A New Museum Takes Shape

This view from the west suggests the interplay of the solid forms of the anchoring pavilions and the bronze and glass “lens” moments positioned between them. To the left: the sculpture Any (Body) Oddly Propped (2015) by Doug and Mike Starn. © Adjaye Associates

Two years ago Princeton University engaged the services of Sir David Adjaye, his team at Adjaye Associates, and his collaborators at Cooper Robertson to design a new Museum facility, one that would meet a need that has been understood for thirty years. Now, as design development for the project nears completion and the architects enter the arduous phase of preparing construction documents for the start of construction in 2021, the scope and ambition of the project emerge more fully. So too do the many ways in which the design fulfills Sir David’s promise at the outset of the commission to “design from the inside out,” so that form would follow function in making for Princeton a building whose first purpose is to allow the Museum’s collections to sing. The design is driven by the Museum’s core values, which provide an entry point to understanding the design’s fundamentals.


The new Museum complex as seen from the southwest corner, with Dod Hall to the left; the outdoor terraces here will accommodate up to 2,000 people. © Adjaye Associates

Sir David’s design advances the Museum’s commitment to being a resource for every Princeton student and for the communities around us by incorporating significant moments of openness and accessibility. The ground floor opens to all sides, with no fewer than six entry points, and invites easy discovery through two “art walks” that move through the building and provoke numerous encounters with great works of art. Glass is also a key element of the design, punctuating the solid masses of the primary gallery areas with what we are calling “lenses” that provide visual access from the outside in as well as stunning glimpses of the Princeton campus from the inside looking out.

Four pavilions located at each corner of the new complex will feature expansive 18-foot-high ceilings, daylighting, hardwood floors, and a Glulam ceiling system that covers many of the space’s systems. © Adjaye Associates


From the start, we defined the goal of breaking down the seeming hierarchy of the Museum’s collections—which is very much reinforced by the current facility—as being central to the new Museum. Sir David and his team took this commitment to heart and found a way to put 95 percent of the galleries in the new building on a single level. In itself this does not assure the level playing field we desire for the Museum’s globe-spanning collections, but it gives us the curatorial opportunity to privilege the intersections, moments of exchange, and broad humanistic themes found across the collections.

A singular “lens” moment at the complex’s northeast corner creates an intimate viewing and reading room, affords views onto the campus, and shapes a display opportunity for unique works from the collections. © Adjaye Associates


A new ground-floor Education Center is arguably the heart of the complex, with six classrooms for studying works from the collections in the original, two “creativity labs” to allow for sometimes messy hands-on art making and discovery, and a landmark Grand Hall that will afford flexible use as a lecture hall, performance venue, and gathering space. Its soaring ceilings serve as a metaphor for the project’s aspirations. In addition, a new Conservation Studio on the second floor will operate at the nexus of caring for the past while innovating scientifically.

The Entrance Hall and Grand Stair provide welcome and access to the second and third floors


Designing a museum for the twenty-first century at the heart of the historic Princeton campus—on the location of the current Museum—is not a project without risk. But even in the interview and selection process, Sir David stood out for his desire to respond to the campus context, respecting the intimate scale of nearby buildings such as Whig, Clio, and Murray-Dodge Halls. The result derives from one of Sir David’s first impulses: to break down the massing of what will be a very large facility into a series of interlocked cubes or “pavilions” that allow for volumetric variation and a dynamic push-pull in the building’s footprint. These pavilions take their scale from the neighborhood, even as the primary language of the building’s façade derives from the core verticality of Princeton’s Gothic Revival vernacular.

The double-height Grand Hall sits at the heart of the Museum complex and will function as a lecture hall and performance space that will host many of the Museum’s larger events


The modern-day Art Museum at Princeton has its origins in the eighteenth century but was cofounded in 1882 with what is now the University’s Department of Art and Archaeology. By contrast with many college and university campuses in the country, the Museum and the Department have continued to coexist side by side, along with Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology. One of the reasons to keep the Museum at the heart of the campus has been to allow this relationship to endure; the new building thus includes a small auditorium and classrooms for art historical teaching, offices for Department faculty and staff, the Index of Medieval Art, and the Visual Resources Collection. The facility’s multiple entrances allow for easy access while managing foot traffic and congestion.

A walk along the north-south “art walk” provides views into the Grand Hall, as well as encounters with works of art embedded in the floors and glimpses into the galleries above. All images © Adjaye Associates


From energy-efficient glazing to systems that reflect Princeton’s move to more Earth-friendly ways of heating and cooling its facilities, the design for the new building is based on a commitment to sustainability. That the building also promises to be aesthetically extraordinary—most notably in the use of a so-called Glulam system of ceiling beams and trusses in the pavilions and public spaces such as the Entry Hall and Grand Stair—is among the design’s triumphs.