Something Old, Something New

A prize-winning architect at Princeton.

The original Burr Hall

Aaron Burr Hall at Princeton is incongruous on several counts. Sometimes called the “assassin building,” the four-square brick structure on Nassau Street actually commemorates the senior Burr, who served as the second president of what was then called the College of New Jersey. Although few give Burr Hall a second glance, it is a late work of one of America’s most distinguished 19th-century architects, Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95). Hunt, who built extravagant mansions in Newport, R.I., as well as the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Biltmore House in North Carolina, kept his usual flamboyance in check, perhaps because this was a mundane chemical laboratory. He produced a sensible design: a red brick box over a battered masonry base, with carefully proportioned windows trimmed in sandstone. The only whimsical touch he allowed himself was quirky battlements at the roof line.

The other incongruity of Burr Hall concerns an addition that has just been completed at the rear. The combination of new and old architecture is so seamless as to be almost—but not quite—imperceptible. The seamlessness is striking because the addition is the work of an architect who is distinguished in his own right: Allan Greenberg. * Greenberg has built campus buildings at Rice, William and Mary, the University of Virginia, and the University of Delaware, and his most prestigious public work is a series of ceremonial rooms at the Department of State in Washington, D.C.

Greenberg’s addition

Greenberg has just been named as the recipient of the 2006 Richard H. Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture, the first American to be so honored. Although the Driehaus carries a hefty award of $100,000, it is less well-known than the much ballyhooed Pritzker Prize, often called architecture’s Nobel, which is invariably awarded to an architectural modernist. One might well ask just what this schism between modern and classical architecture is, and why it requires two separate prizes? Does it represent a profound difference in cultural outlook, like that between believers in modern medicine and devotees of faith healing? Or is the schism merely a matter of style, like the acting, say, of Tom Hanks and Kenneth Branagh? A closer look at Greenberg’s addition to Burr Hall provides some answers.

The New York Times once described contemporary classical architects as “young fogies.” Greenberg, 67, who has trained many of the current generation of classicists, is neither young nor a fogy. He drives a Porsche Carrera (he once seriously considered becoming a Formula 1 race-car driver), has designed the Beverly Hills flagship store of Tommy Hilfiger, and his residential client list includes movie stars and celebrities. Nor is he doctrinaire about design; he still admires his first architectural hero, Le Corbusier. But he is interested in tradition. Greenberg situates himself in a historical continuum, not ironically like Robert Venturi or belligerently like Zaha Hadid, but sympathetically. In the case of Burr Hall, this produces an interesting result, a sort of architectural conversation between colleagues 100 years apart.

The Princeton crest

Greenberg does not take the conventional modernist approach of contrasting new construction and old. He dispenses with the battlements, but continues the sturdy, almost military bearing of the building, matching the red Haverstraw brick and red mortar, the Trenton sandstone trim, and the battered stone walls. He carefully lines up the windows, cornice lines, and the rooftop parapet. At the same time he does not slavishly imitate his predecessor. He introduces contrasting bands of sandstone into the walls, and turns the corner with an octagonal tower, which contains a staircase. He modulates the wall with a slightly protruding bay, corresponding to a faculty lounge within. Greenberg respects Hunt’s work, but he’s his own man, too.

The Princeton Web site describes Burr Hall as an example of the Renaissance Revival style. In fact, Hunt eschewed his usual historical references and produced a building that, in late-19th-century terms, can only be described as minimalist. Greenberg adheres to this theme and his addition reminds me of some of Edwin Lutyens’ late work, which had a similar geometrical rigor and architectural plainness. At Burr Hall, the plainness is offset by minor decorative touches: two rosettes with a bull’s-eye pattern and a discreet university crest. It adds up to a building that is, against all odds, neither a pastiche nor a facsimile. Greenberg manages to tease something original—albeit quite modest—out of Hunt’s old vocabulary. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something, well, orange and black.

Update, Feb. 10, 2006: It should be noted that while Allan Greenberg was the design architect of the project, the architect-of-record, who maintained primary contact with the client and oversaw the details of the project, was KSS Architects. (Return  to the article.)