Lewis library, Princeton | Not by the book

Lewis library, Princeton | Not by the book

The New Jersey university, with Gehry Partners Llp., has embarked on a difficult task: to reinvent the library for an age when information largely takes on electronic rather than print form. Lewis, 74, chairman of auto insurer Progressive Corp. and a Princeton graduate, is a longtime Gehry champion. He gave $60 million (about Rs300 crore) for the project’s $74 million budget.

Multidiscipline design

One never expects a Gehry design to be a sober monument to scholarship. The Lewis library’s gregarious explosion of forms sits in a growing complex devoted to a broad range of sciences and related fields. It draws from them all.

The entrance is a butterfly-winged vestibule that opens to a great, angular fissure. High overhead, a jitterbugging skylight lights a pathway through the building. The library visibly pushes itself into the fissure in great serrated sheets of glass. It almost impales a separate pair of chunky wings, one appropriately capped by a roof in the profile of a prone question mark. They house teams that concern themselves with what is replacing print: information technology, new media, and computational science and engineering.

The passage is conceived as a cafe-table-dotted street, paved in honey-toned Spanish limestone. As many disciplines share the classrooms, library and a media lab, the street intends to promote collaboration and that Holy Grail of research: the casual hatching of a groundbreaking idea.

“Libraries are becoming more a space where people come to access data and also more of a study space, research space and to some extent, a social space," says Gehry Partners’ Craig Webb, the library’s project designer, in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

Missing pages

But is the whole idea of a library itself obsolete as more students use the Internet for research? “Dorm life is too distracting," says Dorothy Pearson, Princeton’s associate university librarian for administrative services, over the phone. Students go to the library to focus on their work, she says. But where are the books?

The stacks you’d expect in a building that houses collections as varied as astrophysics, biology and statistics have largely been restricted to a surprisingly small high-density storage space in the basement.

Though a few reference books and print journals can be found at the entrance, the library, signals its new role from the minute you step in.

Tree of knowledge

Its information desk—a canary yellow squiggle—invites consultation with librarians. Upstairs, students find three levels of glorious high-ceilinged, light-filled study space.

These rooms, as high as 20ft, are dominated by the jagged planes of glass visible on the exterior. They form bays that open to vistas across the campus, and contemplate Gehry’s spectacular roofscape. Hidden windows beautifully balance the light. These are the contemporary equivalents of the cathedral-style reading rooms that are the icons of Collegiate Gothic campuses everywhere.

The architectural pyrotechnics recognize that students choose workspaces as much for their qualities of silence and light as for their location or connection to a given discipline. Numerous group-study rooms encourage collaboration. The most prominent is what the Gehry team dubbed the “treehouse" for its arcing, overlapping ceiling forms tucked among mature trees. With large tables, it resembles an upscale dining hall, and may prove just as noisy and freewheeling.


The Lewis bears a family resemblance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s far larger Stata Center, a Gehry design controversial for its cost and for leaks now being litigated. While Stata is expansive and bustling, jammed with research teams that swarm the place night and day, Princeton’s library feels chillier (especially the sterile classrooms), genteel and more introverted.

The Lewis just opened for fall term. It’s too early to tell if it will become Princeton’s central focus of scientific inquiry. Other universities are watching, worrying about the silence gathering around their own book stacks. Then again, as a place to curl up with a laptop—maybe even a book—the Lewis is pretty hard to beat.


Inspired readings: Gehry’s design redefines the university library.

1. The exterior is composed of stainless steel, steel, clay brick, glass and stucco. Gehry Partners used a material called Ziprib for the roofs and some of the walls, along with embossed stainless steel. The finish is intended to look like linen, with a soft, glowing appearance.

2. Over the atrium, a star cut into the ceiling separates levels 100 and 200 and is an architectural highlight.

3.“ The Street" offers café seating and leads into the library.

4. Lights hang from a ceiling almost 34ft high in the “ Treehouse" (level 200). The expansive, glass-enclosed room skims the tree line, and looks out onto neighbouring treetops.

5.Below ground, on the “ A level", the library has squirrelled away its compact book stacks

Photographs by Brian Wilson, Princeton University Office of Communications

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