The Pavilions were designed by Jefferson to be teaching models for students of architecture, each exhibiting a different architectural order. The different examples were used for more than just a didactic device, however; variation as a principle demonstrated how the Lawn could be a cohesive whole even as it was composed of different independent nuclei. The multiplicity – of Pavilions, orders, professors, citizens, states – confirmed the very vitality of its unity (something is “whole” only insofar as it is composed of “parts”). This is because the structure of its unity is flexible enough to absorb and interact with difference rather than rigidly regulating it to homogeneity. The colonnade that binds the Pavilions together – like the Constitution that binds the States in a union – is a malleable framework that modulates its rhythm to account for the dimension and character of each individual component. The spacing between the Pavilions is not regular: the intervals increase as the Lawn extends to the south. While this has sometimes been explained as a perspectival trick, the fact that Jefferson never designed in perspective suggests that it is instead a syntactic device signifying the infinite expansion of the Academic Village: with the Rotunda as head, the two arms of the colonnade reach out to embrace the countryside.

The Pavilions’ pedagogical usefulness was not limited to architecture or metaphor, either – they literally served as classrooms for the students. Each housed a different discipline, with classes held below and the professors’ quarters upstairs. In accordance with its model the villa, the Pavilions united function with image. The exterior façades fronting the Lawn were carefully designed, for all their stylistic differences, to integrate into the unified image of the whole. The interior plan, however, was dictated by convenience and necessity, since the relatively small space had to accommodate a variety of different uses. This pragmatic move brought the interior of the Pavilions somewhat closer to Serlio’s logic of assembly than the heavily Palladian-influenced exterior. While the spartan aesthetic was also likely influenced by Jefferson’s idealization of the Stoic ethic, many of the professors complained of the tight quarters such that Jefferson agreed to leave the rear of the Pavilions expandable (construction commenced almost as soon as the first professors moved in). Because of the evolving nature of the additions, several of the Pavilions now have front and rear façades that are entirely different in character – a feature that actually strengthens its rhetorical content with respect to the balance between collective order (the image projected onto the public realm of the Lawn) and private freedoms (the varying elevations that face each Pavilion’s garden).

Finally, the Pavilions were to be a demonstration of how timeless principles (classicism) could be compatible with modern progressivism (Enlightenment ideology). Just as Jefferson’s politics was a fusion of classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism, his architecture blended Palladio’s classical style with the Neoclassicism he observed in France. Pavilion IX seems to be indebted to Ledoux's design for Hotel Guimard, while some of the other Pavilions originally had parapets that significantly enhanced their cubic, prismatic character which contributed to a more Neoclassical image.