all a project costing more than $330 million.
Designed by world-recognized architect Steven Holl (whose credits include MIT’s Simmons Hall; the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, China; and a new addition for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), the three buildings that comprise the 145,000 -square-foot arts center are made largely of 21-million-year-old limestone imported from an Italian quarry that has been mined continuously for 2,000 years. If you look closely at the stone, a university press release tells us, “you can see small fossils.”
The curtain wall glazing is made of glass units filled with an insulated translucent glass that lets natural light into the building and creates an energy-efficient wall. Interior materials include American cherry, foamed aluminum, perforated steel, acid-etched glass, bamboo, whitewashed ash wood, painted wood, walnut, and bead blast stainless steel.
The 22-acre site has been planted with nearly 500 new trees, including several American beech trees and a variety of oak species. Seventeen existing trees were protected during the construction process. Among them: an Ohio Buckeye dating back to the Civil War. The work of the New York-based landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates will soon be complemented by an “earthen work” by the acclaimed Maya Lin, known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C. Another Maya Lin work, a water table, is scheduled to be completed later.
It’s all very impressive, and if it also seems excessive that can be partly attributed to the roles that the Lewis Center needs to play. In part it has to be a setting for students and faculty in various arts programs at Princeton, including theater, music, and dance, previously scattered at locations across campus.
It’s also a statement about the university’s commitment to the arts. Alumni returning this week for their annual rite of Reunions as well as arts-minded prospective students are sure to be dazzled by the resources now devoted to the arts. Musicians, for example, who used to catch a moment on a piano in the basement of the Woolworth Music Center, can now practice on any of the nearly 60 new Steinway pianos, ranging in cost from $7,000 to $150,000. Rehearsal rooms for instrumentalists are sound-proof chambers suspended by steel rods — “acoustically separate,” the university notes, “these wooden chambers have a resonant quality.”
The theater space includes cutting edge LED lighting, and a back wall that can open up “to expand the performance area, revealing the curve of the cylindrical tower it sits within — a nod to ancient Greek amphitheaters,” says the press material.
By most measures observed thus far the Lewis Center has been a great success as an academic facility. “Buildings change the way people feel about themselves and each other,” says Wendy Heller, chair of the music department, sounding the theme of architectural determinism. “I can’t wait to see how the new center will inspire students and faculty to think in new ways about themselves, their relationships, and their work, and to imagine a different kind of future that would surprise all of us in 50 years.”
I can’t imagine too many of my fellow alumni quarreling with the news arts center. Nor could I imagine any student (except perhaps some extraordinarily perceptive undergraduate like the one who shows up at the end of this piece) being anything but awestruck by the new center. It is for the arts what the over-sized, “star-chitect”-designed Princeton Stadium is to the football team.
Give it a A (or an A+ if you are an easy grader).
But it also was intended to be a gateway to the campus, a welcoming entrance to the southern edge of the campus. “Campus-making but also community-making,” as Princeton University architect Ron McCoy said at a meeting before the university was granted the zoning approvals for the project. The Lewis Center was intended to be an arts district for the Princeton campus and community, to improve traffic circulation, to preserve and enhance the Dinky train line, and to create “lively and attractive” public spaces.
So how does the Lewis Center rank on that community scale? I would give it a C+.
I will break down that grade into five components, after I address two issues that some reasonable people may have:
1.) What gives us the right to grade this complex at all — to take the measure of one of the world’s greatest universities, which has executed a plan designed by world acclaimed architects and landscape architects?
2.) On what basis do we make the grade? By what criteria do we judge this new development?
To answer those daunting questions, let us note that we — the newspaper reporter and his readers — are not walking down this path alone. We are enlisting the guidance of a man who has been here before, literally and figuratively, championing the public’s right to play a role in the planning of both public spaces as well as private spaces that impact the public. And he has also articulated the criteria by which we might judge those public spaces, and he has literally applied those criteria to the Princeton community that we are evaluating here.
