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In Jefferson's Shadow

The ongoing debate over Classicism and Modernism at the University of Virginia may determine the future appearance of this and perhaps other historic campuses.

By Kim A. O'Connell

In January of 1800, Thomas Jefferson, then vice president of the United States, sought to create a university that represented the ideals of the new nation – democratic and progressive, yet grounded in history. "We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia," Jefferson wrote, "a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge."

Although his academic vision might have been "liberal and modern," Jefferson famously modeled the University of Virginia after the Classical temples of Greece and Rome. At the head of this most iconic of campus plans is Jefferson's Rotunda, the enduring symbol of the university inspired by the Pantheon. The Lawn, which extends outward from the Rotunda, is a terraced greensward flanked by ten pavilions, each with its own garden edged by Jefferson's celebrated serpentine walls. Throughout this "academical village," as Jefferson called it, the buildings are exquisitely ordered and crisply detailed.

In recent decades, however, some architects have followed Jefferson's original words to the letter – advocating for modern structures that are at architectural odds with the historic campus. These include Campbell Hall, which houses the architecture school, and Hereford College, a Modernist residential housing complex. At the same time, traditionalists have supported several contemporary buildings – such as the Darden School of Business and the university's new basketball arena – that are fashioned in the so-called Jeffersonian style, complete with red brick and white columns. Both camps, ironically, say that the spirit of Jefferson's original plan is being lost.

Last year, the simmering debate over Classicism versus Modernism on campus boiled over. In 2001, the university had hired Polshek Partnership – now famous for designing the Clinton Presidential Library and the Modernist addition to the façade of the Brooklyn Museum – to craft a new complex for the South Lawn, an underused space downhill from the main yard. The firm's proposal was a deliberate shift away from the traditional architecture adjacent to the South Lawn, placing a series of low, Modernist structures across a wide swath of the historic campus.

University officials balked, rejecting the design and going back to the drawing board to seek a more traditional proposal, which was unveiled in April. But the controversy had only just begun.

Claiming Jefferson
This fall, the Virginia Cavaliers basketball team will play in its new home – the 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena. Although it is a modern behemoth in glass, brick and steel, the arena boasts a curving colonnade with 26 precast concrete pillars, topped with a series of oversized, machine-gun-like projections.

As has been widely reported, last September more than 30 faculty members in the university's architecture, landscape architecture and preservation departments issued an open letter decrying what they saw as a "faux Jeffersonian architecture" pervading the campus. Although they did not mention the arena by name, there is no doubt that this is one of the buildings that the architects claimed to be "characterized by apologetic neo-Jeffersonian appliqué."

"Is there not a difference," the letter posed, "between buildings that merely look Jeffersonian as opposed to the infinitely more difficult task of being Jeffersonian?...Can an architecture of quality be achieved by a skin-deep veneer of stylistic uniformity, or does it demand a broader and deeper response?" The letter further accused the university administration of allowing the marketing of a symbolic "Jeffersonian" campus to dictate architectural decisions, rather than a more profound and complex understanding of building and design.

A month later, more than 60 prominent traditionalists, including Robert Adam, Leon Krier, Thomas Gordon Smith and Andres Duany – as well as Traditional Building founder Clem Labine and editor in chief Michael Carey and several UVA alumni – responded in kind. Publishing an open letter of their own, the traditionalists rebutted what they saw as the "modernist architectural establishment [that] has taken secluded refuge in the academy, while all around them a groundswell of support for traditional architecture and urbanism has been rising." The letter urged the university to "not defer to the architecture school's modernists about what is and is not suitable on the grounds." They took particular note of the "unsightly and unpopular" Hereford College as a "clear example of what they would inflict at UVa." Architecture critic Catesby Leigh, for one, calls Hereford "eerily reminiscent of Urban Renewal-style, inner-city housing blocks…Its iconoclastic and experimental design relegates students to the status of guinea pigs."

