Steven Holl Architects (SHA) has built some of the most imaginative buildings of the last decades. Several of them are university projects, including two gems at the University of Iowa campus; the most recent, the Visual Arts Building, opened just last year. But even an architect of Holl’s stature has seen his share of misses along with the hits. In theory, his latest project, the Lewis Arts Complex at Princeton University, named for the late alumnus and philanthropist Peter B. Lewis, has all the ingredients to make a great building—an enlightened client, a robust program, a prominent site, and a subject close to the architect’s heart. With one major exception, unfortunately, in the execution, much of this work falls short.
Princeton has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the most elite educational institutions in the country, nestled within a pastoral campus with a rich mix of collegiate Gothic and Romanesque revival buildings. In recent years, it has devoted increased attention to the creative and performing arts, historically taken less seriously than academic courses. Its plans for a purpose-built complex on the western edge of campus to house the growing number of students in theater, dance, music, studio art, and creative writing—previously scattered in buildings all over campus—were ambitious, perhaps overly so.
Jump to credits & specifications
Before construction could even begin on the Lewis Arts Complex—the largest building-development project on the Princeton campus in its history, according to university architect Ron McCoy—the railway station for the “Dinky,” a small train that connects the spot to the New Jersey Transit line, had to be moved. A new station, designed by Rick Joy and also recently completed, sits across from the complex, which now serves as a gateway to the campus.
As a gateway, Holl’s assemblage of buildings—a rounded one to the west that contains theater and dance, a tall central one for visual and literary arts, and a boxy structure to the east for music—could work, if it were a gateway to somewhere else. Exiting the station, one can either enter Lewis at grade, into the vast interior forum space that connects the entire complex, or ascend a gently inclined stairway to an outdoor plaza level that features a large reflecting pool, around which the three buildings that make up the complex are positioned. If the arrangement seems familiar, it should. Holl modeled it after Michelangelo’s Campidoglio in Rome, not only in plan but also in the slope of the steps.
However, at Princeton, Holl’s concrete-framed volumes, clad entirely in a light-colored limestone from an ancient Roman quarry in Lecce, Italy, feel out of place amid the university’s ornate, highly textural buildings. That’s not to say modern additions aren’t encouraged. Two recent ones featured in this issue, by design studio The Living (page 66) and KPMB Architects (page 86) respectively—not to mention the Rick Joy station—do a nice job fitting in through either their scale or deference to existing buildings, or even their construction quality, which at the Holl project is, in some areas, inferior. Another building, by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners, completed last year, is a beautifully minimalist yet highly contextual insertion. The facades on Holl’s buildings, even where there are swaths of glazing, are completely unarticulated and—let’s face it—just too beige. They are not only uncharacteristic for Princeton, they’re uncharacteristic for Holl, who has never been afraid to experiment with form or materials or to add a pop of color, and has been perhaps the one contemporary architect to most effectively use light as a building component and almost as a surface. None of that is evident here.
What’s more surprising about the bland exteriors is that some of the interiors display an opposite tendency—incorporating too many materials, too many ideas. In each of the three buildings, they feature different design elements. It is an attempt, says SHA partner in charge Noah Yaffe, “to provide a strong identity for each department.” That’s fine within the individual structures. But within the forum—the great connector and “purposely non-purpose-built” social space that opens onto the ground-floor theaters and instrumental-rehearsal space, with their various finishes—dark end-grain wood floors and seating surfaces mix with colorful furniture and walls of board-formed concrete painted white. A spiraling “dancing stair” made from sheets of perforated metal, whose pattern was derived from a dance notation, similar to stairs Holl has used elsewhere to great effect, here seems too contrived. It’s all a bit jarring. The deep-set skylights overhead, reflecting the movement of water from the pool above onto their edges, add a mildly calming effect but are overwhelmed by the cacophony of materials and forms.
It’s not surprising that the most successful of the three individual structures is the one devoted to music; taken on its own, it’s a great little building. For several years now, Holl has taught a series of studio classes with composer Raphael Mostel at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation called the Architectonics of Music. Musical scores have influenced many of his projects, including a private house and gallery in Seoul whose plan was inspired by a never-performed composition by István Anhalt entitled Symphony of Modules. At Princeton, Morton Feldman’s multilayered musical approach, which Mostel wrote about in an online piece for record on the Lewis Arts Complex, served as inspiration.
Stepping into the music building is like stepping inside an instrument. Raw concrete walls, floors, and a floating staircase harmoniously juxtapose with the cherrywood offices and practice rooms. For optimal acoustic isolation, the practice rooms are suspended from the roof, the rhythmic composition of those hanging boxes visible through the entirely glazed facade. It is, to be sure, a high note of the complex.