Our guide is William H. Whyte, the journalist and critic of urban and suburban landscapes. Whyte’s 1956 bestseller, “The Organization Man,” brought the term “groupthink” into the national discussion. It also included a section on the burgeoning new housing developments that were rising in rings around the cities. The deleterious effects of that “urban sprawl,” as Whyte called it, led to his next book, “The Last Landscape,” in 1968. That in turn focussed Whyte’s attention on the virtues of city life and particularly the public spaces that were a vital component of urban living. To further understand those public spaces and the factors that made them successful (or not) Whyte founded the Street Life Project in New York. Several members of the group founded the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces in 1975 (which has worked with more than 3,000 communities in nearly 50 countries).
In 1980 Whyte produced a booklet and accompanying film, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.” In 1988 Whyte expanded on those themes in his book, “City: Rediscovering the Center.”
Whyte, who died in 1999, had more than a passing interest in Princeton. A 1939 Princeton alumnus, a World War II Marine veteran, and a reporter and editor for Fortune magazine, Whyte had gotten to know Laurance S. Rockefeller, Princeton Class of 1932. Rockefeller was intensely interested in the issues Whyte was reporting on, and not only funded some of Whyte’s research, but also gave him an office on the 56th floor of Rockefeller Plaza. Rockefeller was also a trustee of Princeton University and on several occasions in the 1970s and 1980s commissioned Whyte to do studies of the university campus, particularly the plaza between Firestone Library and the University Chapel.
In addition, Whyte served as a consultant in the early days of the Carnegie Center on Route 1. While at first blush the Carnegie Center might seem like another blob of suburban sprawl, its lead developer, Alan Landis, saw it as something more than that: “It’s an urban design in a suburban setting,” Landis said. The developer hired a noted architect, Hugh Stubbins, to design the first cluster of office buildings and the Hyatt Regency hotel. Landis later brought in Whyte to critique his plans for some of the subsequent series of buildings.
For the Carnegie Center, the hiring of Whyte was a nice public relations coup. For Whyte it was a chance to view first hand — for his forthcoming book, “City” — the kind of suburban development that he had forecast in his previous book, “The Last Landscape.” Whyte was less than impressed by the new Route 1 developments: “Ten acres are being used to do the work of one.” Even worse, the lawns had no other purpose than to frame the company logo. Most of the open space, Whyte observed, could be seen only from a birds-eye view.
Whyte did appreciate Landis’s attempt to put some urban touches in the suburban center. Landis had consulted with an anthropologist who found that at office centers the most favored sport was walking, especially after lunch. But developers rarely provided safe places to walk. Carnegie Center, however, had clearly marked paths and places to walk to, including outdoor dining areas and a pond.
But as much as Landis and his partners had gotten right, there were still some overriding problems. Like so much else in the suburbs, the new Carnegie Center was an island in a sea of concrete and asphalt. To get there you had to get in a car and drive. No other mode of transportation was practical.
Whyte, who utilized an approach to research that would be the envy of Ph.D. candidates in anthropology, did not accept that observation about the Carnegie Center’s car-centric nature without proof. So on one consulting visit he decided to walk from downtown Princeton to his meeting at the Carnegie Center. As he recounted the episode in “City,” the path along Washington Road to Route 1 was “soggy” but manageable. “When I came up to Route 1, however, the path vanished. There was no way across — no legal one anyway. I finally made a dash for it, cars honking at me. On the other side was a brief sidewalk. It vanished as Route 1 went through an underpass. I squeezed along one side, inches from a roaring mass of cars and truck trailers.
“When I arrived at the meeting I was greeted with incredulity. Walked? From Princeton? People came up to ask me about it. They thought I was some kind of nut. I was . . .” (A postscript here: Since Whyte’s walk the new Alexander Road overpass was built, and today crossing Route 1 would be much easier. But if you walked from Palmer Square to Carnegie Center you would still be viewed as a nut.)
So that’s our guide, William Hollingsworth Whyte, or Holly as he was known to family, friends, and colleagues. He has literally walked the walk, and we can lean on him occasionally as we answer those two questions posed above.
