The choice of a word can reveal its meaning by virtue of what it is not: why does Jefferson call it an Academical Village, rather than Academical Hamlet, Academical Town or Academical City? Even in his earliest descriptions of the project he insists on the term:
The greatest danger will be their overbuilding themselves, by attempting a large house in the beginning, sufficient to contain the whole institution. Large houses are always ugly, inconvenient, exposed to the accident of fire, and bad in cases of infection. A plain small house for the school and lodging of each professor is best. These connected by covered ways out of which the rooms of the students should open would be best. These may be built only as they shall be wanting. In fact a university should not be a house, but a village.4
Nothing that Jefferson utters is casual or innocent: the practicality of the explanation, its very reasonableness, is entirely consistent with Jefferson’s modus operandi – as a two-pronged weapon, pragmatism was wielded both as a political expedient and as a hinge around which the physical and ideological are linked together. In fact the quote is from a letter to L.W. Tazewell in the Virginia House of Delegates, who had solicited Jefferson for a proposal for a state university. Never missing an opportunity to advance his agenda, Jefferson at once sets out his architectural scheme for the university, justifying it in terms of safety, hygiene, and convenience; and while these considerations certainly play a part, his previous designs (Monticello, for example) have already demonstrated that he is not above sacrificing practicality if it conflicts with what his ideals dictate the form should take. After all, pragmatism is an instrument in the service of values and not an absolute value in and of itself – though it may, as in the case of Jefferson, be recoiled back into a structure of values. Indeed, the Academical Village demonstrates many cases where the intended image is trumped by reality (as in the implied linear extendibility of the Lawn); but also where functional, aesthetic, and symbolic aims are all unified in a single form (as in the serpentine walls).
So the question remains: since the village-scheme proposed for the university is irreducible to purely functional concerns, what values or ideas does it represent such that Jefferson fights tooth and nail to preserve the design against every pressure to change it? Taking into account his antiurban views, we can dismiss the city or town as conceptual prototype for the university; likewise, the provincial hamlet, with its associations to a church or parish, would be unacceptable to Jefferson. But the village, more than just a suitable median, has in its favor an association with its etymological and historical root: the villa. The village’s basis in the villa encompasses both a duration and an evolution that has its origins in the ancient Romans. And in the classical literature and philosophy which Jefferson has studied and reveres, the ideology of the villa plays a significant role.
What is a villa, and what kind of influence does it exert on the Academical Village?
The villa can be generically defined as a house in the country (though it has by now been expanded to denote any detached or semi-detached residence).5 While its physical appearance has of course varied throughout history, many of its motivating ideals have remained consistent over the ages. James Ackerman’s study of the villa6, from which this present treatment draws heavily, puts forth a strong statement to account for this fact:
…the villa has remained substantially the same because it fills a need that never alters, a need which, because it is not material but psychological and ideological, is not subject to the influences of evolving societies and technologies. The villa accommodates a fantasy which is impervious to reality.7
To the extent that the Academical Village is rooted – by conscious design – in the ideology of the villa, it also partakes of this “fantasy,” which in its essence involves the leisure and virtues of country life as a counterbalance to the chaos and corruption of the city – with which the villa nevertheless remains intertwined, both materially and conceptually. This dialectic serves as a foundation for many of the opposing tensions that the villa, in its numerous incarnations, has attempted to synthesize throughout history. The Academical Village inherits these tensions through two key developments in the villa-type: the Palladian villa, from which Jefferson drew direct inspiration; but also the Roman villa, which some two thousand years ago established its basic forms and ideologies.
The following lists some of the conditions that characterize the villa.8 The Academical Village shares every one of these points in common:
1. It is differentiated from the farmhouse in being designed
for enjoyment rather than necessity only.
While the villa may have a strongly functional aspect, it transcends the merely utilitarian. It is a place where the patron enacts or “performs” certain ideals with respect to lifestyle. In the Academical Village, the enjoyment factor comes not from luxury, but from constructing, in Jefferson’s view, an ideal environment for the pursuit of learning. The separation of dorms into individual monk-like cells; their unification around a lawn and connection to both each other and the Pavilions by an exterior walkway; the doubling of Pavilions as both classroom and professorial residence; the distribution of Pavilions among the dorms; the Rotunda library as a focal point, and its wings serving as a gymnasium; the separation of dining spaces into hotels, each with a different foreign-language theme and headed by a professor – all of these things are geared towards both the solitude and interaction necessary for a contemplative yet active life.
