Two test panels, perhaps six feet tall by four feet wide, one of argillite, one of Wissahickon schist, stare blankly over the rubble of the torn up tennis courts just south of Dillon Gym. They prefigure the coming radical transformation of this open space, which, before it was covered with tennis clay, was landscaped as football and then baseball fields, but which has never before been built upon. They went with the argillite, a sturdy grayish-reddish stone (think of Pyne, or Laughlin); soon, stonemasons trained in traditional masonry at the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers in Washington, D.C. will begin to assemble 2,500 tons of argillite ripped out of a quarry in eastern Pennsylvania into a castle.
I am talking about Whitman College, of course, and it is going to be gorgeous, in the most picture postcard hang-it-up-on-your-wall jaw-dropping sense of the word, with a solid oak door framed by a ribbed vault, a cloister of traceried arches, a short round tower with a whimsical conical hat, with crenellated parapets and slate roofs with gabled oriels and chimneys. (These chimneys will not direct smoke, as there will be no working fireplaces, but hide toilet stacks.) Because of the necessary grading of the land, there will even be a (dry) moat with a footbridge.
Princeton’s campus is eclectic, but the buildings that represent Princeton for alumni, students, and visitors alike – the cloistered medieval courtyard of Holder Hall, the wide countenance of the massive Blair Arch – are the breathlessly beautiful collegiate gothic masterpieces. And Whitman College, when completed, is going to be beautiful like that.
“It’s funny, that a forward-looking institution would go mucking around in the past. […]. [I]t sends the wrong message to the students, to build in a style that was developed for a culture and technology that no longer exist.” This is what Frank Gehry had to say about Whitman College last year. Gehry is designing Princeton’s other major construction project – the new science library, a hull of metallic curves and rays of glass shooting up out of the earth, to be built at Washington Road and Ivy Lane.
Gehry’s view of Whitman College as anachronistic and misguided is shared by some, but they are mostly other architects. Students and alumni may expect their dormitory interiors to be Internet-wired, but they still want those modern rooms to be tucked into gothic eaves, which they think of as quintessentially Princetonian. But collegiate gothic was the style of choice at Princeton from 1897 through 1947, a period which represents only about a fifth of Princeton’s history.
After about 150 years of educating small numbers of mostly Presbyterian young men, who lived in dormitory conditions so wretched as to approach neglect, the College of New Jersey decided to transform itself into a national university of prestige – Princeton (as it was renamed in 1896). President James McCosh, who ruled for twenty years beginning in 1868, tripled the college’s enrollment and launched it to national renown, mainly by cultivating affluent donors to invest specifi cally in new facilities.
The precedent of naming buildings after donors continues to guide Princeton’s development but the era’s architectural style did not last. It was under President Francis L. Patton, who served from 1888 to 1902, that Princeton’s trustees adopted the collegiate gothic style for which it would become known. This shift in style was a deliberate imitation of the authentically medieval quadrangles of England – a hopefully self-fulfilling statement that Princeton was the New World child of the long and proud Anglo-Saxon academic tradition. Woodrow Wilson, then on the faculty, was ecstatic: “By the simple device of building our new buildings in the Tudor Gothic Style we seem to have added to Princeton the age of Oxford and Cambridge; we have added a thousand years to the history of Princeton,” he wrote.
Princeton’s gothic heyday tapered off with the exigencies of world wars and depression; since 1947 Princeton has increased its physical plant over 45% without a single gothic building. It is probably possible to build an attractive or even a beautiful structure that is not gothic; at Princeton, however, it appears to have posed a difficulty. The ever-conservative trustees may have been willing to abandon the costly gothic style, increasingly viewed as outdated and naïve in a world of atom bombs, but they were not comfortable with risking truly creative modern structures. Not even Robert Venturi’s playful stamp could save modern architecture at Princeton from utilitarian mediocrity. Squat New South and the excessively tall Fine tower mar Princeton’s otherwise graceful skyline; the bizarre bicycle-rack protrusions of the New New Quad (now Butler College) and the cinderblock cubes of the earlier New Quad (now Wilson College) ruin the continuity of Princeton’s otherwise elegantly interspersed styles.
Those students assigned to Wilson and Butler have certain advantages–centrally located dorms, large and most notoriously rowdy suites. Still, they feel as though they are at an unfair aesthetic disadvantage. As one sophomore told me, “[living in Wilson] seriously hinders my enjoyment of my undergraduate experience… I like looking outside and seeing attractive architecture and nice grass lawns. I find modern architecture inherently less pleasing.”