1. What gives us the right to criticize the new Lewis Center? Since the land involved is virtually all owned by Princeton University, since the university has pumped more than $330 million of its own money into it, What business is it of ours? Whyte, it turns out, addressed a similar question when General Motors security people prevented him from measuring ledges along the building, abutting the public sidewalk. “There is a principle of some importance involved here,” Whyte wrote, in his characteristic understatement. “The space was provided by the public through its zoning and planning machinery. And the owner went along with the deal.”
Here in Princeton the community has given the university plenty of permissions, as well: To tear down several small houses along Alexander Road, to move the terminus of the train station some 460 feet further from the center of town, and to replace the traffic light with a roundabout at University Place and Alexander Street.
But, even if we have a right to speak up, can laypeople have valid opinions about a public place planned in their own backyard? In “City” Whyte pointed out one immediate advantage of the concerned public as opposed to the professional planning boards, with professionals, architects, and land-use lawyers. “Laymen can be just as valuable. Being untutored in sophisticated planning analysis, they tend to ask simple questions and to do a lot of looking.”
Several cases in point are unfolding now, close to home in Princeton. A development company is seeking zoning variances to allow an assisted living center with 89 units to be constructed on an open lot at the corner of Terhune Road and Harrison Street, within very close walking distance of the Princeton Shopping Center. Residents have voiced reservations about the plan, raising concerns about the shopping center, currently suffering from numerous vacancies. If the town is going to allow 89 living units within walking distance of the shopping center, why not make those units available to people who might be able to take advantage of that proximity? Some age restricted, affordable housing might give some residents a chance to continue to live in Princeton in their retirement and to increase the density of residents near the shopping center — adding to the viability of that neighborhood.
In West Windsor the community may have the opportunity to offer review and criticism of the new transit village finally moving ahead at the Princeton Junction train station. The project calls for more than 800 housing units and 37,000 square feet of retail space.
2.) By what criteria should we judge a new development, especially one as large and complex as the Lewis Center? Holly Whyte provides a few benchmarks in his book, “City,” after he raises his eyebrow at the limited success of the Carnegie Center. There was another development nearby, which, he wrote, “has a wealth of open spaces; they connect with one another; they are enjoyed day in and day out by a great many people, and on foot. Yet the development density is much greater than in the Route 1 developments. I refer to the campus of Princeton University. . . For all the infilling that has taken place, the open spaces do not feel cramped. The very enclosure the buildings afford makes the spaces congenial in scale. Pathways provide fine linkages. And people walk.”
There are other criteria, including some carefully enunciated by the Project for Public Spaces. It recommends that public spaces be evaluated by four principal criteria:
Access and linkages, its accessibility and connections to its surroundings, visually and physically;
Comfort and image, including perceptions about safety, cleanliness, and the availability of places to sit and the ability of people to choose where they want to sit;
Uses and activities, which give people a reason to come to a place and to return;
Sociability, a place where people will expect to meet and greet neighbors and friends, and feel comfortable interacting with strangers.
We will keep those criteria in mind as we grade the Lewis Center by the five goals enunciated by the university itself.
1. A new arts district for campus and community.
As we said above, we give the university an A for its new academic center. The mark for the community component is not so high.
Obviously the university did not intend to create a new community center (or more particularly a new senior center for all the retirees who would crowd out undergraduates at class lectures if they were allowed). But the students mount dozens of shows that are intended to be viewed by the public, and in fact would benefit from an audience that could react and provide feedback. Some events are well advertised, but others are not. People I know still wonder if these events are really open to visitors. A sign outside the center that said “Today’s Events Open to the Public” and then listed them with times and room numbers would be — literally — a welcoming sign.
There is something about the center that is not inviting. As one friend of mine notes, “for an arts center it sure doesn’t have much color.”
He’s right. But it sure does have a lot of blank walls. Whyte addresses the blank wall approach in “City,” and writes that “the dominant feature of the townscape of U.S. cities is coming to be the blank wall. . . I will not feign neutrality. I think the blank walls are bad for the city.”
