PRINCETON, N.J. — For four years, the students in Alan Chimacoff’s freshman seminar here at Princeton University were undivided in their conservatism.
Chimacoff probably taught a few political liberals during that time. But architecturally, his students unanimously favored the traditional over the contemporary — in this case, Collegiate Gothic over svelte metal-and-glass curves.
Indeed, up until last year, when Chimacoff asked the students in his course, “Eye of the Tiger: Reading Buildings,” whether they preferred the gravity-defying design of Frank Gehry’s new science library or the traditional approach of Demetri Porphyrios at Whitman College, the young Tigers all favored the latter.
But a funny thing happened when Whitman was built in 2007 and students could walk its grounds instead of just viewing watercolor renderings: This past year, four of 15 students in Chimacoff’s seminar favored Gehry’s abstraction to Porphyrios’ vast stone walls.
This is no scientific sampling, to be sure. But many Princeton students, alumni and faculty interviewed echoed a common sentiment: Whitman was good in its traditional concept, but could have been better in execution.
A short train ride away, at Yale, where plans for two new residential colleges are quickly gaining steam, University officials have made it clear that the traditional will also reign supreme in the colleges’ design..
But University administrators are, in a sense, listening to Chimacoff’s students. Yale will not soon find a second Whitman College gracing Prospect Street.
Instead, Yale will try to build the watercolor Whitman — although maybe with bricks.
‘1906 or 2006’
Although Whitman’s aesthetic dates back centuries, its immediate roots are really about a decade old. It was for the May 1999 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly that Catesby Leigh, an architecture critic, penned a piece that would dramatically change his alma mater’s campus.
Leigh decried the Modernist works that had popped up at Princeton in the late 20th century. He called for a return to tradition — and one soon came.
In a recent telephone interview, Leigh explained his advocacy simply.
“Everyone — aside from most architects — is just coming around to the fact that traditional architecture works better than Modernist architecture,” he said.
Even Stan Allen, the dean of Princeton’s School of Architecture, who said he would not himself have made the decision to make Whitman more revival than avant-garde, acknowledged its contextual cohesion.
“In 20 years,” Allen said, “I don’t think that many people will know whether it was built in 1906 or 2006.”
Allen’s comment is mostly true. Whitman is on Elm Drive, the central drag of Princeton’s campus. Placed among the Collegiate Gothic buildings of the early 20th century, Whitman — especially with its plush landscaping, open courtyards and magnificent public spaces — for the most part fits in comfortably.
Making it so was no easy task. The stone façade of the 275,000-square-foot complex, which houses around 500 students, required one of the largest bluestone and limestone orders in American history — more than 6,000 tons of stone in total, said Princeton Executive Vice President Mark Burstein.
Much thought went into the selection of that stone. Porphyrios, a famed Greek architect and Princeton Architecture School alumnus, recounted an exhaustive process in which he and others searched across the country to find craftsmen and quarries of a suitably high quality for Whitman.
“You hear today that craftsmanship has been lost, but that’s just not true,” Porphyrios said. “You just have to look for it.”
The stones, most between eight and 10 inches thick, were essential for the roughly $130-million project, Porphyrios said. Most obviously, the stonework allows for an easy visual transition between Whitman and nearby buildings.
But in a larger sense, the stones represent what Allen and Porphyrios both said is best about Whitman — its construction quality. Whitman is built to last.
The college is not made of a concrete or steel frame; instead, it is supported almost entirely by stone.
And the authenticity does not end there: Slate roofs, oak doors and mahogany-cased, leaded-glass, triple-glazed windows all help Whitman feel far older than it is.
‘Behind the walls’
But for now, at least, Whitman does look young on the inside.
On first glance, there is no doubt that the college is expensive, not least because it is so big. Burstein, referring to the college’s massing and large footprint, called it “Collegiate Gothic on steroids.”
But, ironically, the vast feeling in the interior of Whitman was in many ways a cost-saving measure. The college, for instance, does not have the costly entryways that characterize Yale’s residential colleges.
Instead, the use of long hallways makes the college seem “barren,” said Michael Portillo, a freshman in Whitman.
Porphyrios said he had advocated for the use of entryways, but it was Princeton’s administration and faculty who ultimately chose lateral circulation for the college.
“I really do believe that entryways make sense from the point of view of establishing an intimate circle of people to get familiar with and become friends with,” Porphyrios said.
But at Princeton — which is just now beginning to implement a four-year residential-college system — entryways were spurned because officials feared that students would feel stranded and isolated.
Though a critic of the long hallways at Whitman, Portillo agreed that entryways could be a nuisance because they make it difficult for students to move throughout buildings.
Burstein provided additional reasons for the decision to avoid entryways at Whitman. First and foremost, he said, were efficiency considerations: Entryways require lots of stairwells and circulation space, meaning that buildings that feature them can house relatively few students for their square footage. This is neither cost-effective nor environmentally efficient, he said.
If Yale moves forward with its plan to build two new colleges, entryways are almost a given. In his letter to students and faculty last Monday, University President Richard Levin stressed that entryways provide a feeling of intimacy essential to the residential-college experience.
More significant than material choice or layout pattern in a project, Porphyrios noted, can be some often-overlooked costs in construction: those associated with mechanical and electrical infrastructure.
“It’s what’s behind the walls that’s really expensive,” he said.
At Whitman, the architect acknowledged, some air-conditioning and mechanical systems have proven faulty in recent months.
One hundred and thirty million dollars is no small sum. Burstein said Princeton was in no way “parsimonious,” and Poprhyrios praised the university as a client. Even with that pricetag, however, Whitman lacks the ornamentation and architectural detail that, for many, defines the Collegiate Gothic style.