At first, it seemed that the two sides had merely gathered in their respective corners, the debate reduced to its most predictable talking points. Student columnist Katie Cristol, writing in The Cavalier Daily, lamented that the discussion was playing out on editorial pages instead of in lecture halls, framed "in touchy accusations and defensive responses...in language well above the heads of most of the community." Cristol noted that students "may not be inspired by the colonnades at Scott Stadium, or the new John Paul Jones Arena," but she also stated that the architecture school advocated work that was "befuddling the masses," including an addition to Campbell Hall that she said was met with a collective "huh?" Perhaps the traditionalists and Modernists were more similar than they might admit, at least when it came to circling the wagons around familiar arguments, and in the process alienating the very people they supposedly served.

Mitigating the Mediocre
UVA Professor Daniel Bluestone, a signatory to the original open letter, is not a Modernist architect. In fact, he is the director of the university's historic preservation program, and he laments the demolition of historic or simply older buildings on campus to make way for new, well-funded structures that are clad in a Jeffersonian veneer or surrounded by parking lots. He noted that one of these, the 1984 dining hall on Observatory Hill designed by Robert A. M. Stern, exhibited a "contextual architectural strategy and adept design…arguably Stern's finest building at the university." But this did not stop the university from razing it to make way for a larger hall that Bluestone said could be "the poster child for the banal, uninspired mediocrity of our recent building projects."

While there is no doubt a Modernist agenda in the architecture school, it is by no means universal among all the signatories to the first letter. Bluestone has recently joined several of his fellow letter-writers in stating that the traditionalists missed the main point of their open letter. "By collapsing it onto the ground they want to talk about, modernism versus traditionalism, they have profoundly misread what the unhappiness is in the architecture faculty," he told The Cavalier Daily. "We are mainly complaining about mediocre architecture."

Bluestone has criticized the planning of the Hereford College complex, for which a 1909 stone house was demolished to make way for new housing. As part of the development, a parking lot was sited with the best view of the surrounding mountains, while the new buildings offered no such prospect. This approach to architecture and site planning, Bluestone says, is a far cry from Jefferson's integrated view of building and site. "This proved to be an issue of much greater consequence," Bluestone adds, "than any perceived departure from Jefferson's fondness for red brick, white trim, and the classical orders." At the same time, at Hereford College, where he himself has lived, Bluestone adds that he "found a lot to appreciate in the exquisitely crafted details and its palette of [local] materials."

Several traditional architects would agree that recent demolitions of historic campus buildings are regrettable – and that some traditionally designed architecture on campus may in fact be too shallowly conceived to befit Jefferson's ideals. But the traditionalists have also charged the Modernist camp with judging them unfairly. Among other things, the university architects stated that Jefferson's architecture was "inaugurated at a historical moment when racial, gender, social, and economic diversity were less welcome" – therefore making it inappropriate for today's diverse body of faculty and students. The red-brick buildings might even evoke connotations of slavery-era plantation houses for African-American students, some argued.

Traditionalists have responded, however, that time-tested architecture "appeals deeply to people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and means" because of its skilled craftsmanship and inspiring beauty. "Linking traditional architecture and social injustice," they wrote, "is as irrational as linking technology and terrorism. Bigots have used buildings, and terrorists have used computers. Traditional architecture has nothing to do with social injustice. Rather, it gives inspiration and hope. The civil rights movement, for example, had its apotheosis on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial." And, as Notre Dame Professor Carroll William Westfall recently pointed out, Classical columns and pediments also recall the US Supreme Court, the body that officially abolished slavery.

Several observers believe that the debate – like much political discourse in this country today – has become too polarized. In a speech last December, Modernist architect Edward Ford compared Frank Gehry's fantastical proposal for a science library at Princeton with Demitri Porphyrios' historically referential residential complex at Whitman College. "To many these appear to be our choices – aggressive object buildings that to many appear indifferent to the lives of their occupants, or a kind of postcard-ready, instantaneous tradition with vistas of imaginary history," Ford stated. "They are not. There is no shortage of Modernist architecture of quality that does not require this type of formal assertiveness, nor is this literal replication of the past the only way to respect history."