The university heard some of the criticism of the blank walls and pointed out that the center contains a “black box” theater. Do you think they could put windows in a black box theater? Whyte would not be surprised by the blank walls at the Lewis Center nor the defense of them. “Institutions like blank walls. Almost always there is a technical explanation: the wall space is needed for the stacks, for climate control for the computers, for lighting unvaried by natural light. But these are not the real reason. Blank walls are an end in themselves. They proclaim the power of the institution.”
Consider the signage proclaiming that this is the Lewis Center for the Arts. The words are inscribed in two separate places, rendered in bas relief so subtle that a blind person feeling around for some Braille would have an easier time reading it. But if you are in the know, you already know this is the Lewis Center. If you are new to town, just getting off the Dinky train, you don’t need to know, or so you might feel.
2. Improve traffic circulation.
Although some people will always prefer the unambiguous nature of the red light formerly at the corner of Alexander Road and University Place, I can see the advantages of the roundabout. It may be too early to perform a comprehensive traffic study at the new intersection, but my anecdotal evidence suggests it flows a little better.
There were even more ambitious traffic plans on the table for consideration: Making University Place a one-way street in the direction from Alexander to Nassau Street, for example, and then making Alexander one-way from Mercer Street down to the roundabout. That change also would have eliminated the perilous rush hour traffic trying to turn left on Mercer Street from Alexander.
The town did make one good change in terms of cars. Long-term parking meters that served commuters leaving their cars all day near the station have been replaced by meters with three-hour limits. People wanting to come by for a meal at Cargot restaurant or for a show or dance recital at McCarter or the Lewis Center now have more options. In addition the multi-story West Garage that is free to the public after 5 on weekdays and all day on Saturdays and Sundays is now very visible and just a few feet from the new Dinky station (a plus that came at a cost, as we shall see).
Signage is still a problem. The university has its own stylized signs pointing the way to parking, train station, etc., all different from the town’s. When you are a stranger driving into town you want substance, not style. It doesn’t help that the new Wawa store looks more like a trendy visitors’ center than a coffee-and-bagel-to-go convenience store that it really is.
3. Preserve and enhance the Dinky experience.
This objective proved to be the most contentious one of all, and the town-gown acrimony dates back at least to 1984. That’s when the university bailed the Dinky out by agreeing to pay New Jersey Transit just under $900,000 for the two station buildings and the surrounding land. As Princeton president Shirley Tilghman recalled in a written statement in 2011, the university “agreed to a number of other conditions, including the provision of a certain number of parking spaces both for permit holders and for daily commuters who require all-day meters. In anticipation of future development of the area, that agreement includes a provision that allows the university at its own cost to relocate the terminus of the Dinky to the south.” Later the university acquired additional properties to permit a development that achieves multiple objectives in an integrated and holistic way.”
By 2007 the Princeton Planning Board had taken notice of the university’s plans and its intention to move the terminus of the Dinky train more than 400 feet to the south — away from the center of town.
Enter now Princeton Future, the non-governmental community group that addresses community concerns such as housing, transit, retail viability, and all the other issues that make a town vibrant and sustainable. It was founded in 2000 by Robert Goheen, a former Princeton University president, Robert Geddes, former dean of the architecture school, and Sheldon Sturges, a former publishing executive and New York commuter. Its goal in part was to bring critical planning issues to the public’s attention before they ended up as some developer’s or institution’s proposal getting its review at the planning board — at which point a contrary view would be the skunk at the garden party. Whyte had noted that all-too-frequent phenomenon 50 years earlier: By the time the grand plans are unveiled, it’s almost always too late for the public to review them.
In 2010 Princeton Future was in high gear addressing the proposed move of the Dinky Station. In a series of Saturday morning meetings, considerable opposition to the move was voiced, and several alternative plans were proposed that would have kept the Dinky where it was, and facilitated a possible extension to Nassau Street at some point in the far future. The most ambitious was to tunnel the Dinky tracks up to the new arts center, eliminating the at-grade crossing at Faculty Road and allow traffic to travel over the submerged line to get to the parking garage from Alexander Road.
