Princeton marked the dedication of Whitman College last month with several events, including a public lecture by the man who designed it, architect Demetri Porphyrios *80. Porphyrios, who earned his doctorate in architecture, is the founder and principal of London-based Porphyrios Associates, and is noted for his traditional style of design. He spoke to PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83 before his appearance on campus.
You have described your design for Whitman College as frugal. In what sense?
I mean frugal in the aesthetic sense. Generally, my work is traditional. But no matter whether it is classical traditional or collegiate gothic traditional or vernacular, it stresses the simplicity of robust construction. We place more emphasis on that than on the decorative elements. You look at a wall; the wall is beautiful because it is very well executed. It does not need embellishment or decorative elements. But then you come to the surround of a door that may be an entrance to a community hall or a quadrangle — that door would become a more celebrated occasion for entry and therefore will be more sculptural and sensuous.
Nevertheless, the project cost $136 million, and no expense seems to have been spared in providing Whitman with such details as copper downspouts, oak trim, and stone walls by masons specially trained for the job. Was this extravagant?
I think buildings should be built properly, because they are meant to last for a very long time, particularly when buildings are for institutions. It’s not like doing an office building, which the developer amortizes within five or 10 years, and if he doesn’t make the money within that time it’s not worth building. I must stress that [Whitman] is only slightly more costly than contemporary modernist buildings. Whitman’s expense is situated in its structure, such as the walls and the ways by which they are made. But that expense is still much less than stainless steel or triple-glass windows.
Is there an aesthetic message in the design?
There are three messages, because all architects deal with three areas. One is that the buildings are comfortable and properly organized from a functional standpoint. Another is that the buildings are there to stay and that this is apparent in their construction. So the walls should not look fake, post-modern. That’s very important. And the third is the fact that there is always symbolism in architecture. The reference for collegiate gothic architecture is academic excellence, as it has been since the time of Andrew West, Moses Taylor Pyne , and Woodrow Wilson , when the first collegiate gothic buildings were built at Princeton. It’s very interesting to me that the University administration would take the same view today. The current architectural taste is neo-modern, deconstructive. It’s centered on aggression, where these buildings are centered on beauty.
Were you influenced by living in Princeton’s Graduate College?
When I was in the Graduate College, it was a fantastic experience — the rooms, the spaces, the courtyard and its relation to the great hall. All of those things were really memorable. Then in my third year I got married and moved into one of those towers down by the lake. It was devastating. I was stuck in a fifth- or sixth-floor apartment. Every time I looked at the nature outside — which was so beautiful — when I reached to touch it I had to go through the mediation of an elevator. I wish Princeton would do something for the students who end up in buildings like that.
Is Princeton’s diversity of architectural styles a good thing?
It is not a question of good or bad. If the society had been monocultural, that diversity never would have happened. Our society, from the end of the Edwardian period, became multicultural. That means different traditions, tastes, ambitions, visions. The great success of a place like the United States is exactly that multiculturalism. And that has great repercussions on painting, art, and especially architecture. If we claim politically that we should be able to work and live together while cherishing our own values, I think the same thing should apply to aesthetics.
The subject of your campus lecture is “Tradition and Modernity.” How do those concepts relate to one another?
To me, they’re like two sides of the same coin, but unfortunately, our culture has introduced a dichotomy between them. Tradition is always associated with that which has gone in the past. And modernity is associated with that which is expectant. I don’t think life works like this. Tradition and modernity are part of a continuum. Look at it in a metaphor. To say that my father and I have nothing in common because he is 90 years old and I am 59 is totally rubbish. I owe so much to him, but that doesn’t mean that I am a clone of him. I have taken everything from him and made it my own.