RON MCCOY, now university architect and professor of architecture at Arizona State University (ASU), is heading east to his alma mater, Princeton University. McCoy received his M.Arch. from Princeton in 1980, working for Michael Graves during his student years before moving on to Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown in Philadelphia. McCoy initially went to ASU in 1995 as that school's director, a position he held until 2003, when he became the campus architect.
“Princeton is a unique university with a unique campus,” says McCoy. “One of the challenges for a university architect is to manifest the mission of the institution in its physical place.” Founded in 1746, Princeton's oldest structure—Nassau Hall—still bears scars from the Revolutionary War. Significant buildings of every era and style in American architecture abound on the 500-acre campus in central New Jersey.
Diversity has long been part of the campus' genus loci. McKim, Mead & White, Ralph Adams Cram, and I.M. Pei structures mark distinctive eras across the parklike campus. Twenty-five years ago, Robert Venturi juxtaposed his historically allusive Gordon Wu Hall adjacent to a starkly modern residential complex by Edward Larrabee Barnes. The most recent additions to this conversation are Demetri Porphyrios' Gothic Whitman College and a swirling science library by Frank Gehry that's soon to open. “It's an interesting mirror, with Gehry on one side and Whitman on the other, that takes a lot of courage,” says McCoy. “That's the ability to hold a paradox in your head at the same time.”
Princeton plans to construct or remodel almost 2 million square feet of building during the next decade, an unprecedented level of growth on a campus whose facilities can be as old as 26 decades. But this task isn't daunting to McCoy. In his five years as campus architect at ASU, he's overseen the start of 6.4 million square feet of new construction. “Once you get into those sizes, big is big and complex is complex,” says McCoy.
Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and a former colleague of McCoy's at ASU, lauds his appointment as a “great choice.” But Kroloff questions the campus paradoxes that McCoy seems ready to embrace. “Is Princeton ready to make the commitment to progressive architecture, just as they have to progressive theories of teaching, research, and service?” Kroloff asks. “Their record over the last few years has been mixed.”
Says McCoy, “It would be short-sighted for any campus that wants to innovate to put a noose around architects and say, ‘Build in this style.' ” He sees his mission as less committed to the merely contemporary: “University architects have to be able to step beyond one's own time— like a good critic or historian.”
Princeton's retiring university architect is Jon Hlafter, who has held the position for 40 years. McCoy worked with his predecessor when he served as student representative on the University Design Review Committee. McCoy will start in his new position this summer.