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Make It New, Make It Fit

When I was 12 years old, Aunt Sophie gave me my first book on architecture: Sir Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method. I think Aunt Sophie liked it because it was elegant and English. I liked it because it had 3,500 drawings. Originally published in 1896, running to 20 editions (Aunt Sophie gave me the seventh edition), the book is now affectionately called "the Banister Fletcher."

With a tip of the hat to Sir Banister Fletcher and the comparative method, this is a tale of two buildings. They are both at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, but they were conceived generations apart.

To understand architecture, it is necessary to understand the social institution it embodies. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton has some of the characteristics of a university and some of a research center, but it is different from both. It has no curriculum and no contract research. It has a small group of permanent faculty and many annual members, but unlike a university, it has no student body. It is just a community of scholars.

The Institute was founded in 1930 and soon became a safe haven for European intellectuals. The Institute's benefactors, the Bamberger/Fuld family, had sold their Newark department store to R. H. Macy just weeks before the 1929 market crash. They hoped to create a medical school in New Jersey and sought the guidance of Abraham Flexner, author of a study that had transformed medical education, research, and practice. Flexner had broad social and intellectual imagination. He wrote about the physician as a "social instrument...whose function is fast becoming social and preventive, rather than individual and curative," and in a different vein, he wrote about "the usefulness of useless knowledge."

The form of the new Institute for Advanced Study was Flexner's idea: "To visualize the Institute tentatively, I should think of a circle, called the Institute for Advanced Study. Within this, as scholars and funds are available, create a series of schools or groups...a School of Mathematics, a School of History..." As founding director, Flexner recruited Albert Einstein (Physics), Kurt Gödel (Mathematics), John von Neumann (Mathematics), and Erwin Panofsky (History of Art). What a crew! Alas, Flexner admitted to being more interested in people than buildings.

The Institute settled in Princeton, with offices scattered throughout the university and town. After almost a decade, it built Fuld Hall on its own campus nearby. The design was selected by a competition among the campus architects of Princeton, Harvard, and Dartmouth. Lewis Mumford had recommended Frank Lloyd Wright.

Dartmouth's architect, Jens Larson, won. But, culturally and environmentally, Thomas Jefferson won. The design of the Institute — on a meadow at the edge of a forest — expressed Jefferson's pastoral, arcadian vision of building and landscape.

Fuld Hall
Fuld Hall, designed by Jens Frederick Larson, completed 1939.
(Photo by Brian Rose)

Fuld Hall was designed for a symmetrical America. The nation's public constructions — from Jefferson's landscape grid to Burnham's Chicago Plan — were symmetrical. Its public architecture — from Philadelphia's Independence Hall to the Capitol and monuments in Washington, DC — was symmetrical.

For the new College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, Nassau Hall had a classical symmetry, a pavilion with absolute clarity of place and purpose. But Princeton's later "collegiate gothic" reveled in medieval complexity. Its unsymmetrical composition of archways and courtyards, roofs and towers, and pinnacles and gargoyles was an Oxbridge paradise. In that context, what should be the form of the new Institute for Advanced Study?

Flexner's initial concept had been a symmetrical circle. But he was also concerned about its growth and form — both its academic form and its physical form. Flexner, always a protomodernist, wrote that "if the Institute is unsymmetrical, it can more readily remain elastic."

The postwar Institute was led by decidedly modernist directors, the scientist Robert Oppenheimer and the economist Carl Kaysen. The Institute's academic form expanded, and its physical form evolved.

During Carl Kaysen's leadership as director, a new Dining Hall Commons was built for the Institute as a whole, and a new school was added to the three existing schools. For the School of Social Science, Kaysen recruited Clifford Geertz (Anthropology), Albert Hirschman (Economics), and Michael Walzer (Politics). Kaysen's triumvirate was a brilliant achievement. They were housed in a new faculty building, lying parallel to the new Dining Hall. Together, the two buildings created a new courtyard, an outdoor room which became a beloved birch garden. They were all players in a modernist plot, "Make It New."

Dining Hall
Dining Hall, West Building, Birch Garden; designed by Robert Geddes,
Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham Architects; completed 1972.
(Photo by Brian Rose)

Carl Kaysen was delighted. He wrote that "ultimate standards in the intellectual world are aesthetic; terms such as originality, depth, and rigor are now used to characterize intellectual work, conveying judgements that are essentially aesthetic. Thus, it is appropriate to the Institute's purpose that it seek beauty as well as utility in the structures that house its activities, and embody it in visible form."

Kaysen sought to improve not only the physical but also the social form of the Institute. The initial building, Fuld Hall, contained rows of private offices and three shared places stacked on top of one another: a Common Room on the ground floor, a Library on the second floor, and a Dining Room remotely tucked away in the fourth-floor attic.

Architecturally, Fuld Hall was static, solid, and opaque. By contrast, the new Dining Hall created a dynamic, transparent social magnet. Kaysen wanted the new buildings to increase "social transparency" within the Institute's community. As the architect, I sought to match "social transparency" with "physical transparency."

About the new buildings — the Dining Hall and the Social Science Building — Kaysen wrote "together with the space they enclose, they create an area of quiet harmony. The several hundred scholars who have talked and eaten in the dining hall; met, talked and listened in the seminar and lecture rooms; and worked in the offices, have all benefited from the sense of order and form which they provide....Further, the siting, the roof lines and the landscaping of the new buildings connect them harmoniously with the old. Thus we can enjoy what is new without feeling a sense of conflict between it and what has already existed."

In a word, it fit.

÷ ÷ ÷

Robert Geddes is an architect, urbanist, and teacher. He is dean emeritus of the Princeton School of Architecture; Henry Luce Professor Emeritus of Architecture, Urbanism, and History at New York University; and a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities and the National Academy of Design. The American Institute of Architects honored his professional firm for its "design quality, respect for the environment, and social concern."

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Fit: An Architect's Manifesto New Trade Paper $19.95

Robert Geddes is the author of Fit: An Architect's Manifesto

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