Here’s the thing about sitting in Prospect House.
Actually, let’s rephrase that: Here’s the thing about sitting in an elevated glass box in the middle of a tourist attraction. Facing the garden are floor to ceiling windows replacing what could be solid walls. This layer of glass is sandwiched between two other stories, but no one pays attention to the upper level; the bottom layer is hidden behind hedges. Everyone dining in the main room—students, professors, guests, speakers—is on display for the daily wave of tourists.
This glass highlights what else might be featured on campus. The gazing eyes of tourists feast on this image of Princeton academia and stare in wonder at the students and professors put on display. We will take a tour of the performances created by glass buildings on campus and think about the effect they create for tourists.
Everyone remembers the thrill of receiving their Princeton acceptance letter. Freshmen in the FSI program came onto campus at the start of July. Those first few weeks of adjusting to campus went by in a blur. We thought the awe of being at the Princeton University would never fade. That is, until we noticed how we interacted with the never-ending streams of tourists on campus. These visitors range from tour groups filled with prospective students to adult visitors who have no intention of applying. Real, Florida sun-burned tourists.
We experienced our first voyeuristic interactions with them during FSI’s weekly staple: colloquium. Here, students and professors gathered to hear a guest speaker in the glass room of Prospect House. Our focus was on the speaker—until it wasn’t— and eyes drifted out one of the many windows.
And suddenly the awe is lost. Sitting in the Garden Room is asking for any tourist in the garden to look in and wonder what Princeton brilliance could be occurring within. At one point, we too were tourists. When we sat in the Garden Room, we turned into the objects of wonder that we longingly gazed at when we were visiting. The summer just makes it open season to gaze upon the school. As they decide to take a vacation on campus, we walk through their photos (or become focuses of them), get bombarded with “Where’s Frist Campus Center”, and even get entitled sighs when we are unable to answer their questions.
Prospect wasn’t always so exposed. When University Presidents still lived at Prospect House, it was mostly brick with very little glass, according to Prospect House’s website. It was meant to be a home with privacy. However, in 1986, Prospect was renovated into a dining facility. The restaurant in the basement and the infamous Garden Room were added at this time. These renovations included adding the restaurant in the basement as well as the infamous Garden Room. When the glass box — or the Garden Room — was installed, it was promoted as an honorable dining area where invited students enter a new status of academia. These two new additions create a complicated layer to how tourists interact with the space. On one hand, the Garden Room is exposed to everyone in Prospect Garden. Directly underneath is a secluded restaurant area. Prospect House creates a hierarchy of where all of the attention should be focused. Guests and important figures in the Garden Room are put on display, while the restaurant underneath, focused more towards catering tourists, is left well hidden. Naturally, the student becomes changed under the gaze of dozens.
The university’s prestige transforms us into something “other.” We are no longer just students when we walk onto campus. We’re turned into attractions, highlights of a tour to represent the newest set of wonders. As freshmen sitting in Prospect, we felt exposed and transformed by tourism. We represent the Princeton image.
Prospect isn’t alone in collecting an audience. Tourists unwittingly congregate near glass buildings. New South itself is no sightseeing spot, but it stands in front of the Ai Wei Wei zodiac head sculptures. From local kids running between zodiac heads to tour groups posing with their zodiac signs, New South lawn is always busy. Add in nighttime passerby heading to McCarter and you have a pattern of visitation around an office building on campus. Once the sun sets, students at Writing Center appointments are particularly exposed to gaze of pedestrians. The students in the rooms hardly see anything outside, but the people outside can see the happenings within as if it were a shadow box performance. It’s easy to witness students collaborating on essays, writing on white boards, flipping through pages.
Next door, Lewis Center for the Arts provides a similar experience. As the home of the creative arts, it’s only fitting that Lewis Center breaks the architecture trends on campus and in general. Spanning two buildings, the Center crawls across land as a piece of art in itself. Despite this, the Center becomes an ant farm in its display. Instead of dirt, you have wooden workspaces built in to provide a semblance of privacy. Outside the work rooms and practice halls, students are open to view as they move between spaces or work beyond the wooden rooms.
The use of glass on campus is not only for the architecture. It feels like there is a show-off nature to it. Visitors can peek into the lives of students. The iconic Firestone library attracts tourists with its history and grandeur. Looking from the outside, the building’s stone walls and few windows don’t reveal much about the inner workings of the building. However, the modern design of the inside creates a contrast—especially the massive glass wall that marks the entrance of the Trustee Reading Room. This window captures the lives of students at work. Students leaning into their hands after hours of reading scholarly sources. Students surrounded by stacks of books they’re determined not to carry home in a few hours. Students typing furiously to meet their 5pm deadlines. Along with them, the windows capture an immense collection of books, displaying intellectual wealth to visitors. In some ways, the glass forms a sales pitch to visitors: we only take the best and give the best.
In comparison, Lewis’s Treehouse focuses more on the study environment rather than the resources. One of the first things that we see through the main entrance is the Treehouse. The glass overhang on the second floor of Lewis Library attracts your attention as it cuts into the otherwise open main entry. Once again, the glass allows a view of a new world to display Princeton scholars studying, reinforcing the idea of a Princeton student not only to visitors but to students using that space itself. This stripping of privacy further leads to a subconscious change in behavior where we find ourselves acting to the stereotype and upholding expectations.
These expectations come through the hidden messages embedded in the architecture and the tourists’ watch. We dress to the occasion even without dress codes, keep on our networking faces at any event, and adopt lingo without question so we appear as a unified front. When we sat in our FSI colloquiums, the glass walls of the Garden Room shied us away from raising our hands on a number of occasions. Although the presenter’s prestige certainly didn’t help the situation, it was the weight of the watching eyes that reminded us that Princeton students were not allowed to ask dumb questions.
These spaces are windows into our daily lives. They expose us to the public and also to the residents who are accustomed to this eternal watching. So give a wave to the people in residential college study rooms as you pass, take a nap in the Treehouse chairs, or sprawl out in the most open space on campus. Continue to hope for that Prospect invitation. You’ll get there, and don’t worry. We’re not watching.