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Panel comments on Lewis Center architecture, functionality

On Thursday, the University Art Museum hosted a discussion panel on the design and functionality of the new Lewis Arts Complex, part of the new Arts and Transit neighborhood on the southern edge of campus. The panel discussed the architectural conceptions of form and function that Lewis Center for the Arts designer Steven Holl used, as well as the ways in which the Lewis Center interacts with its users and the existing Princeton campus.

University Art Museum director and discussion moderator James Steward introduced the three panelists in order of appearance: Ron McCoy, university architect since 2008; Paul Goldberger, architecture critic and educator; and Monica Ponce de León, Dean of the University School of Architecture.


McCoy opened the discussion by giving an architectural background for the Lewis Center from the perspective of function, movement, and University tradition. He explained that the Lewis Center, at 23 acres, is the largest physical development the university has ever developed. It is expected to serve 150–250 patrons per event at 50 events per year.

The Lewis Center serves as two different academic homes, for both the Department of Music and the Lewis Center for the Arts, which encompasses theater and dance. Though the Lewis Center is divided into three sections based on these disciplinary distinctions, they are connected by a below-grade forum which “is meant to be a space discovered and used by all students” and reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the arts.

McCoy discussed the connections that the Lewis Center draws between itself and the existing University campus. He showed how the Lewis Center continues the tradition of portholes and passageways on campus in a new and refreshing way, explaining how it reimagines the dimensionality of old campus. In his comments, McCoy diagrammed how Blair Arch is geometrically anticipated by the Lewis Arts Tower and how the Lewis Center Black Box is based on Richardson Auditorium.

In addition, McCoy noted, the Lewis Center’s outside courtyard is constructed “in the tradition of three-sided courtyards that are tradition on Princeton’s campus,” such as McCosh Courtyard.

McCoy closed his commentary by referencing historic architect Ralph Adams Cram’s 1911 master plan of campus, which he described as “classical principles held together with the vocabulary of functional strategies.”

“Steven has done this with modern architecture,” he concluded.


McCoy received his Master’s in Architecture in 1980 from the University and has worked in the Philadelphia-based architecture and planning firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.

Next to offer commentary was Paul Goldberger, who focused on the duality of the Lewis Center, describing it as “a campus within a campus, a destination on its own with an urbanism of its own, reflecting how Princeton is a collection of outdoor rooms.”

He explained that architecturally, the building is intentionally ambiguous and displays duality in several ways. Its “conceptual intentions have always been to create a double reading with a strong sculptural independence and a functional support of the program,” Goldberger noted.

“It is so beautifully balanced, poised as a community all its own and as a gateway to a larger campus,” Goldberger added.

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“He responds to the power of classicism with the power of modernism,” Goldberger said of the Lewis Center’s designer, Steven Holl. “He is deferring to existing conditions, in a way that is never literal, never involves mimicking, but is deeply and profoundly respectful of what’s there,” noted Goldberger.

Goldberger explained that the Lewis Center is unique in its choice of primary users.

“It is not an audience-based project, but a place for the musicians and dancers themselves,” he continued. “It is rare to give serious architectural consideration to a building full of studios and musicians and dancers, one that exists secondarily for audiences and primarily for the creative people themselves.”

Goldberger said that his favorite parts of the Lewis Center are the “beautifully indented staircases” and the music practice rooms, which he described as “wooden instruments behind a curtain wall of glass.”

Goldberger is a current Vanity Fair contributor and a former author of The New Yorker Skyline column from 1997 to 2011. He is also a former dean of the Parsons School of Design and Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism recipient.

Ponce de León continued the discussion by explaining the role of the imagination that pervades the new Lewis Center buildings.

“It’s an art that materializes the aspirations of our community, an architecture [projecting] that which could be. He actually opens up possibilities for the rest of us to imagine, what being interdisciplinary could be and should be,” Ponce de León explained.

She commented on Holl, saying that he “understood how to balance identity for the arts, with the necessity of belonging." She added, "He does this not through the materials, but truly through scale, size, and arrangement of spaces. It’s not just the stone and glass, but the space, the volume. It’s really what we inhabit, as humans, every day.”

She encouraged students to “explore these relationships and the circulation of the building.”

Ponce de León is a former faculty member at the University of Michigan and Harvard University, and is a pioneer in robotic technology for architectural fabrication.

The discussion also covered the way in which users and the community will move through and participate with the Lewis Center.

“It says to art students, we treat you seriously and with respect. [It] in turn encourages students to take their work seriously. It tells you that you must do your best,” Goldberger explained. “The building can project that air of seriousness without being intimidating or stiff. The materials are not soft and cushy, so it says that the art you produce in here should also be rigorous,” he added.

Ponce de León explained that participation in such a building is sometimes just stopping to wonder at it. “It cannot be decoded quickly,” he said.

McCoy further elaborated on Ponce de León’s point, stating that visitors are often stymied by the Lewis Center’s opaque glass elements, which deviate from standard conceptions of windows.

“The building puts you in a translucent space that forces you to move inward, and later, into transparency that causes you to move outward,” McCoy said.

McCoy explained that the Lewis Center has also created a welcoming entrance to campus.

“You always felt before, that you felt that you shouldn’t walk through campus [from the Princeton Station], but up around campus. Now it feels like there is a real way in there, that has all the dignity of a great entrance to campus.”

Planning proposals for the University’s Arts and Transit neighborhood began in 2012. The Lewis Center is on track to receive a LEED silver rating, and is one of the most sustainable buildings on campus. It’s almost entirely heated and cooled by a geothermal field under Baker Field.

The discussion took place on Thursday, Oct. 5, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in McCosh 10. The event was open to all members of the Princeton community.

The Lewis Arts Complex officially opened on Thursday, Oct. 5. Opening activities, including open dance rehearsals, concerts, and spoken word poetry, will be taking place through Sunday, Oct. 8 as part of the Lewis Center's Festival of the Arts. The schedule can be found at