Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Princeton and The Queen Of Arts

Princeton is the kind of village where, when you come to see a nationally-touted exhibition on Greek terra cotta figurines at the Princeton Art Museum, you hike past the Princeton Historical Society’s Bainbridge House and discover a splendid exhibition far finer than the admittedly excellent one you came to see.
I’m speaking of the “Small Town, Distinguished Architects” show that walks you through a visual essay of 33 architects who have made the university town a must stop for world students of architecture. Then, having psyched you up to a frenzy of enthusiasm, they quietly slip you an eight-fold map brochure of almost a score of examples you can see by foot.
What a lineup: Benjamin Latrobe (Stanhope Hall), John McComb (Alexander Hall), John Haviland (Charles Hodge House), Thomas U. Walter (First Presbyterian Church), John Notman (Prospect), Richard Morris Hunt (Lenox House), John Russell Pope (52 Bayard Lane), McKim, Mead, & White (Cottage Club), Ralph Adams Cram (Graduate College), Carrere & Hastings (Princeton Battle Monument), Frank Lloyd Wright (Brad Mills House), Marcel Breuer (Institute for Advanced Studies housing), Charles Moore (Gund House), Harrison & Abramovitz (Institute Library), Minoru Yamasaki (Woodrow Wilson School), Peter Eisenman (Barenholtz House), Charles Gwathmey (Renovation of Whig Hall), I.M. Pei (Spelman Halls), Robert Venturi (Gorden Wu Hall) and last—and, in my opinion, least by a mile—Michael Graves (Graves Residence, a high-tech, low-muse fiddling with a former warehouse). Is that a big-league, all-star-game lineup, or what?
There are even serendipitous discoveries for an architectural groupie like me. William A. Potter, for example, is new to me, but his Chancellor Green Library (1871-73) is in gorgeous High Victorian funk. I must see more Potter. And soon.
Then there’s A. Page Brown, known to me as the architect of San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building (1895). In Princeton he left a sweet residence at 56 Bayard Lane (1887-89) in the Queen Anne / Shingle Style.
From Princeton History, put out by the Princeton Historical Society, we learn that Brown prepped with McKim, Mead and White, and that his principal patron was Cyrus McCormick (of reaper fame), as well as James McCosh, the president of the College of New Jersey (renamed Princeton in 1896), who guided it through the turbulent years after the Civil War, replacing the former Southern clientele with the new barons of Northern industrialism.
This also marked a shift from using Philly architects toward New York, though there were a few notable exceptions. For example, when Princeton decided to follow the College Gothic trail blazed by Yale and Harvard, they commissioned the architects of the University of Pennsylvania dormitories, Cope & Stewardson, to build Constitution Hall (1896). But for the most part the center of architectural gravitas shifted from Philly to New York.
That is, until the new Institute of Advanced Studies broke the stranglehold of College Gothic, with Bauhausish Marcel Breuer’s Institute Housing (1957). Minoru Yamasaki’s Woodrow Wilson School (1965) is bottom-of-the-barrel Yama. It has none of the flair of Lambert Airport, St. Louis, nor the elegant charm of the McGregor Conference Center at Wayne State.
The scale is wrong; there’s too much fenestration which has to be curtained off to reduce sun glare; and the plaza and the pool are the visual pits.
If Modernism has its peccadilloes, Post-Modernism in my judgment has wholly fallen from grace. And you’d never know from the obsequious filiopietism of the exhibit that Princeton is the principal source of this infection.
Contradictions and contrarieties began to exfoliate in Venturi’s Princeton mind when he attended Donald Egbert’s course on architecture all four years. Then the contagion spread to the West Coast, where Moore was definitely Less. Then it Petered out in the Midwest at Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Visual Arts (1989), the most egregious imposition of goofy ideas for an educational institution I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience first-hand.
Heh, I could be wrong. The nice thing about the “Small Town, Distinguished Architects” show is that they give you a free map to check out the details on your own. There are two Venturis on the trail (Fisher Hall, 1990, the Gordon Wu Hall, 1980) and one Gwathmey-Siegel (the Whig Hall Reconstruction, 1974). I sort of like their Whig Hall reconstruction, mainly because they left the lovely Greek Revival intact.
But you can’t knock the black outline of the self-directed tour brochure: “Today, the town of Princeton has developed into a virtual textbook of the history of building, and has become an important place for those who wish to see not only what’s old, but also what’s new in American architecture.”
This free exhibition has proved so popular that it has been extended through March 3. Unfortunately, Bainbridge House (158 Nassau Street, 609-921-6748) will be open only Saturdays and Sundays, 12-4, or by appointment for a group by calling Curator of Education Philip A. Hayden. The Princeton History magazines cost $5 each.
The museum is a brisk ten-minute walk from the Amtrak Station in Princeton. By car, drive north on I-95 to N.J. 202.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 27, 1991

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