But none of those alternatives worked for the university. The conflict came to a head January 31, 2011, when Princeton president Shirley Tilghman addressed a joint meeting of Borough Council and Township Committee, the governing bodies in Princeton before consolidation. It was a “my way or the highway” presentation. A YouTube video captured the extent of the divide, as reflected in the president’s tone:
“We are going to leave you with a very difficult decision. We cannot see our way clear to allowing the Dinky Station to stay where it is and have a railroad train running through a neighborhood that we have purposefully designed to be a public space that will be welcoming to students, faculty, staff, and most importantly, to visitors to our campus and members of our community.”
The words “railroad train” were dripping with a patrician entitlement that Tilghman most certainly did not intend. But some in town viewed it as the lowest town-gown moment ever.
The governing bodies, in fact, did not endorse the relocation of the train. Tilghman announced that the university would seek another site on campus for Lewis Center, and leave the town to find some other way to fund all those Alexander Road improvements it had offered to make. Shortly thereafter, however, the towns reconsidered and the Dinky move was approved.
You will find few urban planning experts who would say anything good comes from making mass transit less convenient to any portion of its constituents. Ridership data would be interesting. A student journalist at the university began requesting data from New Jersey Transit more than two months ago. So far he has been put off by the agency.
(The university would argue, however, that without moving the train station none of its other objectives would have been attainable. Fair enough, and all the more reason to do well in the other subjects, so as to offset the failing grade here.)
4. Create lively and attractive public spaces.
Given the blank walls that frame most spaces at the new center, it’s a challenge to make these spaces lively. But the university at least has articulated the goal. At a Princeton Future meeting in 2010 leading up to the decision to relocate the Dinky, university architect McCoy invoked Whyte. McCoy cited the four criteria listed by the Project for Public Spaces as “attributes of a great community.”
As the project opened to the public last year, McCoy hedged his position a little. “It’s going to take a while,” he said, for the surrounding community to notice the new center and venture into it. But the design was intended to encourage casual and impromptu activities. “At the Lewis Center we hope that every open space is potentially a performance space.” Whyte suggests some points on which we can grade a public space:
Scale. “The effective radius of a good space is about three blocks,” Whyte writes in “City.” And, he notes, “Too much space, unenclosed, is the bane of many a public space.” The Lewis Center, bordered by the train station, McCarter, and university dormitories and office buildings, delivers on that.
A welcoming entrance. As Whyte wrote in “City,” praising the design of the now famous Paley Park in midtown Manhattan, “a good entrance draws people. An entrance should be broad and open.” The entrance to the lower level of the Arts Center achieves that goal. It’s accessible either by stairs or by a sloping ramp of stone. It all leads into that forum, an inviting interior space (partially lit by skylights in the plaza above) that connects to all three of the buildings above.
Contrast the new Lewis Center to the old Lewis Center, concentrated in the building known as 185 Nassau Street. The large front yard of the building separates it from Nassau Street. An iron fence, four feet high, runs the entire length of the front yard. But the main entrance is actually a small doorway on the back side of the building, separated from a large parking lot by a 10-foot-high fence-like structure that runs the length of the building — not inviting.
The stairs to the entrance. As Whyte points out in “City,” most architects design stairs based on a formula devised by a French architect in — get this! — 1672. Steps that are easy to go up have treads — the part you step on — of about 12 inches and risers of about 6 inches.
The Lewis Center’s grand stairway from the level of the Dinky station and parking garage up to the plaza is a gradual and comfortable incline. The architect, Steven Holl, points out in a booklet describing his creative process that he modeled the stairway after a staircase in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, a space designed by a guy named Michelangelo in 1536. The risers are 5.5 inches, the treads are 60 inches — very generous with an angle of vertical incline much less than you would find in a normal stairway. Holl calls it a “stepped ramp” or “stramp.”
The stramp may have worked great in the 16th century. But in the 21st century, for a commuter dashing to his train, this grand entrance could be generous to a fault. Depending on your gait, you might find yourself needing two normal steps and then another shorter one to move from one step to the next. As Whyte has written, there’s a “terpsichore” to walking up and down steps, and Michael Cadden, the chair of the center, has referred to Steven Holl’s “dancing architecture.” But the steps should not require a choreographer on hand to direct the movement.