Another strength of the project is its porosity, both with respect to allowing multiple views into the buildings and multiple routes through the complex to different areas of the campus. It works well as a gateway for that reason. And Holl did look to historic structures in other areas of the campus—the height of the five-story arts tower matches that of Blair Arch, for instance. The diameter of the round structure that houses the black box theater mimics that of Alexander Hall, home to Princeton’s orchestra. That emphasis on dimensions, proportions, and even composition works well in certain individual elements of the complex, but an equal emphasis on the combination and integration of materials, texture, and scale would have benefited the complex as a whole.
Architect’s firm name, address and phone number: Steven Holl Architects, 450 West 31st Street 11th Floor, New York, NY 10001, (212) 629-7262
Steven Holl, RA (design architect, principal)
Noah Yaffe (design architect, partner in charge)
Christina Yessios (project architect)
Jongseo Lee (project architect)
Nathan Rich ( project architect, design phase only)
Whitney Forward (Assistant Project Architect)
Chris McVoy, Martin Kropac, Scott Fredricks, Alfonso
Simelio, Arseni Timofejev, Michael Haddy, Yasmin Vobis,
Zach Cohen, Jing Han, Laetitia Buchter, Ying Yi Cai, Gary
He, Asami Takahashi, Ebbie Wisecarver (Project Team)
Architect of record (if applicable):
Casey Cassias, RA, FAIA – Principal-in-Charge
Joe Keal, RA, AIA –Senior Project Manager
Greg Sheldon, RA, FAIA – Senior Project Architect
Ishita Banerjee, RA, AIA – Project Architect/Interiors
Sebren Ryan Camp, RA, AIA – Project Architect/Building Envelope
Sarah Hirsch-RA, AIA
Kristin Long-RA, AIA
Janell Rock-RA, IIDA;
Kyle Rogler- RA, AIA
Engineers (structural, civil, mechanical etc.)
Arup (Structural engineer)
Arup (MEP Engineer)
Vanasse Hangen Brustin, Inc. (Civil Engineer)
R.W. Sullivan Engineering (Code Consultant)
IBA Consulting and Engineering (Waterproofing Consultant)
Front Inc. (Façade Consultant)
Consultants (landscape, lighting, acoustical etc.):
Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates (Landscape Architect)
CMS (Pool consultant)
Photographer (include phone number and credits as they should appear):
Paul Warchol; (212) 431 – 3461; © Paul Warchol
Steel Structure by SteelFab
Cast-in-place concrete by Villa
Masonry: Lecce Stone by Pimar, Facade (21-million-year-old beige limestone from a quarry in Lecce, Italy, that has been continuously mined for 2,000 years).
Bluestone paving- Tompkins Quarry
Metal panels: Bead Blast Stainless Steel Soffits by Gartner
Metal/glass curtain wall:
Custom Steel-Framed Curtain Wall by Gartner (Subsidiary of Permasteelisa)
Custom Steel-Cable System Curtain Wall by Gartner (Subsidiary of Permasteelisa)
Insulated glass units with Okalux Kapipane, with acid etch finish depending on location by Gartner
Concrete: Cast in place, Board Formed by Villa
Built-up roofing: Vegetated roof assembly
Metal: Formed Metal Copings by Gartner
Metal frame: Gartner
Insulated-panel or plastic glazing: Gartner
Entrances: Gartner Curtain Wall Entrance System
Metal doors: Hollow Metal Doors by Long Island Fireproof Door, Inc.
Wood doors: Veneered Wood Doors in Bamboo, Walnut, Whitewashed Ash, and Cherry. Select doors clad in Split Spruce and Whitewashed Ash Slats by Eastern Millwork, Inc.
Sliding doors: Whitewashed Ash Wood Sliding Doors by Eastern Millwork, Inc.
Fire-control doors, security grilles: Clark Doors Sliding Sound Control and Fire Doors, McKeon Sliding Fire Doors, Total Door Systems Double Egress Doors.
Special doors (sound control, X-ray etc.): Acoustic Sound Control Doors by Quietstar
Upswinging doors, other: Custom Pivot doors designed by BNIM Architects
Locksets: Sargent Mortise Locks, Best Core Cylinders
Closers: LCN 4040XP
Exit devices: Von Duprin 88, 98/99 Series
Security devices: CACs, Salto Locks
Other special hardware:
Custom exterior door pulls designed by Steven Holl Architects, Fabricated by Firedance Studio, LLC
Zero International Auto Door Bottoms, Gasketing
Ives Ball Catches
K.N. Crowder Sliding Door Hangers
Acoustical ceilings: Fellert Acoustical Plaster Silk Ceiling
Suspension grid: Clark Dietrich Building Systems
Cabinetwork, custom woodwork: Custom millwork wall finishes and cabinetry in bamboo, ash, walnut, cherry, and spruce veneers and solid wood by Eastern Millwork Inc.
