When John Stewardson and Walter Cope designed Blair Hall at Princeton in 1896, they little expected that it would become the springboard for a revolution in campus architecture throughout the U.S. The building, with its distinctive, Tudor-influenced arch, became the first example of Collegiate Gothic at a major university, and thereby influenced countless buildings at schools and colleges in virtually every region of the country.
A century later the university, still following the brilliant master plan it had commissioned from Ralph Adams Cram in 1907, hired Venturi & Rauch to design a building that would reorient the campus away from modernist buildings built since the 1960s, and toward a reunion with the kind of architecture favored by Cram, Cope, Stewardson, and many fine Collegiate Gothic architects who created most of the campus we see today. It is by many accounts the most beautiful college campus in the nation, and their vision has been its guiding light. As Catesby Leigh, class of ’79, noted in a May issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly (“Must the Minimum Be the Maxiumum?”), Gordon Wu Hall (1983) initiated a new era in campus architecture at Princeton and elsewhere that favored deferential insertions into traditional college quadrangles. Some universities benefitted from more attention to campus planning, and their enrollments increased. Rice, the University of Virginia, and Notre Dame insisted that architects follow the campus vernacular and saw their rankings rise, along with student satisfaction surveys of their college experiences.
Leigh’s article had a measurable impact at Princeton, as alumni agreed with his call for more buildings in the dominant campus style. Across Elm Drive from Wu Hall, Dimitri Porphyrios created Whitman College, which opened in 2007 to great acclaim as the first Collegiate Gothic style dormitory in many decades. Building on that success, the university carefully erected new buildings at Butler College to continue the low-scale and verdant courtyards of Cram-era buildings, with their magnificent Beatrix Jones Farrand landscapes. Significantly, Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown were responsible for more buildings at Princeton than at any other U.S. campus, a tribute to Venturi’s keen understanding of the architecture begun by his fellow Philadelphians Cope & Stewardson.
For decades the university, under several presidents and two campus architects, has proudly maintained both distinguished Collegiate Gothic buildings such as Cram’s University Chapel, and key late–20th century buildings such as Gordon Wu Hall, long considered a masterpiece. Their stewardship has included restoration of most of the oldest buildings, such as Nassau Hall, and careful maintenance of every building, garden, and walkway used by students, staff and the public. Because it is attached to Wilcox Hall, Wu Hall seemed well protected from any renovation or redevelopment plans. John Hlafter, FAIA, the architect who directed building from 1968 until 2008, remarked that Venturi’s design “made the buildings around [it] better.”
It was thus surprising when, this fall, a donor appeared who would reject the dominant planning wisdom in favor of a dramatic new insertion in the center of the campus, threatening not only Venturi’s building but also one by fellow alumnus Tod Williams and his partner, Billie Tsien. Mellody Hobson, Class of ’91, is co-CEO of Ariel Investments, a major mutual fund and investment firm with ties to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Her accomplishments are stellar—board of director posts at Dreamworks, Starbucks, Estée Lauder, and other blue-chip companies; honorary degrees; influential friends everywhere—so Princeton was happy to see her following the pandemic with a check in hand.
The latest master plan had before that time laid out two new residential colleges, designed by Deborah Berke and Partners, to the southeast of the Ellipse—two large playing fields ringed by excellent academic and residential buildings, most of which are not in the Collegiate Gothic idiom of the central campus. Many in Princeton were pleased to see more high-tech, abstract buildings in that quadrant rather than on the south campus. There was no need to place major buildings anywhere else from a logistical, geographic, or architectural perspective. But Hobson clearly had other ideas, based on her experience as an African American student during the 1980s. She insisted that Hobson College, slated for construction in 2023, must be in a stark, modernist idiom and replace the aging buildings in First (formerly Wilson) College, located adjacent to Wu Hall.
Prominent, wealthy philanthropists are a fact of life in the world of universities and other nonprofit institutions. Their names frequently appear on buildings, particularly with high-profile cultural institutions. Five years ago, when Yale accepted a huge donation from alumnus Stephen Schwarzman, it mandated that the money go to a renovation of two fine classical buildings and to an underground student center below one of them. However, Schwarzman’s similar gift to the New York Public Library allowed him to rename the 42nd Street main library after himself, which had formerly borne the names of its real founders: Astor, Tilden and Lenox. The public was not pleased. The trend in recent years has been to allow donors to dictate many of the conditions, including the architects and styles, of their capital projects. The “public” nature of many of the nation’s institutions is now gravely at risk.
As Hobson explained on October 8 during a press conference, the new college is intended to rename Wilson (now First) College after a black woman to remind students that their achievements matter, no matter the color of their skin or economic status. Woodrow Wilson’s name was also removed from the school of international relations, rejecting his anti-Semitic views. That is all well and good. What she did not say was why the buildings associated with First College—apparently seen as outdated and “like a motel” by Princeton staff—would be removed from the central campus, despite the university’s previous intention to renovate facilities that no longer functioned properly rather than destroy them. Michael Graves created a remodeling of Wilcox Hall in 2007, while alumnus Tod Williams added to and remodeled First College in 1986, “aiming to synthesize the styles of the dorms in the area.” Indeed, the mix of styles in the center of the campus is strikingly successful as an example of adaptive reuse and energy conservation, while also being attractive and sensitively scaled.
