Altered Spaces: Blowing Apart the Rectangle
The shape and scope of the Frank Gehry-designed Peter B. Lewis Science Library building at Princeton University is now clear. You might even suspect that the builders could just scrape off the protective materials, haul away the trash, plant some grass, and they’d be finished. In fact there is still much to do, and the building will not be fully completed until May of 2008 and operational that fall. But I’ve been photographing the construction progress since it was a bare patch of ground in 2004, so needless to say I’m anxious to share a sneak preview of what I’ve found.
Gehry, whose Guggenheim Museum in Spain has generated what has been coined the “Bilbao Effect,” where an iconic building alters a town’s fortunes, is not of course attempting to put Princeton University on the map. It has long been a place of renown. Instead, what a Gehry does for Princeton is to give added incentive in attracting the cream of the crop students and faculty in the sciences.
The exterior does not have the fish-like forms of Bilbao’s museum, or the masterful cubist harmonies of L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. It is more like a symphony—drawing out notes with long sloping curves, repeating phrases with stacked rooflines, and mixing tempos with contrasting materials and jolting shapes. And if it is iconic, it will need to get in line next to William Potter’s two High Victorian-era beauties already on campus, Alexander Hall (1894), designed as a convocation hall, and Chancellor Green (1873), originally a library.
I can sympathize with Gehry’s need to blow apart the rectangle, especially on this site. Just behind the Science Library from Ivy Lane sits Fine Hall, the mathematics building, Princeton’s tallest—a thirteen-story block-like tower that is not one of the university’s finest. Although Gehry’s building is much lower, he stepped the design so that your eye is lead slowly upward from the rhythmic curves close to the ground to the three jagged towers that do their best to soften the blow of Fine looming in the background.
Not that curvilinear designs are new or that radical. Even before new technologies and materials allowed for almost unlimited sculptural effects, buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum (completed in 1959) provided enough swirls to make your head spin. What is perhaps unique about Gehry though is his method of contrasting rectangular forms with curved ones that ultimately create asymmetrical masses. It is the success or failure of this method that defines a Gehry building. In my view the Science Library may not be as harmonious in its blending of forms as, say, Bilbao or the L.A. concert hall. In fact there is so much variety that you might argue, “there’s no there there,” echoing Gertrude Stein’s famous adage about early twentieth-century Oakland. What is the central motif? What are the dominant forms? Where is the main entrance?
No doubt other controversies will emerge. Already, one architecture graduate from Princeton’s class of ’69 claimed in a local news report that Gehry’s building will have “the shelf-life of a Twinkie.” The university has long given up on blending the old and the new, and this building clearly continues that trend in a big way. Many other critics have claimed that Gehry does not design site-specific buildings, but here he has set the main thrust of the interior on a diagonal that follows the path students once trod from the student union to the football stadium. Whatever people think, from an architectural photographer’s perspective it contains all of the necessary ingredients for exceptional imagery: play of light and shadow, juxtaposition of divergent forms, cavernous spaces, multiple materials, and the dynamic interplay of workers and infrastructure.
Gehry’s buildings offer the unexpected. The indoor-outdoor relationships and the variety and contrast give the feeling of city streetscapes. I’ve photographed on city streets for many years, and have learned to relish chance encounters. You have to be ready for anything. When I enter the building I never know what I’ll find: I’ve walked on concrete floors that end in two-story drops, climbed up ladders to open-air vistas, and witnessed workers hanging from ladders at death-defying heights. Take a look into the guts of an unfinished building and you see the unobstructed aim of the architect before the utilitarian functions are put in place.
Steel beams crisscross spaces that will become rooms. Holes perforate concrete floors to become stairwells. Stacked bricks one day disappear from corners to become walls. Multicolored wires draped from ceilings and snaking down columns become live feeds to computers.
Changes in the building site over time guarantee variety to the shots. Construction crews have changed, interior spaces have materialized and dematerialized, and steel forms that were prone have become structural components. While standing on an upper floor early in the construction process, I realized that I was looking through support “ribs” to a view across campus that would be blocked in the finished building.
One vista that will remain in the finished version is the view east from all floors that encompasses Richard Serra’s sculpture on a direct line to Rafael Viñoly’s football stadium in the distance. In fact, if the sculpture were turned on its side you’d see the forms echoed in Gehry’s sloping rooflines.
But what’s most impressive is the element of surprise. Once I learned of Gehry’s long-time interest in Serra’s work, I started looking for how that bond was manifested in the building. Sure enough, if you peek around the corner window of the upper story, you are drawn downward to the sculpture, where Serra’s tilted curves are most clearly articulated. It is one of those touches that Gehry, whose work is sculptural itself, likely created in homage to Serra. Another unexpected twist is a group of large figurative brick masses that form the back of the building close to Fine Hall. Similar in appearance to my nephew’s toys, this robot looks to be both the building’s superstructure and its behind-the-scenes operator.
I’ve been privy to an exceptional building in the making, and like a voyager in the age of exploration I’ve documented my findings. Future visitors to the university and to the town of Princeton itself will search out the Gehry building. Many will expect an icon like Bilbao. Tempting as it is to categorize Gehry as just a bored kid or an experimenter who needs ever-changing visual stimuli to fuel his imagination, I see something else. What might look haphazard is more excruciatingly thought out. Gehry said in a Charles Jencks interview that “the building has to grow from the inside. I call this playing close to the bone. The bone being the budget, the program, the context, and the culture it’s in.” Coupling whimsy with precision, Gehry has created the perfect metaphor for scientific inquiry.
Dale Cotton is a freelance photographer who specializes in the built environment. He photographs everything from manhole covers to street signs to the buildings of Frank Gehry. Dale has also worked as an editor, producer, and art director/designer in the book publishing industry in Seattle, New York, Boston, and Princeton.
ARTICLES BY DALE COTTON
Altered Spaces – Art & Architecture: Blowing Apart the Rectangle, Behind the Scenes at Frank Gehry’s New Building
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Altered Spaces – Art & Architecture: Shake Your Money Maker
Altered Spaces: Taliban Portraits
Altered Spaces – Sex, Art, Culture, and Princeton Modern Architecture: Inside Photographer Dale Cotton’s New Book
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