Princeton University Begins Construction On New Art Museum

Designed by Sir David Adjaye, the dynamic facility will reshape the museum experience by offering innovative new ways to encounter works of art.

Construction has begun on the new Princeton University Art Museum, a new building on the site of the former museum at the heart of the Princeton campus. Roughly doubling the square footage of the existing facility, the 144,000-square-foot facility significantly increases spaces for display, learning, and visitor amenities.

The museum, which will occupy three stories, will blend into campus life with pedestrian pathways flowing into and through the building via two “art walks” — thoroughfares that function as the new building’s circulatory spine. A grid of nine pavilions breaks down the complex into more intimate modules and allows for a varied gallery experiences. The building’s exterior will include rough and polished stone surfaces, as well as signature bronze details throughout.

The architect Sir David Adjaye, whose firm Adjaye Associates is best known for its design of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, was selected as the project architect in 2018. Cooper Robertson is the executive architect.

With collections of more than 112,000 works of art from antiquity to today, the Princeton University Art Museum is a major center for the study of the humanities and the visual arts in the U.S. The new building underscores Princeton’s enduring commitment to humanistic education and the museum’s commitment both to object-based inquiry and to marrying scholarly excellence with accessibility. The new facility will also house Princeton’s Department of Art and Archaeology and Marquand Library; together, the three units will continue to function as a leading site for research and teaching. The design overcomes multiple historical barriers to participation, making the visual arts an essential part of the university experience for all Princeton students and an accessible home of democratic engagement for community members and visitors.

Princeton University Art Museum
The future main entrance to the Art Museum, with a signature “lens” moment above, spilling light onto the terrace below.

Princeton University Art Museum
Exterior view from Prospect Drive.

Princeton University Art Museum
Grand Stair.

Princeton University Art Museum
Grand Hall looking west.

Princeton University Art Museum
Interior rendering of a Pavilion Gallery.

Princeton University Art Museum
Central Gallery. (All design renderings by Adjaye Associates. © Adjaye Associates)

“David Adjaye’s design for Princeton reflects our deep commitment to the values of openness, transparency and interconnectedness for our campus constituents, local communities and global audiences,” said James Steward, the Museum’s Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, director. “It’s a remarkable opportunity both to build on the past and to shape a new museum at this particular historical moment, and in doing so to make clear the important role museums can continue to play in an ever more complex world.”

The new building is designed to serve as a hub and a gathering place that encourages dialogue between historical and contemporary global cultures. Featuring four primary public entry points, the building has been designed in “zones” to allow for maximum access to the most “public” portions of the facility — gathering spaces, educational and event spaces, a café — while assuring appropriate controls to the primary gallery zone on the second level. Four of the pavilions will feature mechanically controlled daylighting and 18-foot ceilings; other galleries will be shaped for more intimate experiences and the display of particularly light-sensitive works, such as the museum’s renowned holdings of photography and of Chinese painting.

The “zones” also allow for portions of the facility to operate at different hours and for different purposes. During gallery hours, visitors will be able to visit the exhibition areas, largely located on the second floor. During expanded building hours, visitors will have access to the Education Center, Grand Hall, Museum Store, and the art walks that form the core circulation on the ground floor. This zone — as well as a café on the third floor — will have extended hours seven days a week.

A ground-floor Education Center will serve a variety of constituents and includes five of six object-study classrooms for hands-on, object-based instruction; a Grand Hall seating up to 250 people for lectures, performances and events; a lecture hall seating 60 people; two seminar rooms; and two “creativity labs” for art-making activities. A sixth object-study classroom will be located within the full-service Conservation Studio located on the second and third floors, which will provide care for paintings, objects, and works on paper.

In keeping with Princeton University’s Sustainability Action Plan, the new museum building will reduce greenhouse gas emissions through minimal south-facing glazing, a high-performance exterior envelope, high-performance mechanical systems, efficient lighting and controls, the conversion of utilities from steam to hot water, and heavy timber carbon offset. Following these same policies, 85% or more of the material being removed from the site is being recycled or reused.

Outdoor terraces that can accommodate up to 2,000 users and a rooftop terrace adjoining the café will serve university and community audiences.

Working closely with Adjaye Associates, James Corner Field Operations has developed the landscape design for the site, preserving the nearby historically important Prospect Garden, as well as the mature canopy of elms and beeches along McCosh Walk, on the north edge of the site. A number of historically important or specimen trees are being preserved — including a 100-year-old dawn redwood — while other rare trees have been relocated to different locations on the Princeton campus. Trees that had to be felled will be repurposed by regional artisans into furniture or household furnishings that will be sold through the Museum Store. The landscape features native species and drought-resistant plantings for year-round interest.

Demolition is expected to be complete and concrete foundations poured this month, with construction continuing into early 2024. The museum will maintain its scholarly and public impact during the years of disruption by operating two gallery spaces in downtown Princeton within walking distance of the campus, creating two outdoor exhibitions are also planned, and touring four exhibitions to museums across the U.S. and Mexico while construction is carried out.