Building Blueprints: From Physics Lab to Campus Center

Palmer Hall, New Jersey-based Princeton University’s original physics laboratory, has been renovated and expanded to house First Campus Center.

The historically significant facility, though deteriorated and underused at the periphery of the traditional campus core, had become the geographical center of the changing campus. Paths linking academic, social, recreational and residential activities intersected at the site. The new design of Frist acknowledges and reinforces these paths to establish the facility as a center of activity.

The primary procession through the building follows the terraced grading of the site. You approach from the north, flowing through an arcade as a kind of two- dimensional layer juxtaposed upon the existing building façade, into entries at Palmer Hall’s lower level. You head south through a series of streets lined with shops, student mail boxes, information boards and computers. Circulating through the streets, you move from romantically darkish and low-ceilinged spaces lined with the original basement’s brick bearing walls toward a light-filled lounge, which overlooks a high atrium. A generous flight of stairs leads down to a dining area opening onto a terrace and lawn. Multiple entries are provided at this level for those approaching from the south.

From the south lawn, the new façade can be seen as a window-wall that cloaks the wing of new construction, ornamented with the university shield rendered in fritted glazing. At night, the building’s lighted interior is opened up, revealing multiple architectural layers and the activity within.

New spaces were creatively hewn from and placed among the old. The existing U-shaped building provided a basis for the expansive commons area. Adjacent to the commons, a neon-lit café was created in an old brick-lined basement workspace. Throughout the center, nooks for gathering or quiet study were placed at intersections between the old and the new.

The original Palmer Hall was completely renovated to integrate new mechanical, electrical and information technology systems into the masonry bearing-wall building fabric. Frist’s academic spaces include classrooms outfitted with extensive audio/video systems; one was restored with the original seating and a display of the room’s original scientific apparatuses, while another retained its original vaulted and ribbed plaster ceiling but was completely transformed to house a film and performance theater.

The new arcade and multiple entries at the north are more open and inviting than Palmer Hall’s rather private and single-entranced façade, while respecting via juxtaposition the Jacobean style of its 1909 architecture -- but there is no ambiguity between new and existing.

Community can derive significantly from communication as an element of architecture. In Frist, communication via iconography occurs at

- the bulletin boards and the changing LED sign boards along the back of the north façade arcade layer -- available as you enter the building or pass along the exterior campus circulation route paralleling the façade;

- in the very subtle Princeton shield fritted along the curtain wall, evident from inside and outside;

- at the programmable rear-projection video screens at the main floor’s outdoor café;

- on the hidden walls in the basement, where quotations from Princeton notables serve as stylized graffiti; and

- on the neon sign at the entrance to the Café Vivian.

The $42-million project was completed in 2000 by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc., Philadelphia. It includes 65,000 gsf of new construction and 100,000 gsf of renovated space.