This article was originally published in the October, 2017, Princeton Echo.
Keep an eye out for the drama unfolding at the new arts and transit neighborhood opening this month in the area between McCarter Theater and the Dinky train station, and the new home to Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts and the Department of Music.
As part of the grand opening festival on Thursday through Sunday, October 5 through 8, you will find lots of drama, along with music, dance, poetry, film, and art in forms you may have never considered before and in places you definitely have never been before.
Brand new places such as the forum, for example, the 8,000-square-foot, ground-level space that connects the three buildings at the center of the new neighborhood: the Wallace Dance Building and Theater, the New Music Building, and the seven-story Arts Tower (a building awaiting a donor for whom it could be named). Or the plaza, the open space with the reflecting pool between the three buildings one flight above the forum. Or Baker Green, the as-yet unfinished lawn between the plaza and Baker Rink.
Now the forum, the plaza, or Baker Green could become part of the Princeton lexicon, perhaps as much as Hinds Plaza outside the public library, or the kiosk at Palmer Square. It’s in the forum where on the opening weekend you will find the performances known as “Theater For One,” described in press information as an “innovative mobile venue” pairing “one professional actor and one audience member at a time for the performance of a short play in an intimate booth.”
We mentioned the plaza. That’s where you will also find the Princeton Steel Band, led by So Percussion member Josh Quillen.
Then there is the Donald G. Drapkin Studio, in the Wallace building, where you can take in “ Touchtones: A Story Of Sex, Death, And Telephones” by assistant professor of theater Brian Herrera. An autobiographical storywork project, “Touchtones” is described as “a two-part interactive encounter.” Adults only at this performance, by the way.
Suffice it to say there’s a lot of drama, as well as all the other performing arts. The new buildings, designed by New York architect Steven Holl, will be a big part of it. “Buildings change the way people feel about themselves and each other,” says Wendy Heller, chair of the music department. “I can’t wait to see how the new center will inspire students and faculty to think in new ways about themselves, their relationships, and their work, and to imagine a different kind of future that would surprise all of us in 50 years.”
Michael Cadden, chair of the Lewis Center, notes he is “excited about the synergistic potential of the outdoor spaces we’re creating.” The plaza and Baker Green “will also be an open invitation to the imaginative student looking to collaborate with both the natural world and Steven Holl’s dancing architecture,” Cadden says.
That outdoor space will be the stage for another drama, which will play out over a much longer period of time in the entire area bounded by the new train station, the WaWa, the new Lewis Arts Center buildings, Cargot restaurant, the Dinky Bar, and McCarter Theater. That is, roughly speaking, the new arts and transit neighborhood. And this drama has a simple arc: Will this neighborhood work in the way that neighborhoods have always worked, with welcoming places, scheduled and unscheduled events, the energy of commercial enterprise in the background, and — most importantly — real people playing their unrehearsed and wholly improvised roles?
If it works, the new arts and transit neighborhood will become another vibrant focal point in town, along with Palmer Square and Nassau Street, Hinds Plaza by the Princeton Public Library, Scudder Plaza outside the Woodrow Wilson School on Washington Road, the restaurant row at on the eastern end of Nassau by the tree streets, and — possibly in the near future — the north end Witherspoon Street, where the tear down of the old hospital has paved the way for new housing, offices, and at least one new restaurant.
If it works you will see evidence of it outside the buildings as well as inside. People will linger over drinks or coffee at the Dinky Bar, people will gather at the fountain in the plaza, above the forum. Or you may see some outdoor performances as predicted by Cadden. If it works the busker who now plays his viola in front of the Garden Theater on Nassau Street might take his instrument down to the plaza on occasion. And he may be joined by other street musicians, or by the juggler who occasionally works his magic around Palmer Square.
If it works strangers might even find themselves in a conversations with other strangers.
The person who literally wrote the book on how to judge the vitality of open public spaces is William H. Whyte, who gained fame first as the author of the best-selling book “The Organization Man” in 1956. He later turned his attention to the physical world in which we live, publishing “The Last Landscape” in 1968, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” in 1980, and “City: Rediscovering the Center” in 1988.
Whyte was a mentor to Jane Jacobs, the urban planner and activist who is credited with keeping Robert Moses from demolishing and paving over much of Manhattan in the 1960s and ’70s. Amanda Burden, champion of Manhattan’s acclaimed and very popular High Line park on an abandoned elevated train line, calls herself a protege of Whyte.
A 1939 Princeton alumnus, Whyte devoted a chapter of “City” to the suburban office developments that were springing up across the country in the 1980s. He was disappointed by the sprawling nature of the Route 1 office campuses. He compared them to another development nearby, which, he wrote, “has a wealth of open spaces; they connect with one another; they are enjoyed day in and day out by a great many people, and on foot. Yet the development density is much greater than in the Route 1 developments. I refer to the campus of Princeton University. Yet for all the infilling that has taken place, the open spaces do not feel cramped. The very enclosure the buildings afford makes the spaces congenial in scale.”
