Rick Joy is an architect’s architect. Few American practitioners harmonize form, materials, light, and space with his consistency and clarity. Based in Tucson, he has rightfully earned a reputation as a preeminent desert modernist, transcending the sometimes unfairly pejorative title of a regionalist with starkly timeless buildings, elemental in their form and their connections to their sites. Fellow travellers like Peter Bohlin or Tom Kundig may be better known, but Joy may have the stronger vision. His best houses always bring Luis Barragán to my mind. They mark and heighten the unique qualities of the landscapes in which they are set.
So how surprising and pleasing to find him on the East Coast, in that most straight-laced and elite suburb of Princeton, New Jersey, where he has designed a tiny commuter rail station for a New Jersey Transit train line that serves the college town, known as the “Dinky” in Ivy-speak. It’s an odd but creative pairing. Joy’s work is anti-sentimental. Princeton as a community and a university is immersed in a powerful nostalgia for the past, which it constantly re-inscribes as a part of its identity and perpetuation of privilege. The University’s rolling campus is studded with massive trees and collegiate gothic outcroppings bordered by mansions and Victorian houses. Its atmosphere is powerful and imposing. Joy has internalized that culture to produce a building that is of its place, but is also one of the more conservative works of his career.
Joy’s site is modest and tucked away, as if the train connection were a kind of back-of-house function that the town wanted kept from view. The University is working to change that. A new art museum by Steven Holl is rising immediately across the street, which will give the station an appropriately important and civic neighbor. Still, like most commuter rail stations, it is flanked by parking, a large surface lot and a multi-level garage, which sap it of much of its urbanistic energy.
Joy’s design attempts to overcome the limitations of the site. His station is actually two buildings, a small chapel-like waiting room, and a larger building housing a WaWa convenience store and public bathrooms. A courtyard designed with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and a canopy along the train tracks link the two buildings. With a steeply pitched roof and a somber colonnaded entrance, the tiny waiting room makes a bigger play for attention. Inside, the space is filled with natural light, with a blackened stainless steel ceiling, which follows the pitch of the roof. Wood benches with a natural-edge on the top of the seatback, produced by the Nakashima studio, are inset in the widow bays. The serene space distills the meditative qualities of a space of worship or a library, and its forms evoke the collegiate gothic buildings that define the campus without stooping to mere replication.
The dark-metal clad convenience store is comparatively recessive. There is something satisfying about a great architect taking on the utterly mundane typology of the convenience store. The handsomely detailed exterior relates architecturally to the waiting room building with a peaked corner entrance with a very small and discreet sign. The interior is entirely conventional, but the bathrooms are the nicest I’ve ever seen in a public transportation facility. They, presumably, will be maintained by the store, which will help keep them at such a high level of cleanliness.
As we as a nation begin to reinvest in public transportation, we would be well served to remember that good architecture reinforces how we use infrastructure. By committing to good design, communities and commuters alike would get more from their investments—noble spaces that would make these systems more successful. While few towns or transit systems will be able to match Joy’s luxurious materials and fine detailing, his train station is a reminder as the transit systems of the last century were being developed even small pieces of architectural infrastructure were often endowed with civic importance and a sense of grace. The architectural language may have changed, but Joy shows us that small, everyday buildings can attain a higher public purpose.