Ford criticized the general mediocrity of many buildings built at UVA since 1960 – both Modern and Neo-traditional. "If you are happy with the Neo-classical buildings constructed in your time here," he concluded, "do not tell me it is because the building fits in, or because it looks like a UVA building, or that it was what we could raise money for, or that it is in the tradition of the university, or that it looks like a university is supposed to look. Tell me it is because you believe it embodies an absolute standard of beauty...[because] an architecture devoid of a deeper content, however well done in whatever style, can only be the science of building, and never the art." Would many traditionalists disagree? Warren Cox, FAIA, who recently won a Palladio Award for his traditional work, argues that the debate over traditional versus Modernist styles is not nearly as important as a building's inherent appropriateness, at the University of Virginia or anywhere. "Civic buildings should symbolize the stability of their institutions," he says. "Modern architecture works best for modern building types, like airports or basketball arenas." Even on an iconic campus like UVA, Cox insists that one design vocabulary or another shouldn't always take precedent. Near Jefferson's iconic Lawn, he says, it makes sense to build a Neoclassical, although visually reverential, building. But the sports arena need not have "little Neoclassical accoutrements," Cox adds.

Architects ultimately should design in a manner that will promote understanding about a building's function. "Styles are coded," Cox says. "When you come to the table, it's nice to know which fork to use."

Saving the South Lawn
In April, the university unveiled the schematic design for the South Lawn project, a complex of four buildings that will provide a new academic center for the College of Arts & Sciences. Designed by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners, the project will extend the axis of the original Lawn and aims to visually tie together this underused part of campus with the historic Lawn.

"This is a particularly challenging problem," says David Neuman, university architect. "One [challenge] is the site. There is a significant amount of slope on the site, and given the program, which is a straightforward program of academic spaces, offices, support spaces, classrooms, an auditorium, and so forth, the notion of 100,000 sq. ft. of that program on a site that's sloping this much creates a challenge in itself. Second is the fact that this is the South Lawn, and the South Lawn carries with it the aura of the academical village in every way you can imagine. The particular challenge then is to understand the characteristics of the Lawn – landscape, siting, as well as architecture – and how to interpret those in today's methods and means and to accommodate this program and to develop it on this site."

The project will feature new buildings with facilities equipped with the latest technology, gathering areas and flexible workspaces. The plan features two parallel wings of academic buildings, linking the College of Arts & Sciences to the adjacent Foster Family historic site and complementing the nearby Medical Center. These buildings frame an outdoor courtyard that the architects say will be reminiscent of the pavilion gardens adjacent to the Lawn, and a circular plaza at its terminus will frame a view of the distant ridgeline leading to Monticello. Although the project's pergolas and columns are undeniably traditional, the Moore Ruble Yudell architects have acknowledged that the plan's geometries and interplay of major and minor spaces are also reminiscent of architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn, among others.

Rather than the stark choice between Modernism and traditionalism that Ford mentioned, the South Lawn project may suffer from the opposite problem, some say. Calder Loth, senior architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, has expressed concern that the South Lawn scheme is trying to satisfy too many agendas. "It was trying to be the Lawn without trying to be the Lawn," he says. "It was trying to be Classical without being Classical. It was trying to have some Modernistic anchors without being overtly Modernist."

John Ruble, FAIA, project leader and a 1969 graduate of UVA's architecture program, asserts that their design is inspired by the composition, character and scale of the Lawn and its architecture, but does not resort to imitation. "The Lawn is a brilliant statement of the place of community in an academic setting," Ruble says. "Among our highest goals would be the shaping of such a community – providing the kind of continuity, connectivity, and identity that would sustain Mr. Jefferson's vision."

But defining what Jefferson's long-term vision for the university really was – and how it should be applied on a 21st-century campus – remains an open question. Whatever the form that new buildings may take, one can take comfort in knowing that the unparalleled beauty of Jefferson's original academical village will endure, long after this debate is relegated to the history that its participants seek to either emulate or ignore.  

 

 

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