Course Highlight: ART 341/ARC 341 “Neo Architectures: Architecture and its past, from the Renaissance to Postmodernism”

Nov. 15, 2023

“Neo Architectures: Architecture and its past, from the Renaissance to Postmodernism” taught by Professor Basile Baudez aims to question the historical nature of our built environment in all of its iterations. Students learn to look at, describe, and analyze buildings and to conduct historical research from primary and secondary sources found in libraries and archives. They also consider the effects of architectural decisions on the lives of the buildings’ users and apply that examination to their own experience on tours of Princeton University’s campus.

“The goal of this course is to make students curious and aware of the architecture that surrounds them,” said Baudez. “They look anew at the most familiar of their environment and start interrogating every choice made in the past that resulted in the buildings they experience today.”

Professor Baudez leads students up the path toward Nassau Hall

Professor Baudez describes the architectural history of Nassau Hall (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Princeton’s campus is an ideal teaching ground for the study of architectural history, or, as Baudez puts it, “interrogating the complex relationships between present needs and past dreams.”

Examples span from Neo-Classical Clio Hall with its ancient Greek columns and the many Gothic Revival examples across campus including, of course, the chapel, to the Modernist Robertson Hall and Post-Modern Lewis Thomas Laboratory.

The class spent two sessions touring areas of Princeton’s campus. At the beginning of the semester, students closely examined Nassau Hall's history and architecture. The group evaluated the symmetry, grid, materials, aesthetics, and intentions of this architectural symbol, so central to the university’s history. Baudez explained that Princeton’s notorious color stems from Nassau Hall’s being named after King William III of the House of Nassau, widely known as William of Orange.

Thoroughly investigating the builders’ design and material choices, students were encouraged to touch the types of stone and examine their distinguishing attributes.

Students touch the wall of Nassau Hall to feel the stone

Students feel the various stone types the make up Nassau Hall (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

“I was unaware that during the construction of Nassau Hall, the design and materials used were intentionally selected to avoid portraying an image of wealth and opulence,” said political science major Daniel Adomina. “Instead, the focus was on highlighting the educational mission of the institution. This contrasts with the current perception of the school, where outsiders often see it as a place of wealth and prestigious education.”

Later in the semester, Baudez guided the class through the chapel, prompting students to consider the aesthetic roots of its architectural design and the implications of that choice. It didn’t mimic the design of the world’s most highly acclaimed universities, per se, it reflected an ideology. While he acknowledged the beauty of the architecture, “things are more complicated than that,” he said, explaining the builders’ intention to reinforce Anglo-Saxon preeminence.

Amplifying their lectures, campus walks, and case studies, Baudez also took students to visit the archives at the Department of Art & Archaeology’s Visual Resources as well as Marquand Libraries Special Collections and Firestone’s Special Collections. “I enjoyed visiting the special collections because it highlighted the wealth of resources available to us as students here. Accessing materials from centuries ago and being able to physically handle them while learning enhanced the experience of the class for me,” said Adomina.

Professor Baudez gestures toward a large manuscript on a table which students are gathered around and closely examining

Professor Baudez and students examine manuscripts in the Marquand Library rare books collection (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Students consulted the Day-Klauder archive at Visual Resources, a collection of thirty leather-bound scrapbooks containing images of American and European architecture and architectural details that was used as a reference library in the Day-Klauder Architectural firm in Philadelphia between 1911 and 1927. Architects Frank Miles Day and Charles Z. Klauder are known for their collegiate buildings, including Princeton’s own Holder Hall.

A woman sits at a table with several folders in front of her and a cart holding more folders

ART 341 student Grace Rocker examines the archives in the Department of Art & Archaeology Visual Resources (Photo/Yichin Chen)

“One of my favorite days in ART341 was looking at the Day-Klauber archives,” said comparative literature major Lucia Brown. “What we were looking at were scrapbooks rich with reference images. Some of them unfolded, and I watched tall buildings emerge from the page. I saw the most ornate staircases, walls, and ceilings.” Baudez tasked students with finding in the archives references that resembled the local building they had each chosen to examine in greater depth. “My building is postmodernist,” explained Brown, “almost all of the images in the archive were actually doing the opposite of what my building was doing. And that was also useful. Here is a purposeful choice to do something different. But here are similar forms. When I found out we were the first people to look through this archive, I was shocked. I left inspired and charged, and I had a lot of fun analyzing my building (The Paul Robeson Center for the Arts) with this comparative lens.”

Underlying the theme of the course, says Baudez, is the reliable truth that “things evolve very fast.” Any discussion of architectural style has to be centered on that consideration, and on examining tides of influence at the very moment when style decisions are realized.

“The goal of this course is to make students curious and aware of the architecture that surrounds them. They look anew at the most familiar of their environment and start interrogating every choice made in the past that resulted in the buildings they experience today.”

– Professor Basile Baudez