Alas, the same cannot be said of the designs that were shown at the October press conference, and which have been subsequently presented to the Princeton Borough Planning Board. Instead of insisting on stone, copper, brick, and wood accents—the materials of most traditional buildings on campus and many recent ones (such as those of Bloomberg Hall by Michael Dennis & Associates)—the university adopted a completely new palette of materials for Perelman and Yeh Colleges and the new Hobson College buildings. Hiring PAU (Practice for Architecture and Urbanism), a seven-year-old firm with little experience in campus planning or architecture, was also unusual, as the campus architect had previously vetted firms and chose internationally renowned designers for any significant commissions. Vishaan Chakrabarti is the main partner at PAU, and his credentials as an urban designer are impressive, but he has never designed a campus building under his own name. It is little solace that Joel Sanders and Hanbury were named associate architects, as they also have little experience with buildings of this scale and complexity. These architects ignored the central importance of Wu Hall as a campus gateway and made it into a tiny appendage of their massive new intervention.
The most alarming characteristic of Hobson College’s new megastructure (all buildings are connected like a vast snake) is its six-story massing, as it introduces a scale not present anywhere in the historic areas of the campus. A ridiculous caveat attached to the presentation suggests that by “canting” the masses on the top three levels viewers will be less aware of their hulking mass—but they are no less obtrusive in that form than without the slant. Indeed, the Brutalist fenestration patterns, gray brick surfaces, and general blandness of the buildings is more suggestive of prison and asylum architecture than of student housing of any kind. Renderings of courtyards planted with grass and trees are hardly reassuring; these spaces were already beautiful, surrounded by existing buildings “native” to Princeton. Moreover, one of the most beloved and verdant walks on campus, passing between Patton and Walker Halls, and reinforced by Gauss and Wu Halls, will be blocked by a gigantic six-story mass, punctured only with an opening that blocks distant views to the southwest.
Proclaiming blithely that the “large and centrally located” college would have “significant implications for what some describe as one of the most scenic campuses in the country,” the university’s roll out did not assuage undergraduate Prince Takano, a junior politics major from Los Angeles. Writing in the Daily Princetonian’s October 23, 2022, issue, he called the new colleges “dull, rectangular and prison-like.” He continued: “Princeton’s new architectural style—if one can even call it style—represents a cultural and architectural decline at Princeton.” Undergraduate Julianna Lee opined in an earlier piece that “Stepping into the new colleges (Yeh and Perelman) makes me feel like I’m at a modern tech company, rather than the warm, cozy Princeton that I know and love. … Hobson should be built to match the collegiate Gothic style of buildings found north of campus rather than the new colleges.”
The opinions of students, alumni, and local critics have always guided planning at Princeton, which explained that it had a student committee in place to advise the architects on Hobson College’s amenities and design. That is one reason why the university has avoided the kind of missteps that led Columbia to clash with Harlem residents and NYC planners over its recent campus expansion. It is also why Princeton remains a guidepost for university administrators and planners throughout the U.S., and why an anomalous decision such as this one should concern all who follow campus architecture. Like Yale’s wise decision to build Franklin and Murray Colleges in the style of James Gamble Rogers’s Gothic, Princeton can direct university leaders to ignore the whims of the architectural establishment when it comes to placemaking. Place matters to all humans, and it can be reinforced or diluted by building well or building poorly.
Princeton students are proud to be a part of a longstanding tradition that places the design of their environment front and center in their education. As future leaders like Hobson, they will be the patrons, leaders, and builders that mold our world during the coming century. As members of a community, they are truly rooted in the place called Princeton University, in the Borough of Princeton, in a state that has always valued both education and the environment. Moreover, previous officials at the university have resisted attempts by donors to destroy key portions of the historic campus, instead directing development into areas that could tolerate different styles and scales of building. Their efforts—like those of Cram, Stewardson, Venturi, and Williams—ensured that one of America’s truly great university campuses would remain a beacon for our best and brightest young minds. Today, the university’s top ranking indicates just how important their work was to its mission.
Mellody Hobson, despite her good intentions, does not recognize that forsaking tradition will result in a “cultural and architectural decline” at her alma mater. She needs to become architecturally literate, just as she suggests others achieve financial literacy and insists on racial diversity in the workplace. She could do no better than to follow her Chinese-American predecessor, Gordon Wu Ying-Sheung, by pressing for architecture that represents continuity rather than obtrusive change.
Featured image: Blair Hall, designed by John Stewardson and Walter Cope (1896). All photos by the author.