Loose Ends 6/7: The Hilliers contribute more than finances

Bob andBarbara Hillier at PU Reunions

By Pam Hersh

Princeton-based architect Bob Hillier has completed projects in 34 countries throughout the world.

And yet, the Princeton University undergraduate and graduate alumnus never has left the college campus.

Never leaving Princeton University emotionally goes without saying. It is a syndrome shared by tens of thousands of alumni as evidenced annually at the PU Reunions.

But architectural and business entrepreneur Bob, who also is an adjunct professor at Princeton University, has an attachment to college campuses that goes far beyond Princeton University.

He has left his physical mark on more than 100 college/university campuses, including nearly every public and private college/university campus in New Jersey. And he accomplished this with another PU alumnus – graduate alumna Barbara Hillier, Bob’s partner professionally and personally, and his co-founder in 2011 of the architecture, urban planning, design firm Studio Hillier on Witherspoon Street.

Immersed last weekend in all the joyful activities of Bob’s 60th Princeton University Reunion, Barbara and Bob also were basking in the glow of another joyous campus-related celebration that took place in Newark on May 21.

The Newark-based New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) held a special ceremony, following the NJIT undergraduate commencement, to rename its architecture school after Bob and Barbara Hillier in recognition of the Hilliers’ fiscal and physical contributions to NJIT.

According to NJIT President Joel Bloom, the couple’s gift (amount purposely undisclosed) is the largest donation in NJIT’s history. The gift will provide support for student scholarships, faculty development, state-of-the-art technology, physical space improvements, high-impact educational experiences and curricular innovation. During the 1990s, the Hillier firm that preceded the current Studio Hillier, designed the architecture school at NJIT that will now bear the Hillier name.

“The Hilliers are icons in the world of architecture, and we are incredibly proud to have this school carry their name,” Bloom said. “Their involvement with and support of NJIT have been extensive and incredibly valuable over the course of many years, and this gift will have a transformative effect on our students, faculty and research within the areas of architecture and design.”

Barbara, at the NJIT ceremony, articulated the Hilliers’ urban renaissance motivation, related to their passionate belief in the crucial role of architects in achieving this renaissance.

“…The American City in all its multilayered complexity is a catalogue of problems looking for solutions…. It is time to rethink the urban landscape and to recognize the value that each and every citizen can bring…. Immigrants and dreamers, intellectuals and entrepreneurs … are formulating the potent new agenda for living in 21st century America … fueling … the emergent reconfiguration of cities. America is in need of intelligent, thoughtful, economically viable solutions to its aged networks and constructions. Architects must take on a strategic role in leading the discourse among the many, often opposing, constituencies in the interest of not only the client they represent, but also those whose interests are most likely affected by their actions….

“We see our way forward as more than designers, but as urbanists, builders and developers. Today, we look ahead to a new Newark, a city for the future that embraces the potential for all who wish to live, learn and grow in this 21st century New Jersey city,” said Barbara, who received her graduate degree from Princeton University in 2011.

The Hillier gift to NJIT has been made, in part, to ensure architects retain their central role in shaping the built environment with the “humanity” that is an essential part of the profession’s mission, both Barbara and Bob explained.

“I want architects to become leaders in the development of artificial intelligence rather than being put out of business by it,” Bob revealed. “NJIT is sitting in a city that literally could become a petri dish for how cities rebirth themselves…. NJIT, with its Tuchman Business School (Martin Tuchman is another Princeton-based philanthropist and business entrepreneur), can develop programs that will teach the architects how to be successful developers.”

On a micro level in Princeton, the Hilliers, who have made a significant architectural and community service imprint in Princeton (building projects include the Princeton Public Library, the new Princeton hospital in Plainsboro and a handful of buildings on the Princeton University campus), are looking at development strategies for the Witherspoon neighborhood. The goal would be to retain the historic – and affordable – character of the retail and residential establishments, while making major improvements in streetscapes and livability.

On an even more micro level, his Princeton University classmates are among the numerous Hillier aficionados who consider Bob Hillier a master of site design. Bob, who has served as his class president for the past decade and was just elected for another five years, redesigned his Class of 1959 Reunions site to fit into an “up campus” corridor, an alleyway between Holder Hall and Jolene. Thanks to this location, the Class of ’59 alumni avoid the trek up the hill to get to the front of Nassau Hall where the P-Rade kicks off.

From an historical perspective, the Hillier commitment to Newark seems most fitting. Two Princeton University alumni are helping to rebuild a city that helped Princeton build a strong foundation to go forward. Princeton University, known as The College of New Jersey until 1896, was born in 1746 in Elizabeth and moved in 1747 to Newark, where it resided for nine years before moving to Princeton.

“Bob and Barbara Hillier are very aware of where the fields of architecture and design are today, and where they’re going in the future. They’re living it,” said NJIT President Bloom.

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