Whyte died in 1999. But it turns out his influence extended to the early planning of the Lewis Center. In its early stages university officials, seeking various approvals, made presentations to the municipal governing bodies. At one meeting the mayor asked Ron McCoy, the university architect, to characterize this proposed new neighborhood. “I quoted William H. Whyte,” says McCoy in a recent interview. “We wanted to create spaces for people to use. It’s very much a public space.”
McCoy cites the numbers of potential users of the space: 175,000 visitors a year to McCarter events, 1,000 people a day projected to eat or drink at the restaurant and bar, 410 daily occupants in the academic offices in the Lewis Center, 2,000 daily passengers on the Dinky, and 5,700 students, and 600 townspeople living within a five-minute walk of the site. (There must be several thousand more townspeople within a 15-minute walk of the new center, including — full disclosure — this writer.)
“It’s going to take a while,” McCoy says, for the surrounding community to notice the new center and venture into it. But even before the grand opening weekend he sees people hanging out on the walkway passing by the restaurants, and in the forum. McCoy practically channels Whyte when he says that the design is intended to encourage casual and impromptu activities. “At the Lewis Center we hope that every open space is potentially a performance space.”
So how would Whyte grade the new arts and transit neighborhood? As designed, the Lewis Center has some winning attributes as a neighborhood.
A good scale. “The effective radius of a good space is about three blocks,” Whyte writes in “City.” And, he notes, “Too much space, unenclosed, is the bane of many a public space.” The Lewis Center, bordered by the train station, McCarter, and university dormitories and office buildings, delivers on that.
A welcoming entrance. As Whyte wrote in “City,” praising the design of the now famous Paley Park in midtown Manhattan, “a good entrance draws people. An entrance should be broad and open.” The entrance to the lower level of the arts center achieves that goal. It’s accessible either by stairs or by a sloping ramp of stone. It all leads into that forum, an inviting interior space (partially lit by skylights in the plaza above) that connects to all three of the buildings above.
Contrast the new Lewis Center to the old Lewis Center, which was concentrated in the building known as 185 Nassau Street, formerly an elementary school building. The large front yard of the building separates it from Nassau Street. An iron fence, four feet high, runs the entire length of the front yard. But the main entrance is actually a small doorway on the back side of the building, separated from a large parking lot by a 10-foot high fence-like structure that runs the length of the building.
This building continues to house the university’s visual arts courses. Are you welcome here or not? All I will say is that for the past 35 years or so I have lived less than 200 yards from 185 Nassau Street, and have received countless notices of events happening there. I have gone to three or four.
Seating. To its credit, the new Lewis Center has a lot of built-in seating. The low wall surrounding the 68-foot square pool in the plaza will surely attract people. So will the ledge along the wall of the Wallace Dance building facing the plaza (though I wonder how quickly that will drain after a rain storm).
Interestingly, all the seating (so far) at the Lewis Center is bolted down or built-in. Elsewhere on the university campus there are free-standing Adirondack chairs. They are relatively heavy but they can be moved to create clusters of two or three chairs or they can be set off for a solitary user. McCoy says there will be more seating yet, and that small, lightweight, all-weather chairs that can be moved freely may be part of the mix. But, McCoy adds, “we want to see how people occupy the space.”
(As for the concern that “loose seats” will go missing in the middle of the night, Whyte has written that some people thought just that would happen at Paley Park on 53rd Street in midtown Manhattan. But in practice they never were. And folks at the Princeton Public Library, where the immensely popular Hinds Plaza offers 60 or 70 lightweight, stylish chairs for public seating, report the same.)
Cars in their place. The town has made one good change in terms of cars. Long term parking meters that served commuters leaving their cars all day near the station have been replaced by meters with three-hour limits. People wanting to come by for a meal at Cargot or for a show or dance recital at McCarter or the Lewis Center now have more options, in addition to the five-level, 735-car West Garage that is free to the public after 5 on weekdays and all day on Saturdays and Sundays and now very visible and just a few feet from the new Dinky station.
And restaurants. Not only will the Dinky Bar and Cargot contribute to the variety of people coming to the arts complex, but the outdoor seating at both venues will add to the street life at the center.
More good things are still to come: Baker Green, an 18,000-square-foot open space leading from the New Music Building toward the hockey rink slopes downward as if it were a natural amphitheater. “At the bottom we located data and power,” says McCoy, the university architect, in anticipation of presenting outdoor concerts or films in the space. The architect estimates that 500 people could sit casually in the space, 750 to 1,000 could be seated in a more orderly fashion.
Baker Green will also be the site of the new outdoor sculpture by Maya Lin, best known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. As the university’s press announcement says, the Lin sculpture — an earthen work built into the landscape — “will provide a landmark for visitors to campus and an invigorated outdoor setting for students to stage ad hoc performances and enjoy plein air classes.”
James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum, has been working on public art at the new Lewis Center. In addition to the Lin installation, there will be two others. One is the set of 12 zodiac heads most recently displayed in a line at the Woodrow Wilson School. The heads are being re-installed in the space between Cargot and the Dinky Bar, in the circular arrangement that the artist, Ai Wei-Wei, originally intended.
