Spelman Halls

Architect: I.M. Pei & Partners of NY

Date of Construction: 1972-1973

Materials: concrete, glass, steel

Floors: 4

Use: domitory

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In 1973 I.M. Pei completed the Spelman Halls dormitory and put Princeton University on the map in terms of Modern architecture.  Pei designed fifty-eight apartments, each comprised of two triangular modules with four private bedrooms, living and dining areas, complete kitchens, baths, and a balcony.(1) Pei was brought in as a major architect to help bring Princeton’s campus into the modern idiom. The results were successful and Pei recieved the Honor Award from the American Insitute of Architects in 1977.(2)

The design consists of eight four story structures of intertwining triangles that are built with common materials: poured concrete, metal tubing, and an extensive use of glass. The complex is incredibly  linear, emphasized by its use of long ribbon windows and smooth, white walls. At first glance, the structures appear incredibly severe and out of place in its park-like setting because of the stark white and rigid geometric forms but a tour through the complex revels undulating triangles that are interconnected through a series of diagonals created by skywalks that connect the upper floors. The addition of steel to the combination of precast concrete and glass adds a sense of material complexity and play with colors and texture.(3)

Each structure is bypassed by pedestrian walkways that allow entrance. The walkways are incredibly narrow but the suppression is alleviated by the interplay of triangular shapes and by the access to the sky. The floors of the passageways are lined with blue stones that continue into the entranceways allowing for a further  melding of interior and exterior spaces.(4) The huge expanse of glass aids in the involvement of the outdoors with the design. By no means are the apartments meant to exist without the incorporation of the park-like setting and Pei commented that his goal was to preserve the topography of the landscape and “to further the informal sequence of open spaces, building enclosures, and vista traditional to Princeton”(5). Spelman Halls are located on the far west end of the campus near the Princeton rail station and Pei wanted to further incorporate the town into his design. In fact, Pei designed a commercial and residential master plan along the rail station corridor; however, the Princeton community and University rejected the plans due to its ambitious size and scale.(6)

Spelman Halls remain to be one of the most unique structures on the campus. The complex stands with Minoru Yamasaki’s Robertson Hall as the only two completely all white concrete buildings on the campus. The site spans 68,000 feet and cost the University $3.5 million but the major architect’s stamp on the campus resounds even now with continuing modern additions and architects such as Robert Venturi and Frank Gehry.

Pei, I.M. Floor Plan of Spelman Halls, Princeton. 1973. Princeton University, Princeton, NJ. Web. 23 March, 2011.*

(1) Menago, Marilyn. Princeton History and Architecture. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing LTD., 2007. Print, 95.

(2) Cotton, Dale. Princeton Modern, Highlights of Campus Architecture from the 1960s to the Present. Princeton, NJ: Office of Communications, The Trustees of Princeton University, 2010. Print, 12-13.

(3) Cotton, Dale. 12-13.

(4) Cotton, Dale. 12-13.

(5) “Spellman Halls”. Princeton University, An Interactive Campus History 1746-1996. Princeton University, n.d. Web. 23 March, 2011.

*Floor plan image found on Dwell.com in a blog posting: Chu, Tiffany. “I Live in an I.M. Pei”. Dwell.com. 13 February, 2010. Web. 23 March, 2011.


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