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Building design debate creates lively workshop

As we add buildings to core areas of the University, should they all be Jeffersonian? And just what does the term “Jeffersonian” mean?

U.Va. officials, architects and students participated in roundtable discussions last Friday during the Arts Grounds workshop.
Photo by Stephanie Gross
U.Va. officials, architects and students participated in roundtable discussions last Friday during the Arts Grounds workshop. They talked about how new “Jeffersonian” buildings should be designed.

By Bill Sublette

These questions were at the heart of discussions that took place Friday during the Arts Grounds Workshop. Held in the Rotunda and convened by Samuel A. “Pete” Anderson III, architect for the University, the morning-long session brought together prominent architects and members of the Board of Visitors, as well as deans, department heads, arts benefactors and several students.

The crux of their conversation was whether the buildings proposed for the Carr’s Hill arts district should incorporate the classical vocabulary of Jefferson’s architecture, such as columns and pediments, or whether the complex should offer a fresh interpretation of Jeffersonian principles through 21st-century design.

The roster of speakers guaranteed a lively and substantive exchange. Mark Robbins, former design director of the National Endowment for the Arts and now a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, argued that new departures in design can add vitality to historic precincts. As an example, he cited the Polshek Partnership’s design of the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A largely glass structure that glows as if “the moon had been lodged in Central Park West,” the building engages in a productive dialogue with its venerable parent, said Robbins.

One of the architects responsible for the Rose Center was among the program’s participants. James S. Polshek, whose firm will design the proposed South Lawn Project, presented numerous examples of how elements Jefferson used effectively on the Lawn — from masonry and windows to porches and rooflines — have been handled over time by other talented architects, including such modernists as Alvar Aalto, Aldo Rossi and Louis Kahn. Quoting architectural historian Geoffrey Scott, Polshek said, “the issue is not modernism or anti-modernism but good architecture vs. bad architecture. The question here is how do you define that.”

Another perspective was offered by Philadelphia architect John Blatteau, a leading proponent of the application of classicism in both new architecture and restorations. Arguing that the dominant “culture of modernism” often prevents contemporary classicists from winning institutional design projects, he encouraged the University to broaden its selection process to include architects working in the classical vein. He said it is unreasonable to hire modernists to design new University buildings and then expect them to be “reincarnated overnight” into Jeffersonian classicists.

In five simultaneous roundtable discussions, some participants called for bold approaches to the Arts Grounds that would be as revolutionary in our time as Jefferson’s were in his. Others cautioned against straying too far from tried and true Jeffersonian models. Still others expressed the hope that the arts precinct would set a new standard for integrating history into contemporary architecture.

Students and faculty emphasized the need for buildings that reflect and serve their individual functions, whether for art, architecture, music or drama. Architects pointed to problems with the University’s design review process, characterizing it as a “multi-headed hydra” that requires meeting the often competing demands of many masters.

William G. Crutchfield Jr., a member of the Board of Visitors’ Buildings and Grounds Committee, declared the workshop a success. He hopes the discussion will lead to a formal set of design guidelines, as well as recommendations that will “enhance our processes of selecting architects and facilitating their work.”

The workshop raised one point on which all there could agree. When asked what they would like to be able to say about the Arts Grounds 10 years from now, three of the five groups gave essentially the same answer: “that it’s completed.”


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