Earlier this month, Princeton University presented plans for a new University Art Musum. The new museum would be built on the existing 4.5 acre site (map). The current museum (which has been closed since last April) and adjoining McCormick Hall would be demolished, with only the Marquand Art Library being retained. The Cooper Robertson firm and Ghanaian-British master architect Sir David Adjaye designed for the new museum. Adjaye has previously designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, NYC. The new Princeton University Art Museum would be 144,000 sq. ft, one of the biggest buildings on campus, and located in the heart of the historic university area behind Nassau Hall.
University Art Museum Director James Steward talked about how the existing museum provided insufficient space to display the University’s vast collection. Only about 2% of the holdings are able to be exhibited. The size and layout of the museum has also made it hard for scholars to get access to the rare materials, and has limited the number of schools that are able to visit. The existing museum also has very limited visitor amenities. The new musum would be designed intentionally, as a purpose-built exhibition and study area, in the heart of the Univeristy’s humanities area. The idea of building this museum has been around for almost 30 years, he said, with more intensive planning underway for about six years. With the new building, the number of visitors is expected to increase by 50% to 300,000 visitors per year.
University architect Ron McCoy discussed how the new museum is intended to place all the exhibition areas on a single floor. These exhibition areas would therefore be better connected, and it would be easy for patrons to move around. The downside of having everything on a single floor is that the building risks becoming a colossal ‘groundscraper’. This risk will be avoided because the exhibition space will be on the second floor, and will therefore ‘float’ above a network of walkways and plazas that will connect the museum to the surrounding campus. The extensive walkways will allow ‘porosity’ of the new museum, that is, visitors will be easily able to move and see through the site.
One goal of the new museum design is to make it “all fronts, no backs”. The museum will have multiple entrances, and is intended to complement Princeton’s pedestrian-oriented campus. A loading dock for deliveries of art will be on the south side of the new building connected to Elm Drive. The building will be surrounded by terraces with native plants and trees to provide an ‘arboreal feel’. Some of the terraces will be covered by the raised portions of the building, while others will be fully outside. These spaces will provide a variety of different areas for people to gather, and for different kinds of events, such as outdoor yoga, the ‘Nassau St Sampler‘, and the annual ‘Princeton Reunions‘. The landscaping will highlight specimen trees, such as the Prospect House Dawn Redwood, one of the tallest examples of its species in the United States. The plantings are also intended to retain stormwater, and minimize the need for irrigation.
The new Art Museum will be a contemporary design, with precast concrete, stone, and bronze panels providing a diversity of materials on the exterior. The concrete sections will be polished at the edges to reveal the white aggregate within, and provide texture.
Inside, the large galleries may be subdivided by non-structural walls to create distinct event spaces. Natural light will be funneled into the interior where appropriate.
Art will be displayed throught the museum, including in the walkways between the galleries. Different-sized spaces will allow the art to be enjoyed in different contexts, while other areas will allow contemplation or quiet reading with views over the campus. Steward emphasized that he hoped to make the museum feel stongly integrated with the Princeton University campus, so that a visitor would feel a solid connection with the surrounding area. Overall, gallery space will increase by 38%. Educational spaces will increase by 76%, including new classrooms, an auditorium and ‘maker spaces’ that will enhance the experience of K-12 visitors. Space dedicated for visitor amenities will increase by 80%, notably including a new cafeteria, which will be able to serve hot meals three times a day. The museum store will also be substantially upgraded.
The new museum will feature a number of sustainability features, including 108 bicycle parking spaces, Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, and a ‘high-performance exterior envelope’. The insulating properties and design of the building are equivalent to LEED-Gold standard. Heating and cooling will be fossil-fuel-free thanks to use of the University’s new TIGER geothermal exchange (which was the subject of opposition from nearby residents at a recent Planning Board meeting). The project will not include a ‘green roof’ or solar panels, however. The architects considered it too risky to have a green roof with plantings above priceless artworks, and the University is greatly expanding its solar power generation from larger photovoltaic arrays elsewhere on campus. The roof has many solar tubes to bring natural light into the building, which makes it an inefficient place to mount solar panels.
According to local zoning, the new museum is an allowed use. With a maximum height of 47-ft, the building would be much less than the allowed 60-ft, and variances were only required for the size of signs. In public comment, several prominent local people spoke in favor of the proposal, including the directors of the Morven Museum, the Princeton Arts Council, and Lori Rabon, vice-president of Palmer Square Management. One Princeton alumnus, Mark Taylor (class of 1988) strongly criticized the design of the new museum. Taylor cited James Howard Kunstler, who apparently called the new Art Museum design “eyesore of the month” in a column last year. Taylor further described the new museum as “a brutalist behemoth” and “a collection of steel shipping containers”, and suggested that the new museum should be moved to the opposite side of Lake Carnegie.
The town’s planner, Michael LaPlace also asked if there was any prospect of retaining or reusing the Ralph Adams Cram-designed McCormick Hall. The University’s staff said that they had considered this, but ultimately decided that it would not be appropriate for the new design. Planning Board member Louise Wilson said it was “sad” that the historic facade would be “erased forever”. However, she disagreed that the new museum would be an eyesore, and said that the current design was much better than the previous plan, which was “a lot more Brutalist”. Board member Tim Quinn, who voted against the University’s geothermal exchange, expressed concerns about parking at the new museum. The museum plan was ultimately approved unanimously. Construction is set to begin on the new museum in May of this year, with an anticipated completion in August 2024.