September 27, 2017

University Unveils Lewis Center for the Arts

By Anne Levin

After a decade of planning and four years of construction, the studios, rehearsal rooms, and theaters at Princeton University’s ambitious Lewis Center for the Arts have opened on schedule. Music, dance, and drama classes are underway in the three buildings along Alexander Street and University Place, part of the University’s $330 million Arts and Transit development.

“It’s rare to have a project to work on that is transformative on a performance level and on the programs housed within,” said Noah Yaffe of Steven Holl Architects, during a press tour of the complex on Monday. “What is so fascinating is that we’re maximizing the visibility of the arts while maximizing the porosity of the place.”

Making the center visible, accessible, and a focal point of the campus, is part of the University’s aim to encourage students to incorporate the arts into their educational experience. The Holl firm designed the arts buildings, while architect Rick Joy is credited with the new Wawa market and Dinky train station. Joy also designed the renovations of the former station buildings, which now house The Dinky Bar & Kitchen and the Cargot Brasserie.

The complex will also be used for some performances open to the public. The community will get a chance to explore at a weekend-long open house, taking place October 5-8 in the new buildings and at sites across the campus. Performances of theater, music, poetry, and dance are planned, and visual art will be on display. Among the attractions is 24 Hour Psycho, an art installation focused on the classic Alfred Hitchcock film and exhibited on a giant screen, two frames per second, so that a full viewing of the movie takes 24 hours.

It was in 2006 that the late Peter B. Lewis, of the class of 1955, provided a $101 million gift to start the project. The Wallace Dance Building and Theater, the New Music Building, and the Arts Tower make up the 145,000-square-foot complex, as well as the Princeton Atelier, which moved from 185 Nassau Street. The University’s visual arts program will expand at the Nassau Street location but also present exhibitions in a gallery in the new Arts Tower. The Lewis Center’s Program in Creative Writing will stay at the New South building.

The music building, which augments the existing Woolworth Center, includes a spacious rehearsal room for the Princeton University Orchestra and other ensembles. The orchestra will continue to perform at Richardson Auditorium, but will rehearse in the new space. Individual rehearsal rooms, which are soundproof and suspended on cables; a jazz studies studio; areas for chamber music concerts; and room for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra are among the other spaces.

“Michael Pratt (the orchestra’s conductor) said he can actually hear the second violins now, because of the state-of-the-art acoustics,” said Wendy Heller, chair of the department of music. When the press tour passed by Pratt’s office and Heller asked him to describe how he feels about the new building, he whooped with delight.

Formerly crowded into space at 185 Nassau Street, the University’s dance students now take class and rehearse in several studios, and a 120-seat theater devoted specifically to their work. “Ten years ago we had an average of 70 students in the dance program per semester. Now we have 200,” said Heller.

Connecting the buildings is an 8,000-square-foot expanse called The Forum, designed as an indoor gathering space that will serve as a lobby for the various arts venues as well as an informal performance space. “We wanted it to be like a living room,” said Michael Cadden, chair of the Lewis Center. Cadden added that Richardson and Taplin auditoriums will continue to be used for performances, so the arts will not be confined to the new complex. “It’s edge-to-edge deployment of the arts,” he said.

On Monday, crew members were installing the set for Gurls, a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a 2006 graduate of the University, in the black box theater. “This might be the best outfitted black box theater in the United States,” Cadden said.

Among the complex’s architectural distinctions are a curved wall inside a cylinder, a “dancing staircase” with a perforation pattern based on symbols used in dance notation, windows of varying shapes, and an outdoor plaza with a reflecting pool visible from The Forum beneath. The complex was built with all LED lighting and geothermic heating and cooling systems, earning it LEED Silver sustainability status. “It’s about as state-of-the-art as it gets,” said Yaffe.

Most of the events at the Festival of the Arts October 5-8 are free. For a full schedule of events and performances, visit