Bill Timmerman

Two years ago, Phoenix-based firm Studio Ma completed its first major project in the Northeast, the Lakeside Graduate Student Community at Princeton University. Situated at the south end of the campus on a sloping site overlooking Carnegie Lake, the complex of a dozen buildings consists of townhouses and apartments as well as a commons building and a parking structure. Two of the founders of Studio Ma, Christiana Moss, AIA, and Christopher Alt, while students at Cornell University in the 1990s, spent a semester at the Oslo School of Architecture studying with Norwegian master Sverre Fehn. It shows. Lakeside’s low-key architecture has a definite Nordic flavor—reserved, unsentimental, and carefully built.

According to university architect Ron McCoy, FAIA, Lakeside “recalls the scale and richness of form that is characteristic of the historic residential buildings on the Princeton campus.” That description applies literally to Demetri Porphyrios’ nearby Whitman College, a recent exercise in the Collegiate Gothic that Walter Cope and John Stewardson introduced to the Princeton campus in the 1890s. But Lakeside is not an Oxbridge quad, it is—and I use the word advisedly—a housing project. Housing was once a part of the modernist ethos, some would say its central anchor. Lakeside demonstrates how it might become so again.

A row of townhouses
Bill Timmerman A row of townhouses
Apartment building at Lakeside
Bill Timmerman Apartment building at Lakeside

The Importance of the Horizon
Like a public housing project, Lakeside is organized in linear blocks, in this case two- and three-story-tall townhouse terraces and four- and five-story-tall apartment buildings. Most housing projects are laid out mechanically on a right-angled grid. That is not the case here. The organic plan is almost Olmstedian. The chief feature of this casual arrangement is the way that the buildings accommodate themselves to the sloping terrain. Fehn was known for stressing the importance of siting and was quoted this way in Per Olaf Fjeld’s 2009 biography, Sverre Fehn: The Pattern of Thoughts: “Everything we build must be adjusted in relation to the ground, thus the horizon becomes an important aspect of architecture. The simplest form of architecture is to cultivate the surface of the earth, to make a platform. Then the horizon is the only direction you have.” At Lakeside, the buildings maintain a constant roofline, increasing in height as they step down the slope—that’s one sort of horizon. The spaces framed by the terraces open up to views of the horizontal surface of the lake—that’s another.

The project as seen from Carnegie Lake
Bill Timmerman The project as seen from Carnegie Lake
Site plan
courtesy Studio Ma Site plan

The 16-acre site was previously occupied by two eight-story apartment slabs designed in 1959–64 by the New York City firm Ballard, Todd & Snibbe. Like so much midcentury modern student housing, the long buildings, with their egg-crate façades and open-air access galleries, were pretty grim—the Princeton alumni magazine recently described them as “barracks-style.” They’re gone now. The university considered reusing and adding to the old buildings, but instead decided to start over. The energy-efficient new buildings, which use geo-exchange mechanical systems and improved thermal envelopes, not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but are located on parts of the footprints of the demolished apartments and old parking lots in order to keep the impermeable surface to a minimum. Stormwater management also guided the design of the manmade landscape, which is the work of Towson, Md.–based Hoehn Landscape Architecture. Most of the spaces between the housing terraces are bioswales and heavily planted rain gardens. The wild vegetation of ferns and marsh grasses, as well as the adjacent woods—a preserved wetlands—and the bucolic views to the lake, subvert any latent sense of institutional uniformity. It’s hard to overstate the effect of this landscape, which turns Lakeside from a hardheaded housing project into a sylvan retreat.

Then there is the architecture. The back-to-back townhouses are framed in wood and the apartment buildings are framed in lightweight steel, but the exterior skins are similar: smooth ironspot brick with patches of rough artisan brickwork, and occasional shingled walls of Ludowici terra-cotta tiles. From a distance, the latter resemble weathered cedar shingles; close up they look like slate. The scale is further broken down by Mondrianesque stringcourses of white brick. The shingled roofs are conventionally sloped and broken up by occasional wall dormers. The variety of shapes, patterns, and textures disguises the fact that the buildings incorporate many repetitive features. (All the windows—casement and fixed—are identical, for example.) The architectural vocabulary might be tightly controlled, but instead of conveying a sense of mass-produced uniformity, the quilt-like façades, the irregularly spaced windows, and the projecting dormers are frankly decorative and picturesque—not qualities generally associated with modernist housing.

