Current Issue

Nov.19, 2008

Vol. 109, No. 5

(Un)sustainable architecture

In response to: The Gehry that landed on Ivy Lane

Barksdale Maynard ’88 says Whitman College was constructed with “archaic technology.” Actually, Whitman features a variant of the modern cavity-wall system. A load-bearing interior envelope of concrete block, with horizontal and vertical steel reinforcement, supports steel-reinforced concrete floor planks and steel roof trusses. The cavity walls’ self-supporting exterior stone envelope is exceptional for thickness and magnificent, unabashedly traditional craftsmanship. But the walls would have to be much thicker had an older construction technology been employed.

Maynard never mentions sustainability. Whitman, designed by Demetri Porphyrios *80, is sustainable architecture par excellence. Barring some unforeseeable catastrophe, it is going to age gracefully in the decades and centuries ahead. Frank Gehry’s Lewis Library — admittedly an appropriately comic response to the Darth-Vader-style Fine Tower next door — will simply deteriorate. Surely Maynard is joking when he avers that the “keynote” of this jumbled, extravagant exercise in industrial rococo is “utilitarianism.”

In terms of long-term structural performance, not to mention cultural value as gauged by the increase in Princeton’s cherished stock of humanistic architecture, the University made a far sounder investment with Whitman College. The Lewis Library is an eye-catching building. But compared to Whitman, it’s a three-dimensional vanity plate.

Catesby Leigh ’79
Washington, D.C.

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