Princeton University begins its academic year with a glinting new science and math library in a strategically important spot opposite the campus’ iconic Fine Hall. The five-story building, one of the first completed amid a ten-year campus plan that became public this spring, announces Frank Gehry’s arrival with swooping, stainless-steel curves around a tower. As a lynchpin for university expansion, the project brings bustle to a developing part of campus. But Princeton’s newest name-brand building also takes a somewhat ungainly step out of the past.
The 87,000-square-foot Peter B. Lewis Library, named for the insurance magnate and Gehry patron who helped endow it, will gather a series of math and science holdings from smaller buildings around campus. Its main space also includes five “bowl classrooms,” as university project manager Henry Thomas called them on a September 4 press preview, and breakout rooms. An adjacent rectangular building houses offices for new-media and high-tech institutes. It also functions as a cornerstone for the campus’ tech-focused western side, Thomas said, creating a “central tower” and “central street spine” between the traditional Ivy Lane and younger buildings.
“Mr. Gehry attempts to site projects and somehow integrate them into the existing fabric even as they become unusual in their own organization,” Thomas told reporters. “In this case he tried to provide a hard edge to the existing Ivy Lane.”
The Lewis Library is more restrained than much of Gehry’s work, but does have some unusual spaces inside. Ceilings stand between 16 and 34 feet on levels that narrow as they get higher, so natural light encircles the study areas. Operable LED lamps on desk tables invite private study without making the workspaces feel like warrens. A second-floor “tree house” features 34-foot ceilings and clerestory windows framing the trees outside. The below-grade lounge and information desk, with bright primary colors on the walls and a Spanish limestone floor, keeps the underground space bright.
Other structural flourishes seem less successful. The tower, poking up between a stadium and a Richard Serra sculpture, provides some of Gehry’s signature twisting metal without resolving the curve into another sinuous shape that reaches the ground. Thomas said that lighting and cladding unified the metal tower with the brick base. “Two skylight popup towers are clad in exterior stucco plaster, and standing-seam stainless steel panel on the skin is the major architectural creation of the project,” he said. The panels pick up light but not contours from the tower and roof.
The cost of any Gehry project includes the expense of training subcontractors to use Gehry Partners’ proprietary building-information modeling software. The structural stainless steel, ordered amid steel shortages in many construction markets, presumably added costs to a project that began with a $60 million gift. Then there were worries about the structure’s water-tightness, especially after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued Gehry in 2007 over leaks in a 2004 building called the Stata Center he’d designed for that campus. Thomas assured reporters that his team had tested the site’s weatherability, hiring enclosure and waterproofing consultants. The building’s unique proportions make it difficult to test, Thomas admitted, but the due diligence included creating an elaborate mock-up to gauge how wetness affected the concrete and plaster walls. “I won’t share with you how much that added to our budget,” he said, “but I will share with you that it was worth every penny.”
Greg Ondick of Barr & Barr, the project’s construction manager, told reporters that Gehry’s team had suggested installing a “silicone boot” behind caulk at each window. “If water goes behind the caulk joint, it gets to the boot and gets wicked out,” Ondick said.
How the building performs in extreme weather remains an open question. So does its metallic roof’s harmony with older peaks on Princeton’s changing campus. In a press release issued the day before the tour, Gehry produced a cryptic explanation for his design: “It means that the institution is looking to the future,” he said.