Princeton University is about as Ivy League as it gets. Arglye clad students traipse though gorgeous quadrangles lined with ancient oaks, everywhere you turn brings you face to face with commanding stone and brick buildings, set a revered distance on manicured lawns. The greek houses are mansions that you’ve only seen in movies, never at your own college. It’s all so impressive and geeky I just want to dive back into academia. Overheard on campus, sophomore couple discussing future offspring: “Our kid should be able to isolate free protons by the time they’re two”. What the??? I don’t even know what that means, but I have no doubt their kids will be uber-geniuses right out of the womb. Maybe the placenta comes with scientific calculator…
I mentioned to a coworker that I was going into Princeton last weekend and she told me about the relatively new library designed by Frank Gehry. Immediately I knew I had to pay pilgrimage to one of my most admired architects.
In an age where books are fast being replaced by digital information, this science library goes with the flow instead of trying to fight the tides of change. The stacks are tucked away in a high density storage room down in the basement. Main floors are dedicated instead to media labs, tech centers, classrooms, high ceilinged study areas and light-filled social spaces. Emphasis is given to collaborative spaces that encourage a meeting of minds between the likes of astrophysics students, statistics majors and researchers. The belief being that conversation and collaboration is the sparkplug of new inventions.
Just walking into the building you feel energized from the bursts of colors and ample light flowing into the space. The sightlines afforded from the entrance too is generous, granting you an cognizance of the activity happening around, below and above you. In an instant you can tell if your study group is already waiting for you in the social room or if the media lab is too crowded for your liking or probably more importantly if the that girl you’ve been stalking all semester is at her usual perch in the glass reading room. You can decide there and then which direction to take which is really organic in terms of wayfinding.
Although you can literally stroll into any of the buildings on campus without being accosted by security guards (I’m so used to center city college buildings on tighter lockdown than Fort Knox that this lack of security stuns me..) I felt slightly rude entering any of the actual program spaces so I focused my attention on the building skin. If you’ve seen a Gehry building then you can easily imagine what the Lewis Library looks like except this time the structure incorporated a significant expanse of red brick along with his signature curved stainless steel skin roofs. I wonder if this was a requirement to “blend” in with the surrounding buildingscape. Although why one would intentionally want a Gehry building to “blend in” I do not know…
In my opinion I wish they could have maintained more of the Gehry aesthetic which is to say the entire building be molded out of metal like a sculpture rising from the land. I remember visiting the Experience Music Project in Seattle years ago and being blown away by the undulating walls and chameleon-like colors reflecting off the surfaces. But when you went in though, you felt the illusion fall apart as there were no curves to reflect anything on the exterior. It was all boxy geometric galleries that seemed divorced from its outward casting aspirations. I think the Lewis Library while more subdued than his previous projects, does a better job integrating the exterior with the interior overall.
But….. I still can’t help but wish for more of that outlandish hallmark designs from the one and only master of it all.