A student project this semester, which I saw advertised by email, sought “to come up with a way to help mitigate the feelings of loneliness on Princeton’s campus.” To do so, these students solicited student feedback on one building: Frist Campus Center. Their idea, as they explained, is “to build upon the current student center (Frist) in a way that fosters interactions and brings meaningful connections back to the center of campus so that students will encounter one another more naturally.”
I fully agree with the goal of these students’ project. At the same time, I question their targeting of Frist, of all buildings on campus, for not successfully promoting “meaningful connections” and “fostering interactions” among students already. On the contrary, I would argue that Frist epitomizes and encourages the best of college socialization, merging work with play and relaxation, thanks to subtle yet significant architectural gestures. As such, I argue that we should interpret Frist as a cause of our collective problem of loneliness; rather, it should serve a model for more spaces on campus to solve that issue.
“We want to re-design Frist such that we have more eateries,” the authors of this project write. In fact, I would argue that one of the most unique qualities of Frist is how its plethora of dining options, each of which provides a different eating experience, facilitates diverse forms of social interaction. Café Witherspoon presents the opportunity for a casual chat, made exciting and spontaneous by the constant movement of students and faculty in and around the space delineated by translucent walls. Café Vivian offers a jazzy aura, somewhat removed, better suited for a quiet chat with a friend or focused discussion of a project. Downstairs, mere steps away, the proverbial “late meal” area gives students a lively, rambunctious experience of mingling with friends in a crowded environment.
But the characterization of Frist’s dining areas as distinct units should not emphasize the separations between them. To the contrary, spatial, auditory, and visual continuities exist between spaces to make Frist, as a whole, a unified place to engage and connect with friends in the experience of eating.
“We want Frist to become the "town square" of Princeton’s campus,” the authors of the project also state. “[W]e want to innovate it in a way that will increase interactions in the lives of everyday students.” Once again, I would assert that Frist, through its design, is in many ways already the “town square” of our campus. Last month, I noticed a far-right group, Turning Point USA, tabling outside Café Vivian to advocate concealed carry on campus. While not expressing my own views on their position, I do note that their presence, and therefore demonstration of free speech principles, is hardly an accident, architecturally speaking.
The flexibilities inherent in Frist’s design, which allow for fluid arrangements of tables and other furniture, readily accommodates diverse student groups to advertise immediately next to corridors of heavy student traffic. In a sense, this is the microcosmic embodiment of the ideal urban form, the downtown or as others might put it, “town square,” in which pedestrians walk alongside, or in parallel to, various attractions, on their way to a given destination. In this way, Frist is already designed in precisely this way: as a “town square,” the project authors are looking for.
A final goal of the project is to create “a way to connect to the wider campus community in a way that didn’t involve a huge time constraint.” They seek “a way to bump into more people throughout the day.” No surprise here, but again I assert Frist already does this. Viewed as an architectural system, Frist is remarkably efficient in its ability to connect students through dynamic and rapid mechanisms. This is not just because there are so many different functions encapsulated within the building.
More than that, synergistic architectural design features promote such interaction even further. Its floor plan, viewed in only a cursory manner, reveals few starkly defined and delineated spaces. Instead, dynamic fluidity characterizes the entire first floor. The television area, to take just one of many examples, may give the impression of being defined by its own geography, thanks to a tactfully placed carpet, but in truth it is remarkably ill-defined. Only two walls, not four, delineate the space, allowing traffic from a convenience store, package center, and central stairway to converge and intersect. More than a few times, I have personally seen conversation spark as a result.
Student loneliness is certainly a problem we should seek to address at Princeton, which, as any institution, has such problems to address. Architecture is a perfect vehicle to do so. To this end, I argue here that we should look to Frist as a built environment that is not part of the problem, but a first start at the solution. Using Frist as an exemplar, we should advocate for even more spaces like it on other parts of campus.
Gabe Lipkowitz is a senior concentrator in molecular biology from Charlottesville, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.