Collection by Tiffany Chu

"I Live in an I. M. Pei"


We return to our "I Live in a _____" series to glimpse inside another unconventional campus living space, this time at Princeton University. Built in 1973 out of prefabricated concrete, Spelman Hall by I. M. Pei stands out as a late midcentury modernist interloper on Princeton's gothic, ivy-laden campus. After the snow settled in Central New Jersey, philosophy major Jason Yun shared with us a peek inside its walls, as well as his own thoughts about life in one of its eight distinct triangular wedges.

What made you choose to live in Spelman, when most other students opt for one of the traditional Gothic dormitories?Other dorms are typical hallways or entryways, while Spelman Hall is by far the most apartment-like complex. It also has some of the biggest rooms on campus, and we also relish the brilliant convenience of kitchens. So what’s the deal with these triangles? How does one successfully live in a triangle?That does indeed pose a problem -- our common room is triangularly shaped, which makes it difficult to fit furniture and work around in general. You can see that the triangle isn't really ‘complete’ on the first two floors of some buildings, resulting in spacious double-height walkway spaces between buildings. Our own rooms, however, are rectangular--and are much better.Since there are so few rooms that fit on each floor, what kind of community does Spelman foster? I would say, in general, Spelman does not function as a social space very well. Because it’s made up of only singles and each of the towers are so isolated, like eight separate sculptures, there is no strong inherent community.Well what about in relation to campus as a whole? How does this futuristic Stegosaurus-like cluster of buildings integrate with the rest of Princeton?Spelman is located in the southwestern corner of campus, and feels slightly out of place because the western side of campus is mostly Gothic. I’m comparing this to Butler College (which was actually designed by Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners), which is newer yet feels more natural on the other side of campus.So...what are some elements that you DO like about Spelman?The windows are great--huge amounts of sunlight stream through. My bedroom and common room both face south, which means that being here during the day is deliciously sunny. The common room windows are especially gigantic, which sometimes leads to creativity, and sometimes a bit of exhibitionism....Princeton’s getting quite a few new starchitect-designed buildings these days. The science library by Frank Gehry, the neuroscience building by Rafael Moneo, even Steven Holl is getting in on the arts neighborhood. What’s that going to be like?I'm looking forward to the concept of the arts neighborhood, definitely -- Princeton's artistic scene is currently limited to 185 Nassau, which is far off-campus. As for the Lewis Library, it’s really spacious, well-lit, has lots of color in the walls and seats -- there’s even a canopy-like room with fantastic vertically hanging lights that we call The Treehouse. It’s all really great -- instead of studying in the dark, scary academic libraries that I expect now, I can spend time in places like the bright public libraries I grew up with.

"The university scholar's unwillingness to accept the change of seasons wasn't enough to bring back the better days of...
View down the main Spelman walkway, with towers to the left and right.
In Tower 1, looking up towards the skylight.
Double-height entryway into one of the eight towers.

Get a Daily Dose of Design

Sign up for the Dwell Daily Newsletter and never miss our new features, photos, home tours, stories, and more.