CHAPTER X: THE MODERN ERA, 1974-PRESENT

In the 250 years since the founding of Princeton, each stage in the architectural evolution of the campus can be traced to a landmark structure: to a single building that departs from previous conventions and sets the stage for what follows.

Nassau Hall, for example, dominated campus planning through the 1860s, [33-85]
while Chancellor Green Library set the standard for the High Victorian Gothic designs of the late-19th century. [34-2]
Similarly, in 1896, Blair Hall ushered in the Collegiate Gothic period. [53-29]
Gothic influences predominated until the construction of the Engineering School in 1959-60, [perry12a]
the first of a long string of functional, modernist structures erected on the campus throughout the 1960s.

Wu Hall, [ckII2]
built in 1983, is the most recent in this string of landmark, direction-shifting structures. And like its predecessors, Wu is important on several levels: stylistic, cultural, institutional.

On the one hand, this Robert Venturi '47 design symbolizes Princeton's refound commitment to architectural excellence. Nothing of its caliber had been built since the University Chapel, in the late 1920s. [33-54]
At the same time, Wu Hall also reflects the University's efforts to address its chronic problems in providing adequate living, dining, and social facilities for undergraduates. And it illustrates the University's strategy for upgrading its physical plant well into the 21st century. As such, Wu Hall fully merits comparison with other icons of the Princeton campus.

The road that led to the creation of Wu Hall began during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when University planners began to consider seriously the shape of the campus in a coeducational future. With the enrollment increases of the early 1960s, the undergraduate student body had grown by 1,500 to about 4,000 and Princeton had been able to add only about 1,000 new dormitory spaces.

The University could not do much in the short term to tackle these challenges. Throughout the recessionary 1970s, building activity came to a near standstill on the Princeton campus as the University struggled with the economic dislocations of stagflation and the energy crisis. Other than the Hoyt Laboratory, [hoyt.jpeg]
built for the biochemistry program in 1977, more than a decade passed without significant new construction.

While waiting for better times, the University worked to develop an integrated approach to managing its future growth. Student life was a top priority. The enduring problems of the eating clubs, overcrowding, and limited social opportunities for underclassmen had not gone away. In addition, the campus was unbalanced, with dining facilities concentrated in the Commons complex in the northwest corner of campus and increasing numbers of students living in the new dormitories, a 20-minute uphill walk away.

These considerations aside, Princeton also entered the Bowen era facing a potentially staggering maintenance bill. Many of the buildings erected during Princeton's great Collegiate Gothic phase were beginning to show their age. Major plumbing and electrical systems needed upgrading; asbestos had to be removed; and stringent new fire codes had to be met. From an institutional perspective, these anticipated costs were worrisome indeed: donors are often eager to underwrite new construction, while money for renovations is among the hardest to raise.

President Bowen's solution to this dilemma was Wu Hall and the adoption of the residential college system that it represented. The product of the Committee on Undergraduate Residential Life, or CURL, this initiative grouped underclassmen into five separate "residential colleges," each a cluster of dormitories adjacent to a dining hall with a dedicated set of social and academic facilities. Despite the failure of part of the CURL program, which would have brought the eating clubs into the University's orbit, this process still marks a revolution in undergraduate life at Princeton.

In any event, the shift to the residential college system neatly solved three related problems. First, it proved a brilliant means of securing funding for overhauling the aging Gothic dorms and dining halls. Donors were enthusiastic about funding the renovations required to create residential colleges. Second, it provided the context for building an additional and much-needed dining hall, to be located at the south end of campus near the new dormitories. And third, it provided a focal point for the $410 million "Campaign for Princeton."

Wu Hall, therefore, serves as something like the poster-child of the residential college system. Even its location, masterfully tucked into a narrow site adjacent to Wilcox Hall, [ckIII16]
artfully speaks to the architectural legerdemain of the "Campaign for Princeton." Wu Hall was built on ground reclaimed from dumpsters and loading docks, in a sense, renovating a lost corner of the campus.

But equally important, Wu was a vibrant, stimulating building. Designed by the eminent architect Robert Venturi '47, GS'50, Wu was an immediate success with both architectural critics and undergraduates alike. This critical acclaim was something new for the University, which had been castigated for years for the stylistic timidity of its modern buildings -- especially when compared to the architectural daring of its peers in New Haven and Cambridge.

The success of Wu inaugurated what might be called the Venturi Era at Princeton. Indeed, the commissions for the University's most visible, high-profile structures in recent times -- Wu Hall, the Lewis Thomas Laboratory, [ckIII18]
the Schultz Laboratory, [ckIII13]
Fisher-Bendheim Hall, [ckII35]
and the new campus center in Palmer Hall -- have gone to Venturi. Working closely with Presidents William Bowen and Harold Shapiro, the architect set the stylistic tone for Princeton's construction campaign that began in the late 1980s and continues today.

And the record of this period is impressive, especially given the rapidly escalating costs of academic facilities. In addition to these Venturi buildings, Princeton has welcomed Marx Hall, [ckII30]
1927-Clapp, [ckII4]
Feinberg Hall, [ckII10]
Bowen Hall, [ckI16]
the Computer Science Building, [ckI14]
the Center for Jewish Life, [ckIII9]
and the DeNunzio Pool. [ckI6]
Major renovation projects expanded the facilities in Firestone Library, the Art Museum, and Alexander Hall, while dozens of older buildings, especially dormitories, received refits to accommodate the demands of the residential college system.

Palmer Hall will be extensively remodeled to serve in its newly designated role as a campus student center. Adjacent to Palmer, an addition to the Woolworth Center for Musical Studies [ckV2]
is currently under construction. And the new physics building along Washington Road near Fine and Jadwin is nearing completion. [newjadwin1.jpeg]

Who knows how the buildings of the Venturi era will age? But no matter how history remembers Wu Hall, this structure will remain a powerful symbol of an entire generation of modern buildings.

For more information on the modern period, go to

The "Campaign for Princeton"

The Evolving Campus

For more detailed information on a particular building, click on the name below:

Hoyt Laboratory (1987)

Wu Hall (1983 )

Lewis Thomas Laboratory (1985)

Feinberg Hall (1986)

1927-Clapp Hall (1988)

Fisher-Bendheim Hall (1991)

Marx Hall (1993)

DeNunzio Pool (1990)

Computer Science Building (1989)

George and Lavie Schultz Laboratory (1993)

Bowen Hall (1993)

Center for Jewish Life (1993)