Exteriors feature smooth ironspot brick with patches of rough artisan brickwork
Bill Timmerman Exteriors feature smooth ironspot brick with patches of rough artisan brickwork
Townhouses featuring Ludowici terra-cotta tiles
Bill Timmerman Townhouses featuring Ludowici terra-cotta tiles

Many housing projects exhibit a one-size-fits-all mentality that produces a mind-numbing atmosphere of anonymity. Not here. “Princeton had assumed that the large majority of the units would be studios and one bedrooms,” the architects told the website World-Architects. “After a series of surveys and focus groups, however, it was found that the graduate community was made up of a range of groups, each with their own living needs and preferences. It was also found that the community changed over time, with the younger students expressing a strong preference for the relatively low-cost, communal option offered by larger two-, and three-bedroom units. The privacy and individual amenities offered by studios and one-bedroom units became more important with more established students and couples.”

The largest shared units—three and four bedrooms—are in the townhouses, and the apartment buildings contain one-, two-, and three-bedroom units; 715 bedrooms in total, distributed among 329 units. Adaptability is achieved by providing all the bedrooms with lockable doors. Some of these bedrooms have en suite bathrooms and function as mini hotel rooms; in other cases, pairs of bedrooms share a bathroom and have their own private vanities. Both variations share living rooms and kitchens. Do graduate students cook a lot? I saw at least one Amazon Fresh box outside a front door. “Pet-friendly” apartments on the first floor have exterior as well as corridor access. Providing first-floor units with their own outdoor entries is an old trick, but an effective one. The oversize stoops animate the public spaces and function as small sitting areas, with lawn chairs, potted plants, and, in one case, a glider love seat.

Building 4 floor plan
courtesy Studio Ma Building 4 floor plan
Building 6 floor plan
courtesy Studio Ma Building 6 floor plan
Building 6 section
courtesy Studio Ma Building 6 section

The housing units are well-equipped—each has a washer, dryer, and a dishwasher, and about a quarter of them are furnished—but the decor is spartan. Think Days Inn with 9-foot ceilings. An exception is the occasional presence of a dormer, which creates a tall space bringing light in from above. Thanks to the varied building footprints, some bedrooms have windows on two sides. The apartment buildings are entered through large brick-paved breezeways that provide shelter for scores of bicycles. The spare industrial details in the lobbies look chic but promise to be hard-wearing. The upper elevator lobbies have windows, which provide the short corridors with views and natural light, further undermining the institutional atmosphere.

The one area with a degree of luxury, albeit a restrained Scandinavian variety, is the commons building, which includes a lounge, communal kitchen, library, study area, fitness room, and childrens’ playroom. The lounge is an elegant space with floor-to-ceiling glazing, hickory and through-body porcelain tile floors, accent walls of red oak (salvaged on site), and a glass-doored fireplace. The style of the furniture reminded me of Ikea—modern but not aggressively designed; the comfortable easy chairs in the reading room recall Saarinen Womb Chairs. This room opens up onto a sheltered deck with benches and tables and a fully equipped outdoor barbecue kitchen.

The sheltered deck of the Commons Building
Bill Timmerman The sheltered deck of the Commons Building
Apartment building entrances include shelter for bicycles
Bill Timmerman Apartment building entrances include shelter for bicycles

Eschewing the Clever
The architects’ strategy at Lakeside is evident: keep the overall planning simple, avoid building gymnastics, and invest in good quality materials and details. I am reminded of Sverre Fehn’s 1997 Pritzker Prize citation: “Eschewing the clever, the novel and the sensational, Fehn has pursued his version of twentieth century modernism steadily and patiently for the past fifty years.” Except for the “fifty years”—Studio Ma was founded in 2003—this could well describe the Arizona firm’s work at Lakeside. The site plan builds on early modernist prototypes; the materials are traditional; the aesthetic is humanist; and the buildings look like buildings, not sculptural objects. In a period when being clever—and especially novel—passes for design talent, Lakeside demonstrates traditional skills and virtues.

The landscape helps transform Lakeside from a hardheaded housing project into a sylvan retreat.
Bill Timmerman The landscape helps transform Lakeside from a hardheaded housing project into a sylvan retreat.
A Lakeside townhouse
Bill Timmerman A Lakeside townhouse

The result is hardly revolutionary, but that is precisely the point. This is not about reinventing the wheel. Instead of grand gestures, Studio Ma has provided small effects and subtle variations. This is the kind of Modernism that architects such as Aldo Van Eyck explored—scaled to its users, controlled, yet occasionally almost fey. There are hints of Alvar Aalto in the variegated brickwork, and the lessons learned from Fehn, apart from careful siting, include his consistent attitude to details and materials. What especially makes Lakeside old-fashioned is that it chooses to grapple with the age-old challenge of mass housing: how to personalize the impersonal, how to contextualize what risks being anonymous, and how to create a sense of community without sacrificing the individual’s experience. That should warm any old modernist’s heart.