2. It is a consciously designed building.
The villa can again be distinguished from the farmhouse in that the latter is usually manifested in a received vernacular tradition. The villa on the other hand is almost always an occasion for experimentation and innovation, “typically the product of an architect’s imagination and asserts its modernity.”9 The design of the Lawn is partly intended as a reproach against the prevalent colonial style of architecture at the time – Jefferson holds a low opinion of American, and especially Virginian, architecture. By fusing the classicism he received from Palladio with the Neo-classicism he became enamored with while ambassador to France, Jefferson shows how the timeless classical values can be incarnated within the most progressive ideologies of the Enlightenment.
3. It is interdependent with the city.
The urban condition, against which the villa defines itself, is maintained as a necessary foil. Economically, this means that either the villa is self-sufficient and uses the city as an outlet for its surpluses, or it is dependent upon urban surpluses to sustain itself. While the villa was most often a means to escape from the city, in colonial contexts villas in remote areas frequently gave rise to towns. While the University was originally located outside of the city of Charlottesville but would not be able to achieve the ideal of self-sufficiency, Jefferson encouraged commerce and entrepreneurship. For example, the dining hotels were to be leased out to private merchants that would compete for the patronage of the students.
4. It is the domain of a privileged class.
The operation of the villa is supported by a substructure of workers who could hardly share the same romantic notions of villa ideology. It is for this reason both conservative and innovative: socially the patrons wish to preserve the status quo, while maintaining a wide latitude with respect to its architectural expression at the discretion of individual desires. In crusading for public education, Jefferson’s goal was to eliminate the Virginian aristocratic system in favor of a meritocracy. “Jefferson sought to replace the traditional hierarchical society and hereditary aristocracy with a hierarchy of republican regimes and an aristocracy of merit and virtue.”10 Talented individuals could be identified and distinguish themselves regardless of their class or economic background, and the University of Virginia was to be the culmination of that education. (Needless to say, this was generally restricted to white male citizens).
5. Formally, it lies on a spectrum between two polarities.
The two formal paradigms come into being with the birth of the villa itself in ancient Rome. These two types are, adopting Ackerman’s terms, compact-cubic and open-extended. Jefferson integrates aspects of both into the design of the Lawn. For example, the closed courtyard configuration was commonly used in the early Roman villas; Jefferson leaves out one end to open it to the landscape. The Pavilions themselves are cubic in form, but they are distributed along a sloping terraced landscape. The layout is layered in east-west striations, which Jefferson intended to be expandable, creating a true village radiating out from the core of the Lawn.
6. It has some relation with the landscape.
Again, there are two polarities: dialectical, in which architecture and landscape are related through contrast; and integrative, in which architecture imitates or is deferential to the forms of the landscape. While the Platonic forms of the Pavilions and Rotunda are set in contrast to the landscape, the Lawn incorporates nature in several ways. First, the entire complex has been designed according to, and limited by, the constraints of the existing topography. The sloping away of the hill around the perimeter of the site has determined its dimensions. The original open south end of the Lawn established a visual connections to both the surrounding land and the distant mountains. The “designed” colonnade is mirrored by the “natural” enfilade of adjacent trees. Each Pavilion has a garden to its rear, contained within the organic forms of the serpentine walls; and the topography has lent the east gardens a different character than the west gardens.
7. It has a significative function.
The villa exists not only for personal enjoyment but also to communicate to others, to express the will of the patron. The villa as a fertile ground for experimentation occurs in large part from its condition as sign, while successful interpretation demands that each new modification arise out of architecture’s accumulated history, or anteriority. “Since signs and symbols convey meaning only to those who know what they signify, they are usually chosen from past architectural usage or occasionally are imported from other types of construction.”11 The Lawn has several symbolic roles. One is Jefferson’s desire to present an image of a progressive Enlightenment- influenced pedagogy to the Virginian educational system. In contrast to what he sees as a corrupting influence by northern urban universities like Harvard and Yale, the Academical Village is to be an agrarian-based yet sophisticated paragon of learning. (The adoption of classical forms was clearly understood by the church, which led a vehement campaign against the University for many years, accusing it of paganism). But an even grander metaphor can be read from the architectural syntax of the Lawn. Jefferson’s refusal to encase the University in singular monolithic buildings, his decision to make it a village, necessitates an ordering principle with which the individual parts are related to complex as a whole. It is here where Jefferson displays his greatest subtlety and ingenuity, symbolically manifesting and absorbing the conflicting elements that form the fabric of American democracy.