Paints and stains: Sherwin Williams paints,
Floor and wall tile (cite where used): American Olean Tiles in WCs
Custom Harlequin Basketweave Sprung Floor Systems for Dance Studios and Theater, in Hardwood and Harlequin Standfast Vinyl Performance Surfaces.
Bamboo flooring with natural finish and custom gray stain by Plyboo
Endgrain Mesquite woodflooring supplied by Kaswell
Carpet: Design: Steven Holl Architects; Fabrication: cc-tapis
Special interior finished unique to this project:
Perforated Blackened Steel Wall Panels in Black Box Theater fabricated and installed by A. Zahner Company.
Foamed Aluminum Wall Panels by Alusion, installed by Giffin Interiors
Clear, Acid etched, and acoustical glass by Josloff Glass Co.
Perforated steel guardrail designed by SHA, fabricated by Crystal Metal Works
Bead Blast Stainless Steel Handrails and Stanchions fabricated by Crystal Metal Works
Steel cable guardrail system fabricated by Crystal Metal Works
Open Offices – Design: Steven Holl Architects; Fabrication: United Store Fixtures Company
Private Offices & Classroom Furniture – Geiger
Retractable Theatrical Seating (Black Box Theater, Dance Theater, Dance Studio): Jezet Seating
Walnut Benches – Design: Steven Holl Architects; Fabrication: United Store Fixtures Company
Dance Studio Chairs – Schmidinger Möbelbau
Theater Studio Chairs – Kristalia (Luca Nichetto)
Task Seating – Herman Miller (Don Chadwick & Bill Stumpf)
Task Seating – Vitra (Antonio Citterio)
Task Seating – Steelcase
Musician Chairs– Wenger
Dance and Theater Studio Chairs – Howe
Office Guest Chairs – Vitra (Maarten Van Severen)
High Stools – Vitra (Maarten Van Severen)
Conference Seating – Vitra (Maarten Van Severen)
Loose Audience Seating – Wenger
Work Table Chairs – Alvaro Siza
PLork Musician Chairs – Andreu World (Jasper Morrison)
Outdoor Seating – Knoll (Harry Bertoia)
CNC-Milled Walnut Tables & Stools – Design: Steven Holl Architects; Fabrication: Walla Walla Foundry
Walnut Conference Tables and Work Tables – Design: Steven Holl Architects; Fabrication: Huston & Company
Forum café tables – Cappellini; Jasper Morrison
Coffee Tables (Lounges) – Nakashima
Industrial Work Tables - Formaspace
Outdoor Tables – Knoll (Eero Saarinen)
Music Practice Room Tables – Brent Comber
CNC-Milled Walnut Stools – Design: Steven Holl Architects; Fabrication: Walla Walla Foundry
Forum Serpentine Sofas – Design: Steven Holl Architects; Fabrication: Wittmann
Forum lounge chairs – Arflex; Luca Nichetto
Sofas & Armchairs (Lounges) – Moroso (Patricia Urquiola)
Sofas (Lounges) – Cappellini (Rodolfo Dordoni)
Forum Built-in Bench Leather Upholstery – Kevin Cooke
Music Stands and Instrument Storage – Wenger
Interior ambient lighting:
Arts Tower Custom Light Fixture – Design: Steven Holl Architects; Fabrication: Firedance Studio
Theater & Dance Custom CNC-Milled Walnut Light Fixture – Design: Steven Holl Architects; Fabrication: Walla Walla Foundry
Music Building Custom Light Fixture – Design: Steven Holl Architects; Fabrication: Firedance Studio
Solid State Luminaries, Vario LEDs, Visual Lighting Technologies, Alcolyte LED, Philips, Moda Light, Cree, USA Illumination, Architectural Lighting Works, Axis Lighting, Delray Lighting, Lightolier
Edison Price, Kirlin, Erco, ETC, Cree, USAi, Williams, Pathway
Tasklighting: Modern Forms Boxie
Exterior: Bega, Vario LEDs, Solid State Luminaries, Wagner Lumenrail, Tivoli
Dimming system or other lighting controls:
Elevators/escalators: Traction Elevators by Mid-American Elevator Company, Inc. with Hollister Whitney gearless machine. Rimex bead blast stainless steel cab interior with 3 Form Varia Ecoresin panel ceiling.
Filtrine 125-CP & 125-CP-MOD custom
Energy management or building automation system: BMS System by Arup and Automated Logic
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
Geothermal heating and cooling; green roofs to decrease rate and run-off of storm water and improve water quality; material and landscape designed to reduce heat island effect for roof and non-roof; high-performance exterior envelope (glazing and thermal mass); closed loop ground source heat pumps (139 wells, 500' deep); natural ventilation and light; interior shading; sensor-based equipment; storm water management, water reduction through high-efficiency fixtures; LED building and theatrical lighting; LEED enhanced commissioning; construction waste reduction