Robert Geddes, Modernist Dean of Princeton’s Architecture School, Dies at 99

Robert Geddes, the transformative first dean of Princeton’s School of Architecture and an architect of elegant modernist buildings, many in New Jersey and his native Pennsylvania, died on Mondayat his home outside Princeton, N.J. He was 99.

His son, David Geddes, confirmed the death.

As an educator, Mr. Geddes worked to put architecture on an equal footing with other academic disciplines. Before his arrival at Princeton, architecture was part of the art and archaeology department, and it was taught from a fine arts perspective. Mr. Geddes forged ties to social scientists (even giving sociologists appointments in the architecture school) and to policy experts in the university’s School of Public and International Affairs, to enrich his urban planning curriculum.

“He had a vision of architecture as a complex endeavor connected to many different fields,” said Stan Allen, a Princeton architecture professor who served as the school’s dean from 2002 to 2012. Mr. Geddes also elevated the school’s profile by bringing in a number of important architectural historians and theorists, including Kenneth Frampton, Anthony Vidler, Alan Colquhoun and Robert Maxwell, all of them from the United Kingdom. (Mr. Geddes admired the work being done by British architects and urban planners at the time.)

He continued practicing architecture while serving as dean. His firm, Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham, may be best known for its two buildings at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Both the dining hall and academic office building have facades of glass and concrete reminiscent of the work of Le Corbusier, one of Mr. Geddes’s idols alongside Louis Kahn and Alvar Aalto — all modernists who knew how to make spaces inviting. He was less enamored of the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose glass boxes, he told Eugenia Cook of The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1984, have “not been satisfying to the human psyche.”

Mr. Geddes at the Institute for Advanced Studies building at Princeton in 1984.Credit…Peter Nash

Reviewing the Princeton buildings in The New York Times in 1972, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that the architecture was as elevated as the institute’s research. “The level of the building’s design suggests immediately the level of the work being done,” she wrote, adding that the buildings were an “extremely thoughtful exercise in solving functional needs with a maximum of taste and sensibility.”

Mr. Geddes was also responsible for the Philadelphia Police Department headquarters, which opened in 1962 and is known as the Roundhouse for its curved exterior — meant to signal a softer police presence in the city. But, as the preservationist Jack Pyburn wrote in 2021, the building instead became “a physical manifestation of a persistent, systemic and brutal history of policing,” particularly from 1968 to 1980, when Frank Rizzo was the city’s police chief and then mayor.

When in the 2010s the police department said it might move to another location, many Philadelphians said they hoped to see the building demolished. Mr. Pyburn and others argued that it should be preserved not in spite of, but because of, its checkered past, as a kind of monument to the victims of police misconduct.

The curved precast concrete forms of the building descended directly from the firm’s entry in the 1955 Sydney Opera House competition, where it took second place. (The design was won by Jorn Utzon.) “Fortunately, we didn’t win because we would have had to move to Australia,” Mr. Geddes said in a 2015 interview for an oral history of Princeton’s architecture school.

Mr. Geddes developed a 1988 master plan for Center City Philadelphia, building on the work of Edmund Bacon, Philadelphia’s longtime planning chief, and William Penn, who established the city’s grid in the 17th century. The Geddes plan focused on streets, where it tried to prevent disruptive setbacks and to preserve a mix of building types.

The Philadelphia Police Department headquarters, a building known as the Roundhouse for its curved exterior.Credit…Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Reviewing the plan in The Times, Paul Goldberger wrote: “Philadelphia was lucky when William Penn saw it in terms of squares, and it was not unlucky when Edmund Bacon came to see it mainly in terms of systems. Now, as Robert Geddes views the city in terms of streets, it is lucky again.”

Mr. Geddes’s master plan for Liberty State Park in Jersey City, which transformed 800 acres of derelict landfill into open lawns and a crescent waterfront walkway with sweeping views of Manhattan, was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in 1979. But more important for Mr. Geddes, it is a design that seems to be working today. “In terms of impact, the plan for the park is doing very well,” he said in a 2021 interview for this obituary. “The crescent stone edge is spectacularly successful, as a place for people to walk and as an image of the park.”

Mr. Geddes was born Robert Leon Goldberg on Dec. 7, 1923, in Philadelphia. He was the only child of Louis J. Goldberg, a clothing manufacturer, and Kate (Malmed) Goldberg, a milliner. He grew up in Atlantic City, N.J., but spent several years in California when the family moved there for business reasons.

After graduating from high school in Atlantic City, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. At that point, he said, “I wanted to be a Californian.” But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he transferred to Yale to be closer to his family. He spent three years in the Army Air Forces, teaching radar operations, mostly in Madison, Wis. There he met Evelyn Basse, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.

They married in 1947, a year after he and his parents changed their surname from Goldberg to Geddes. (He was an admirer of the Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes, who died in 1932.) Mr. Geddes returned to Yale but in 1947 left without a degree for Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where he earned a master’s in architecture in 1950.

During the period he was at Harvard, the teaching of architectural history was practically banned by modernists, including the émigré professor Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school. “There was almost nothing to read or to look at,” he said in the 2015 interview.

Mr. Geddes, center, in 2001 with Sheldon Sturges, a fellow co-founder of the nonprofit planning group Princeton Future, and Yina Moore, a local activist.Credit…Keith Meyers/The New York Times

From Harvard he went to the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught architecture for 15 years. In 1965, Princeton University named him to a new position, dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, a job he held for 17 years. After taking emeritus status in 1990, he moved to New York University to teach architecture and urbanism. “They even let me design the room that I would teach in,” he said, delightedly, in 2021.

After working briefly for the architect Hugh Stubbins Jr. in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Geddes founded the firm that became Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham in 1953. One of his favorite buildings was the College of Liberal Arts of Southern Illinois University, which he said did a good job of establishing an edge between a campus and a forest. He also designed buildings for Stockton University in New Jersey, the University of Delaware; Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania and several campuses of Rutgers University, as well as affordable housing in Princeton and Trenton, N.J.

In addition to his son, Mr. Geddes is survived by his daughter, Ann; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. Mr. Geddes’s wife of 73 years, Evelyn, died in 2020.

His first significant building was Pender Labs at the University of Pennsylvania, completed in 1958, which in the 2021 interview he called “a big winner in architectural terms and very successful as a neighbor to Penn’s older buildings.”

Reviewing the building in Architectural Forum in 1959, Ogden Tanner called it “an unusually strong, well-knit composition” that “sets a thoughtful example in the art of putting buildings together — and relating them to others.” It was demolished in 2003.

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