Especially in low light, it’s hard to discern the separation of steps, the edges of which are now highlighted by metallic markers. Many people will want to grab a hand rail here.
Another point about the steps: The fact they are an homage to Michelangelo and 16th century Rome does not mean that we laypeople must suspend our critical judgment.
Seating. To its credit, the new Lewis Center has a lot of built-in seating. The low wall surrounding the 64-foot-square pool in the plaza will surely attract people. The ledge along the wall of the Wallace Dance building facing the plaza also works as seating (though I wonder how quickly that will drain after a rain storm.)
But all the seating (so far) at the Lewis Center is bolted down or built-in. Elsewhere on the university campus there are free-standing, lightweight metal chairs, as well as heavier Adirondack chairs. Despite their weight they can be moved to create clusters of two or three chairs or they can be set off for a solitary user. McCoy says there will be more seating yet, and that small, lightweight, all-weather chairs that can be moved freely may be part of the mix. But, McCoy adds, “we want to see how people occupy the space.”
As for the concern that “loose seats” will go missing in the middle of the night, the folks at the Princeton Public Library, where the immensely popular Hinds Plaza offers 60 or 70 lightweight, stylish chairs for public seating, report that theft of the chairs is infrequent.
Public art. More good things are still to come: Baker Green, an 18,000-square-foot open space leading from the Lee music building toward the hockey rink slopes downward as if it were a natural amphitheater. “At the bottom we located data and power,” says McCoy, in anticipation of presenting outdoor concerts or films in the space. The architect estimates that 500 people could sit casually in the space, 750 to 1,000 could be seated in a more orderly fashion
If I have my spatial orientation correct here, that means those people will be sitting on the new outdoor sculpture by Maya Lin. As the university’s press announcement says, the Lin sculpture — an earthen work built into the landscape — “will provide a landmark for visitors to campus and an invigorated outdoor setting for students to stage ad hoc performances and enjoy plein air classes.” It is the first of her “earth drawings” to be installed in a public place.
The public art also includes more conventional monumental pieces. Ai Wei-Wei’s 12 zodiac heads formerly displayed in a line in front of the Woodrow Wilson School, are now installed in a circular arrangement that the artist originally intended. Clement Meadmore, whose Upstart II is on the plaza in front of the Engineering Quadrangle, has a new work inside the forum on the arts center’s ground level.
James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum, sees the public art as a way “to bridge the new buildings with the community around it.” The hope is that the new works will become “calling cards” for visitors, giving the new center a “deeper sense of place.”
Chances are the public art will turn out to be a hit. As Whyte writes in “City,” the appeal of the outdoor works, “even art that initially stirred much hostility has become accepted, if grudgingly, and in time rather liked, sometimes cherished, as a beloved eccentricity.”
5. Create a neighborhood that is a model of sustainability.
From the beginning the university has referred to this project as the “arts and transit neighborhood.” It’s tempting to dismiss the idea the way William H. Whyte damned Princeton Forrestal Village with faint praise when he made his late 1980s inspection of Route 1 developments:
“What sets the character of the place is its streets — comfortably small, of pleasant scale, with continuous retail frontage — and that fine old institution, the office over the store.” But Whyte didn’t buy the developer’s claim that this was a “one-stop” village. “Not quite,” Whyte wrote. “It is a fine village center but for one thing. It is a village center without a village” or villagers living within walking distance.
In the Lewis neighborhood the university has compiled an impressive set of statistics for potential users of the space: 175,000 visitors a year to McCarter events, 1,000 people a day projected to eat or drink at the restaurant and bar, 410 daily occupants in the academic offices in the Lewis Center, 2,000 daily passengers on the Dinky, and 5,700 students, and 600 townspeople living within a five-minute walk of the site. (There must be several thousand more townspeople within a 15-minute walk of the new center, including — full disclosure — this writer.)
But the only real neighbors in the immediate ’hood lived in the seven row houses and duplexes that formed the streetscape of Alexander before the Lewis Center came along. They were demolished. Of course saving them, like keeping the Dinky where it was, would have prevented the university from doing what it wanted to do. And it would have been expensive to rehab those old houses — money pits, for sure.