The other is a large-scale sculpture by Clement Meadmore, whose Upstart II is on the plaza in front of the Engineering Quadrangle. The new Meadmore work will be installed inside the forum on the arts center’s ground level.
“We’re working on the public art to bridge the new buildings with the community around it,” says Steward. The hope is that the new works will become “calling cards” for visitors, giving the new center a “deeper sense of place.” Chances are the public art will turn out to be a hit. As Whyte writes in “City,” most outdoor work, “even art that initially stirred much hostility has become accepted, if grudgingly, and in time rather liked, sometimes cherished, as a beloved eccentricity.”
But the new arts and transit neighborhood has started off with a few strikes against it, at least by the measures used in Whyte’s assessments of public spaces.
The stairs. As Whyte points out in “City,” most architects design stairs based on a formula set by a French architect in — get this — the year 1672. Steps that are easy to go up have treads — the part you step on — of about 12 inches, and risers of about 6 inches.
The Lewis Center’s grand stairway from the level of the Dinky station and parking garage up to the plaza is a gradual and comfortable incline. A lot of thought went into their design. Architect Steven Holl says he modeled the stairway after steps in the Piazza del Campidoglio Museum in Rome. The risers are 5.5 inches, the treads are 60 inches — very generous with an angle of vertical incline much less than you would find in a normal stairway. Holl calls it a “stepped ramp” or “stramp.”
But depending on your gait, you might find yourself needing two normal steps and then another shorter one to move from one step to the next. I saw one person gingerly making her way down, taking two steps, then two steps again, and then three steps to hit her marks just right. As Whyte has written, there’s a “terpsichore” to steps, and Michael Cadden refers to Holl’s “dancing architecture.” But the steps should not require a choreographer on hand to direct the movement.
Especially in low light, it’s hard to discern the separation of steps. Several weeks before the grand opening, several edges were marked with round copper-colored metallic stickers. A block of stone was on site, with holes drilled in what appeared to be a test of permanent markers.
No matter how it’s resolved, many people will want to grab a hand rail here. That’s another problem. There are hand rails on either side, but the gap between them is almost 17 feet. A third handrail — down the middle or slightly offset — might be in order.
Blank walls. The Lewis Center has a lot of them. As one friend of mine notes, “for an arts center it sure doesn’t have much color.” William Whyte addresses the blank wall approach in “City,” and writes that “the dominant feature of the townscape of U.S. cities is coming to be the blank wall. . . I will not feign neutrality. I think the blank walls are bad for the city.”
Whyte would not be impressed by the blank walls of the Lewis Center. But he also wouldn’t be surprised. “Institutions like blank walls. Almost always there is a technical explanation: the wall space is needed for the stacks, for climate control for the computers, for lighting unvaried by natural light. But these are not the real reason. Blank walls are an end in themselves. They proclaim the power of the institution.”
Some people might ask: What business is it of ours — the town in the town-gown equation — if this new space fails, or if it succeeds but only as another campus quadrangle serving students in the arts without any connection to the community? The university owns the land, after all, and it is the university’s $300 million plus that has been sunk into it. William Whyte, it turns out, addressed a similar question when General Motors security people prevented him from measuring ledges along the building, abutting the public sidewalk. “There is a principle of some importance involved here,” Whyte wrote. “The space was provided by the public through its zoning and planning machinery. And the owner went along with the deal.”
Here in Princeton the community has given the university plenty of permissions, as well: To tear down several small houses along Alexander Road, to move the terminus of the train station some 450 feet further from the center of town, and to replace the traffic light with a roundabout at University Place and Alexander.
Little things can still be done.
Make the forum a literal forum for the arts, a place with bulletin boards on the walls that hold posters announcing upcoming events and places for people to post their own notices — jazz ensemble needs keyboard player, bass trombone for sale, etc. It could be a place where the free community papers (this one included) with their art reviews and previews could be distributed. Somewhere someone is reading this and saying: “Do you know what a maintenance problem that will create?” Yes, but as Whyte has observed, vibrant public places can sometimes be a little messy.
As time passes, as the success of the restaurant and bar is assured, someone might notice that a non-alcoholic watering hole is in order — a coffee shop, perhaps. Or the artsy crowd that gathers for dance, music, and drama might enjoy seeing some art on the walls — a gallery perhaps. Perhaps WaWa could be enticed to set up a kiosk for coffee, tea, and snacks at peak hours in the forum. Creative zoning might be required — it has happened before.
We should all hope that the new Lewis Center and arts and transit neighborhood are smash hits. One way to tell: If you find yourself down there and engage in some serendipitous interaction with others, and have the sense that all the center is a stage, and you are merely a player upon it.
Architecture of the Lewis Center for the Arts: Panel discussion with Princeton University architect Ron McCoy; architectural critic Paul Goldberger; and Princeton University Art Museum director James Steward. Thursday, October 5, 4:30 p.m. McCosh 10. Free. For the complete schedule of opening events, visit lcaopening.princeton.edu.