This article was originally published in the November 2018 Princeton Echo.
What is that strange looking creation on the Princeton University campus at the corner of Washington Road and Ivy Lane? A short answer is the Lewis Science Library. An even shorter answer, and one that says it all for some critics, is the Gehry building.
By either name, the 10th anniversary of the building is being celebrated Thursday, November 8, with a daylong event called “Celebrating Science at Princeton: a stellar past & a brilliant future!” The 4:45 p.m. keynote address is, well, a freakish blend of art and science, a lecture on “Frankenstein, Frankenstein, and the Dream of Science” by Susan Wolfson, professor of English at the university.
No, the creator of this multi-layered, curvilinear, surreal structure is not Frankenstein. Rather it’s Frank Gehry. And if you want to see for yourself how one world renowned architect blends art and science, the building will be open for tours throughout the day on November 8.
So what is the “art” of this building? As Gehry explained at the time of its opening, one goal was to create a visual context for 13-story Fine Hall, the mathematics building lurking above it. “The massing of the building is developed into an architectural expression which is a response to the material, colors, and textures of the context buildings,” Gehry said. “A sculptural body-language develops out of these responses and evolves with development of the design. This is how we work.”
But is it art or fantasy? That’s not an idle question. In the 1980s, when Gehry spoke at Princeton, a member of the university’s architecture school posed a question: “Mr. Gehry, do you have nightmares? Is that how you concoct this stuff?” Gehry did not even answer. He explained his reaction to the questioner: “I just figured he was an idiot.”
Then what is the science? A lot of science went into a customized, computerized three-dimensional model, built using software that digitized the block form masses used by Gehry. As stated in the press statement at the opening, “the architectural plans do not have dimensions written on them, as more traditional plans would. Rather, the builder can extrapolate dimensions and x, y, z coordinates from the digital model.”
“The technical solutions to construction are an integral part of our design process,” Gehry said. “They develop right along with the architecture and inform the creation of shapes. Many times we need to invent a new way of putting things together to get the shapes we are after. We have a very creative technical staff, and we use computer models to fully explore design methods before we get the projects under construction.”
The process? The raw materials were 88,000 pounds of embossed stainless steel and 620 tons of clay brick combined with the glass, steel, and stucco they were considered reflective of the nearby buildings. Then came the complex layering of twisted shapes and forms, so complicated that the contractor had to construct a 20-foot mock-up of certain sections of the building to allow the builders to practice assembling the structure before working on the real thing. Mindful of a lawsuit MIT had filed against Gehry for leaks and other maintenance issues associated with a Gehry building there, Princeton was cautious throughout the construction process, at one point even spraying the building with fire hoses to check for leaks.
The man who put up $60 million to get Princeton’s Gehry building kick-started was Peter B. Lewis, Class of 1955 and the CEO of Progressive Insurance. As the building was nearing completion, but still two years away from the grand opening, the cost estimate had risen to $74 million.
And the result? Lewis, the longtime friend of the architect who would later donate $101 million for the new Lewis Center for the Arts on the campus (and who died in 2013), said that the science library brought “together two things that are very close to my heart — Princeton University and the architecture of Frank Gehry. The building represents the kind of inspired risk-taking that is necessary for education and progress, and I am thrilled that Princeton has embraced Gehry’s unique architecture on its campus.”
Dale Cotton, the author of “Princeton Modern,” a collection of photo essays on architectural landmarks on the Princeton campus, had high praise for the new building. “Like an Igor Stravinsky composition for ballet, counterpoint, and contradiction dominate the exterior: saw-toothed rooflines are juxtaposed against sloping steel profiles and brick boxes; soaring towers confront horizontal rooms; shiny steel embraces light-color brick.”
A group of Princeton School of Architecture alumni from the Class of 1969 held a mini-reunion on the campus just as the finishing touches were being applied to the Gehry building. “It’s starchitecture,” said Graham Hunter. “You’re not anybody until you have a Frank Gehry building on campus.” He compared the structure to “a couple of melted ice cream cones with some tin foil thrown on the top.” Gehry is hired, said Hunter, “to bring a signature building to an institution rather than have an institution get a good building that fits in.”
Stephanos Polyzoides predicted “it will have the shelf life of a Twinkie,” he says. “We live in a time where architecture as a profession is detached from campus planning. Architects have generated an aura — through art, expressed in buildings, you can put your place on the map.” But, he added, “Princeton doesn’t need anybody to put it on the map. It is already famous, already wealthy. Its late-19th and early-20th century buildings are so stellar, so unique. Architects must work to the weight of the university itself.” The math building next to it, he added, “looks like a territorial jail in Montana. The Gehry is the equivalent of a McDonalds.”
But the Gehry building still stands. And like strange creations everywhere it has spawned some fans — especially people who have found their way to the second story reading room, known as “the tree house.” In the room lights hang from a ceiling that reaches almost 34 feet in height, and the glass-enclosed space offers views of neighboring tree tops — a chance for budding scientists to literally have their heads in the trees.
Lewis Science Library, 10th anniversary celebration, Thursday, November 8. 9 a.m.: Nature walk with Professor Henry Horn; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.: Tours of Lewis Science Library; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.: science board games; 3:30 to 5 p.m.: free food; 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.: student poster session.
4:45 to 6 p.m.: “Frankenstein, Frankenstein, and the Dream of Science,” a lecture by Susan Wolfson, Professor of English, Princeton University. Introduction by Anne Jarvis, Princeton University Librarian.