But decisions about architecture, at Princeton and elsewhere, are as much about values as about aesthetics. In 2002 Princeton’s trustees decided that the new residential college should mark at least a partial return to the old arches and towers, and Demetri Porphyrios, a Princeton graduate school alum who has built similarly traditionalist structures at Oxford and Cambridge, was hired. Meg Whitman, herself a former resident of Blair and Holder, approves: “Collegiate gothic sets an ambiance for learning that had a very positive impact on me.” Porphyrios has a more elaborate but similar view; his design package rarely mentions beauty. For Porphyrios, Whitman’s cloistered arcades will be “unifying elements,” its open courtyards will foster “leadership within a framework of shared principles and values.”
“This is an architecture of robust, durable, civil and beautiful buildings,” writes Porphyrios. It is also, of course, an unoriginal architecture, one which Princeton borrowed from Cambridge and Oxford in 1911, and is borrowing from itself in 2004. Robert Campbell of the Boston Globe wrote of the decision: “The students want the right architectural logo. These are the kids who grew up wearing shirts that said ‘GAP’ or ‘Abercrombie & Fitch,’ who explain their identities to one another by listing their favorite music groups.”
Whitman waxes sentimental for an ambiance; Porphyrios pontificates about values; Campbell dismisses the whole thing as branding. For whatever reason, students complain about being assigned to the modern colleges not just because they are ugly; they really feel they are missing out. Princeton’s glossy brochures depict gargoyles and leafy greens; tour guides lead prefrosh through Holder. Even Forbes, off the main campus in a colonial style hotel, has a certain detached elegance. Applicants are never shown the New New Quad. Students feel cheated when they don’t get the brand they have paid for.
But the collegiate gothic style carries, also, a deeply emotional appeal, which is not so easy to dismiss as raw consumerism. Perhaps there is something that lies more timelessly inherent in crenellations and rock which cannot be found in even the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements of corrugated metal and sheets of glass: a sense of solidity, of safety, of tranquillity and order. In a 1999 PAW article, Catesby Leigh ’79 claimed that modernist architecture, especially at Princeton, had become solipsistic, reductive, self parodying.
In contrast, he wrote, “ancient architectural conventions continue to be profoundly relevant to what we build today. Those architectural conventions exist, above all, for the sake of beauty. And beautiful forms have an emotional resonance that corresponds, however mysteriously, to the highest human intentions, to our sense of ‘ought.’”
The plans for Whitman College are full of a sense of ought, for Whitman will be the first Princeton college that is neither a cluster of pre-existing dorms or a refitted hotel, but designed specifi cally for its purpose. Before anyone had ever decided what Whitman would look like, it had been conceived as the university’s flagship four-year college, and the details of its impressive facilities have all been dreamed up to serve that identity.
Princeton’s residential college system, implemented in 1983, was always half-formed; while Harvard and Yale students remain in their colleges all four years, Princetonians leave their colleges at the end of their sophomore years for the peer-run eating clubs, the Spelman dorms with kitchenettes. If they are not wholly adrift, Princeton no longer holds them quite so well.
I think it is this – not the freely flowing alcohol of the Street or the elitism of Bicker – which is most distressing to administrators and trustees. A residential university with religious roots, Princeton has always been governed under the assumption that its job is to embrace its students, not just teach them. (The beloved turn-of-the-century collegiate gothic dormitories were built because students were increasingly seeking off-campus accommodations, undermining the sense of community.) Whitman College will have a number of common spaces, including a café and open courtyards, and instead of isolating entryways, long, wide hallways to encourage neighborly interaction.
Under the new system, all students will remain affiliated with a residential college throughout their four years at Princeton, though they may or may not choose to reside there. (It will be possible to both join a club and live in a college.) The final report of the students, faculty, and administrators on the four-year college planning committee expresses many hopes for the four-year colleges: that they will create “a more cohesive campus community,” “[improve] the social and residential life of all students,” “[strengthen] the personalized care, attention, and guidance that have been highly prized by generations of Princetonians.”
Some of the committee’s goals seem a bit quixotic, to say the least. But quixotic dreams are the most attractive, soaring like those Holder spires far above the muddy ground: the vision of a Princeton where every student is beautifully held perhaps belongs in a beautiful building. The collegiate gothic style is an exercise in nostalgia, a ridiculous recreation of an ersatz past, an expression of Princeton’s persistent yearning to grasp at some of the prestige and legitimacy of age. But it is also a testament, as the trustees and Porphyrios claim however suspectly, to the values that the university espouses – in many ways, very American values. America is committed to youth: it builds castles not for royalty, but for its children, and it wants to hold them there in those towers as long as it can.
Eventually, Princeton does hope its children will fly: the science library will be testament enough to that. But Whitman College will be testament to a different hope of the people who run things at Princeton, however misguided or naïve: the hope that these four years here will be something of a holding experience, not just for some students, but for all of them. It is, thus, fitting that they will wrap this new college up in argillite and top it off with turrets. After all, buildings can hold us just as well as ideas. The trustees with their four-year colleges may not improve future students’ undergraduate experience one bit. But they can certainly give them a beautiful building.