Is Princeton ready for Frank Gehry?
Skeptics peering over construction fences at the corner of Washington Road and Ivy Lane had their doubts. Some predicted that Lewis Library would be the scariest thing to fall to earth in central New Jersey since that Martian spacecraft jarred Grover’s Mill 70 years ago — “Mr. Wilmuth, would you please tell the radio audience as much as you remember of this rather unusual visitor that dropped in your backyard?”
But when the fences finally came down in the summer, two years later than originally scheduled, the skeptics tiptoed inside. No sign of any tentacled Martians glistening “like wet leather.” A sure cure for lingering aesthetic doubts was a trip to the fourth floor, almost 100 feet up: the soaring ceilings, the mazelike plan full of surprises, the whimsical plywood furniture, and, best of all, the view through giant windows of the rest of this strange building — crooked walls, tilted roofs, shiny steel and painted stucco and orange brick colliding in wild, delightful confusion.
Philanthropist and insurance magnate Peter B. Lewis ’55 overcame the naysayers to make it possible. He gave $60 million in 2001 and insisted upon Gehry, whom he has long cultivated in a classic patron-artist relationship: Famously, he hired the Los Angeles architect to design a house for him, an interminable project that produced no house, but the breakthroughs that made possible Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. “I’m thrilled,” Lewis says of the new library. “Every building he designs surprises me.”
Frank Gehry turns 80 next February. Since Bilbao, he has made many headlines: His gleaming, steel-swathed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles earned rave reviews, and MIT’s Stata Center awed critics with its fractured, jarring forms. (More headlines came when both buildings required major adjustments.) Then he took New York by storm with his IAC building — its skin recalls billowing sails — and the plans for his first skyscraper, the 76-story Beekman Tower in Manhattan, with shiny, rippling walls. “He’s immensely, formally innovative,” says William Mitchell, former dean of the School of Architecture at MIT. “He’s invented a new architectural language that has liberated a younger generation of architects.”
Gehry and Princeton seemed a strange fit. The rumpled Harvard architectural school dropout acknowledges his remoteness from the halls of academe, once telling interviewer Mark Dillon in California, “I don’t look like a scholar, right? And I don’t parler that language of all those guys.” (Gehry declined requests for an interview with PAW.) When he spoke at Princeton in the 1980s, a prominent member of the School of Architecture got up and asked, “Mr. Gehry, do you have nightmares? Is that how you concoct this stuff?” “And I didn’t answer,” Gehry recalls. “I just figured he was an idiot.”
His relationship with Princeton went swimmingly this time around, however. President Tilghman took a deep interest in the science library and assigned provost Amy Gutmann, now president of the University of Pennsylvania, to work closely with Gehry. When Gutmann and Gehry first met in her Nassau Hall office, he captivated her by dashing off one of his inimitable, high-speed sketches. “Frank really responded to doing a building at Princeton,” Gutmann says. And he wowed the trustees with his finished proposal, presented on the same day as the Whitman College plans (by Demetri Porphyrios *80) in medievalizing collegiate gothic — now, that was a visual jolt.
Architects start with a program, and Gehry’s was daunting: to combine a library with other academic functions, to relate to the surrounding landscape, to soften Fine Tower, and to provide a kind of gateway to both the science and athletic zones of campus. But the biggest challenge was “figuring out what a 21st-century library is all about,” says project designer Craig Webb ’74, the architect on Gehry’s staff whose job was turning those rough sketches into built reality. “The paradigm is shifting from them being repositories of books to something quite different in the digital age.” The task was a personal one for Webb: “To contribute something to Princeton was a great privilege for me, to create a building that fits into campus yet points the way to the future.”
Any new building demands compromises between the University and the architect — but could the maverick compromise? “You don’t choose Frank Gehry if you don’t want to be daring,” says Neil Rudenstine ’56, former president of Harvard and a Princeton trustee who helped oversee the library’s development. “You choose Frank, you get Frank. That inevitably involves some level of risk. You don’t know exactly how it is going to turn out. But that doesn’t mean you just let him go.” Rudenstine, Gutmann, and others scrutinized Gehry’s architectural models of basswood, colored paper, and cardboard. To keep him within budget and to better relate to historic buildings nearby, they urged less stainless steel and more brick. “This is a tight spot, a tight site,” Rudenstine explains. “We wanted something that was not utterly unrecognizable from the kinds of materials that were around. Mostly one is dealing with rectangular volumes around there, and brick, and a relative simplicity of form.”
Materials: Include 23 rolls of stainless steel, 400 tons of steel, 620 tons of clay brick, 26,000 square feet of glass
Height: 105 feet at its tallest
Cost: $74 million approved so farTime to build: Three years, nine months