Saving them would have presented all sorts of challenges to the architects and builders of the Lewis Center, and may even have sparked some creative solutions. It also would have preserved a touch of 19th-century architecture in the area, a visual relief from all that 21-million-year-old limestone. And it would have suggested that the new neighbors, the Lewis Center folks, were willing to move in alongside the old neighbors. Instead the Lewis Center merely hardens and extends the university’s southern border by 400 or 500 feet.
The university has done this successfully in the past, specifically moving houses from William Street to an area behind the retail and office buildings it owns on Nassau Street just beyond Washington Road up to Thomas Sweet Ice Cream.
Imagine a building like that on the edge of the Lewis Center, housing a coffee shop perhaps or an art gallery on the ground floor, and some apartments above.
A word about sustainability. The new buildings at the Lewis Center meet virtually all LEED standards, and include, according to a university press release, geothermal heating and cooling; green roofs to decrease rate and run-off of stormwater and improve water quality; material and landscape designed to reduce heat island effect for roof and non-roof; high-performance exterior envelope (glazing and thermal mass); closed loop ground source heat pumps (139 wells, 500-feet deep); natural ventilation and light; interior shading; sensor-based equipment; stormwater management, water reduction through high-efficiency fixtures; LED building and theatrical lighting; and construction waste reduction.
But there are always ironies in the sustainability game. At Maya Lin’s presentation of her new earthen work now in the final stages of installation, she gave an impassioned plea for preserving the earth in the face of climate change and other environmental degradations. “What is the largest irrigated crop grown in America?” she asked her overflowing audience. “The lawn,” she answered, adding that more gasoline is consumed by lawn equipment every year than the amount of oil spilled at the Valdez tanker crash in 1989.
So what material is being used to cover Lin’s earthen work? Sod, which will presumably be irrigated regularly and then in the fall have the leaves blown off it by two-stroke, gas guzzling, noisy leaf blowers.
My grade for the sustainable neighborhood: C.
Averaging all the grades given in the five categories above yields an overall mark of C+. Back in the good old days of the 1950s and ’60s at Princeton, we would called that a gentleman’s C. Along with an outgoing, hale fellow well met personality, you would still go pretty far in this world.
Today’s Princeton expects better. The good news is that the Lewis Center can get a lot better. There are still big changes in store for lower Alexander Street. As Tilghman argued when she made the case for the moving of the Dinky terminus, “in time, the proposed residential development along Alexander Street south of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood potentially would add an entirely new population of riders who would walk to the station from the south.”
The university’s latest campus plan, through the year 2026, also envisions another hotel along Alexander Road at some point in the far future. Perhaps when those plans are worked out in detail the new buildings could be incorporated into the existing streetscape of buildings that reflect the street’s early and mid-20th century roots.
In addition to the big changes on the horizon, there are little things that can change the nature of a public space at any time. We talked before about architectural determinism, and the way a building can shape the behavior of the people in it. There’s also the reverse: environmental psychology, the impact that people can have on a space. As Whyte observed, some of the greatest amenities of public spaces turn to be things the architects never intended and did not even consider. “A good new space builds a new constituency,” he wrote. “It gets people into new habits — such as al fresco lunches — and induces them to use new paths.”
As time passes, someone might notice that a non-alcoholic gathering spot is in order — a coffee shop, perhaps. Perhaps WaWa, which may well have a non-compete clause in its lease, could be enticed to set up a kiosk for coffee, tea, and snacks at peak hours in that forum. Creative zoning might be required — it has happened before.
Or the artsy crowd that gathers for dance, music, and drama might enjoy seeing some art on the walls — a pop-up gallery perhaps.
About those blank walls. Are they not a canvas for some creative soul? Here’s an on-the-wall idea: Set up a drive-in caliber projector between Cargot and the blank wall of the music building that it faces. Outdoor diners on the restaurant’s patio could enjoy the movie, as could people on the lawn between the blank wall and the restaurant.