While quick to point out that matching historical detail could be difficult and costly, Leigh did bemoan the stark plainness of Whitman’s exterior.
“I happen to think that the detailing and the overall stylistic approach of the old buildings is better,” he said. “A fuller emulation, not mimicking, but a fuller engagement of the older work would have been better.”
Using similar language, though, Porphyrios described his approach.
“You don’t mimic,” he said. “But you imitate.”
The Oxbridge legacy
Of course, it is difficult to know when an imitation is simply finding its own identity or failing to live up to its heritage.
But at Princeton, which in the early 20th century was a leader of the American academic movement toward Collegiate Gothic architecture, Whitman’s bareness does stand out.
Princeton’s Graduate College, for instance — one of the buildings of Ralph Adams Cram, who was Princeton’s consulting architect and designed its general plan from 1907 on — features ornamentation and engravings of unimaginable detail.
The same is true of the buildings of the firms Cope & Stewardson and Day & Klauder, which designed many of the buildings on Princeton’s campus, including Blair Arch, the iconic Princeton landmark.
Even if Whitman does not always live up to such grand structures in its finest details, however, it certainly does in its motivation.
Indeed, the reasons Princeton built in the Collegiate Gothic style at the turn of the 20th century are about the same as the reasons for doing so at the turn of the 21st.
Paul Venable Turner, an emeritus professor of architectural history at Stanford University who has long studied university campuses, said the rise of the Collegiate Gothic style in the United States was largely a result of American schools’ desire to identify with the long and storied heritage of academic institutions across the Atlantic.
“At the time, when Collegiate Gothic really took hold, it was an attempt to make connections with Oxford and Cambridge primarily, as well as European architecture and culture more generally,” Turner explained.
Burstein, talking about the decision to build Whitman in the Collegiate Gothic style, explained that college students today have similar desires.
“Students really gravitate to residences that feel permanent and timeless,” he said. “And we gave them that.”
Preserving the ‘physical tradition’ at Yale
At Yale, two new residential colleges may soon give the campus a similar injection of revival architecture — but with important distinctions from Whitman.
The Yale School of Architecture dean, Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, who is also a noted architectural historian, described his vision for the two new colleges’ aesthetic.
“The new colleges should be very much part of the physical tradition of the other residential colleges,” Stern said. “They’re courtyard-bounding buildings largely in the Collegiate Gothic tradition — although there are also Georgian ones.”
Yale has, at least in part, a history of following in Princeton’s architectural footsteps. The Collegiate Gothic that Cram and others brought to Princeton predates by at least a decade that which James Gamble Rogers 1889 and John Russell Pope brought to Yale between 1917 and 1934.
But, as Stern pointed out, Gamble Rogers’ buildings represent their architect’s symmetrical, Beaux-Arts tendencies more than their counterparts at Princeton do. And Yale is in many ways more true to the Oxbridge tradition of strong interaction between campus and city, Stern said.
Consistent with the past, University officials say, the two new colleges will not be carbon copies of Whitman College.
Indeed, Cesar Pelli, the former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said in a recent interview that a brick façade might be more feasible for the new colleges than a stone one.
“Trying to reproduce Branford College would be extraordinarily expensive,” he said, referring to Gamble Rogers’ masterpiece at the Memorial Quadrangle. “But trying to reproduce Timothy Dwight would be more realistic.”
Pelli, who remains involved in design decisions at Yale, is not alone in thinking that brick could be the best material for the new colleges.
Several University officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because planning for the colleges has not yet begun, have deemed a brick exterior — perhaps with limestone accents — most appropriate for the new colleges.
Porphyrios has experience with such buildings; his design at Cambridge’s Selwyn College matches that description almost exactly. But he was surprised to hear of the $600-million budget that Yale anticipates for its project.
“$600 million?” he repeated. “Oh my God.”
Regardless of budget, there is one aspect of Whitman that Yale simply cannot replicate: its central placement on Princeton’s suburban campus. Saybrook College Master Mary Miller, a History of Art professor and Princeton alumna, said one of Whitman’s great strengths is the way in which it manages to fit right into the already-established residential section of Princeton’s campus.
Burstein said Princeton had considered building Whitman in a location more removed from campus — just as Yale is now planning to use a site many see as deficient because of its separation from central campus. Burstein cited the sense of disconnect felt by students in Forbes College, another residential college at Princeton and one that is somewhat isolated from the other residences, as a testament to the importance of Whitman’s central location.
Cameron Myhrvold, a freshman at Princeton, jokingly explained the problem with Forbes.
“I think you might need a passport to get there,” he quipped. “Either way, it’s like a survival expedition — you have to plan your whole day before you leave.”
The rhymes of history
Yale officials are evaluating steps they can take to avoid the remote feeling that has come to in part define Forbes and that some say will also plague Yale’s two new colleges, which would be built on the Science Hill side of the Grove Street Cemetery.
But while various transit and security systems are being considered, administrators say there is almost no chance that the decision to build traditionally will be rethought. For Allen, this is another decision he would not make. For Chimacoff, the architecture professor, this is a decision out of his field.
“It’s fine if you want to build a building that doesn’t advance or engage ideas of architecture,” Chimacoff said. “But that’s a decision. And it’s a business decision, not an architectural decision. It’s a matter of comfort.”
Yale is set to spend more money on its two new colleges than any university ever has before.
In a similarly ambitious time, Yale decided to construct the Memorial Quadrangle, designed by Gamble Rogers and now the home to students in Branford and Saybrook colleges.
And while the Memorial Quadrangle is certainly distinctive, its ties to the work of Cram and others at Princeton are undeniable. Now, almost a century later, history may soon repeat itself — Yale is again ready to take a cue from Princeton and build its new colleges in a traditional manner.
But once again, the result will be distinctly Yale.