Saw-toothed glass dances in a conga line above leaping arcs of metal roof at the Peter B. Lewis Science Library at Princeton University. The signature hand of Frank Gehry is unmistakable.

But where are the books?

The stacks you’d expect to find in a building housing collections as varied as astrophysics, biology and statistics have largely been banished to a surprisingly small high-density storage space in the basement.

The New Jersey university, with Gehry Partners LLC, has embarked on a difficult task: to reinvent the library for an age when information largely takes on electronic rather than print form.

Lewis, 74, chairman of auto insurer Progressive Corp. and a Princeton graduate, is a longtime Gehry champion. He gave $60 million toward the building’s $74 million budget.

But is the whole idea of a library itself obsolete, as more students use the Internet to do their research from home?

“Dorm life is too distracting,” said Dorothy Pearson, Princeton’s associate university librarian for administrative services, in a phone interview. She said the students go to the library to focus on their work.

One never expects a Gehry design to be a sober monument to scholarship, and the Lewis library is no different. Its gregarious explosion of forms sits among a growing complex devoted to a broad range of sciences and related fields. It draws from them all.

Jitterbugging Skylight

The entrance is a butterfly winged vestibule that opens to a great, angular fissure of space. High overhead, a jitterbugging skylight lights a pathway through the building. The library visibly pushes itself into the fissure in great serrated sheets of glass. It almost impales a separate pair of chunky wings, one appropriately capped by a roof in the profile of a prone question mark. They house teams that concern themselves with what is replacing print: information technology, new media, and computational science and engineering.

The twisting passage is conceived as a cafe-table dotted street, paved in honey-toned Spanish limestone. Since many disciplines share the classrooms, library and a media lab, the street intends to promote collaboration and that holy grail of research: the casual hatching of a groundbreaking idea.

“Libraries are becoming more a space where people come to access data and also more of a study space, research space and to some extent, a social space,” said Gehry Partners’ Craig Webb, the library’s project designer, in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

Yellow Squiggle

Though a few reference books and print journals can be found at the entrance, the library otherwise signals its new role from the minute you step in. Its information desk — a canary yellow squiggle — invites consultation with librarians. Upstairs, students find three levels of glorious high-ceilinged, light- filled study space.

These rooms, as high as 20 feet, are dominated by the jagged planes of glass visible on the exterior. They form bays that open to vistas across the campus, and they contemplate Gehry’s spectacular roofscape. Hidden windows beautifully balance the light. These spaces are the contemporary equivalent of the cathedral-style reading rooms that are the icons of Collegiate Gothic campuses everywhere.

The architectural pyrotechnics recognize that students choose work places as much for their qualities of silence and light as for their location or connection to a given discipline.

“Treehouse”

Numerous group-study rooms encourage collaboration. The most prominent is what the Gehry team has dubbed the “treehouse,” because its arcing, overlapping ceiling forms tuck themselves among mature trees. With large tables, it resembles an upscale dining hall more than a reading room, and may prove just as noisy and freewheeling.

The Lewis bears a family resemblance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s far larger Stata Center, a Gehry design controversial for its cost and for leaks now being litigated. While Stata is expansive and bustling, jammed with research teams that swarm the place night and day, Princeton’s library feels chillier (especially the sterile classrooms), genteel, and more introverted.

The Lewis just opened for the fall term and it’s too early to tell if it will become Princeton’s central focus of scientific inquiry. Other universities are watching, worrying about the silence gathering about their own book stacks.

Then again, as a place to curl up with a laptop — maybe even a book — it’s pretty hard to beat.

James S. Russell
Bloomberg

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