Another on-the-wall idea is suggested by the street art superimposed onto the walls of the Lewis Center on the cover of this issue and the opening pages of this article. That’s street art, created by Trenton-based artists and originally spray painted onto the walls of the TerraCycle building in Trenton. TerraCycle hosts an annual festival at which old art is painted over with new. With music and food as part of the attraction, it is a multi-media, multi-cultural event that even a world-renowned university could be a part of.
I asked the press people at the Princeton University Art Museum, which oversees public art on the campus, if the mural idea would be considered, well, crazy. The answer that came back was decidedly neutral: “Any such proposal for artwork or signage in a public-facing area would be subject to review by both university and town officials.”
Fat chance, you say? Well, earlier this spring a group of students from one of the residential colleges worked with one of those artists from the mural project at TerraCycle, the innovative recycling company based in Princeton and founded by Princeton University dropout Tom Szaky. Will Kasso Condry of the mural project helped the Princeton students to create a 40-foot canvas. The head of the college, psychology professor Nicole Shelton, explained that “we used to have a graffiti night in January for students in our gallery space. One year we had Will join us to talk about street art. Fast forward five years later, I knew that I had to get him back to help the students create the mural,” Shelton said.
Kasso and his wife helped the students illustrate an interpretation of modern-day Princeton. Of interest here is that Kasso has no world acclaimed credentials, and he turned to the students for information before he offered any advice. “It’s an opportunity for me to educate them and also to be educated about the area because there are certain things that I may not know that are pivotal to the outcome of the product,” he said. “You have to be social in doing community murals and public art.”
Who knows where the inspiration for education will be found? Who knows where one might find the next flash of artistic genius? Maybe from a renowned artist or architect. Or maybe from someone who was toiling in Trenton not so many years ago.
That lesson seems to have been learned by that extraordinarily perceptive undergraduate I mentioned at the beginning of piece. Shortly after the Lewis Center opened last fall, Kyle Berlin, a senior majoring in Spanish and Portuguese, submitted a review of the Lewis Center to the Daily Princetonian. It was worth noting then, and it is worth printing the following excerpts here:
“Every designer chair and patterned rug and fancy projector and flat-screen HDTV and grand piano and echoing room and hallway to nowhere, all new, thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each, didn’t feel like they were there for me to use to put on a show: they were the show. This is what Princeton’s investment in the arts looks like, they said. This is how we care about you. This is how we compete, how we keep up, how we grow. This is what education looks like. This is in the service of humanity, they said. This is how you spend $330 million.
“. . . My worry is that the new Lewis Arts complex, in all its shiny, spiky modern glory, in all its dizzying newness, . . . in its masculine concreteness and surety and willingness to interrupt the skyline; in its great gleaming whiteness that swallows up the casual passerby; in its unthinking wastefulness and belief in the inevitable narrative of growth; in its fabulous wealth and cleanliness and confidence — in its unflinching belief in its own righteousness, its own rationality, its own ways of knowing — the new Lewis Center complex threatens to become a synecdoche for the downfalls of the university writ large. It threatens to de-fang and assimilate the arts into the moderating (and moderated) modes of production the neoliberal university demands.
“But it doesn’t have to. It is up to us, as students and staff and community members at large, to challenge the assumptions that are built into the very architecture of our new art building. We must reclaim the radical space of the arts within (despite?) this new space. Ironically (or perhaps not), this will require great artistry. It will require examining our assumptions about what matters in education. It will require us to ask what the arts are for, anyway.
“It is up to us to make the arts at Princeton alive, with . . . radical engagement with each other and the issues of our time.”
Since the publication of that op ed, Berlin has completed his studies, been named valedictorian of his class, and is headed off to lead a nonprofit theater troupe he co-founded. Let’s remember Berlin and his thoughts as he leaves and others take his place. As William H. Whyte, who studied drama and wrote a musical play as a Princeton undergraduate, observed in “City:”
“The street is a stage, and the sense that an audience is watching pervades the gestures and movement of the players on it.”
Richard K. Rein, the editorial director of U.S. 1, is writing a biography of William H. Whyte.