ON ARCHITECTURE- Am not! Are so!: Architects scrap over South Lawn project

In 2001, when UVA hired the Polshek Partnership to design the new South Lawn project, it appeared the powers that be had something really exciting and innovative in mind. After all, the firm was well known for its architecture, including the space-age Clinton Library in Little Rock and the façade of the Brooklyn Museum, a stunningly modernist design renovation that nonetheless blends seamlessly with its historic core.

However, as the Hook reported last June, a fissure erupted between Polshek and UVA when the firm presented its design to President John Casteen, Arts and Sciences Dean Ed Ayers, and other heavy-hitters with a say in the project. UVA brass considered the Polshek design a little too modern and parted ways with Polshek.

According to a widely disseminated e-mail from Adam Daniel, associate dean of arts and sciences, the exterior design of the new building was not considered appropriate– it didn't look "Jeffersonian" enough. At the time, Polshek's lead architect on the project, Tim Hartung, seemed puzzled by the decision.

"We would like to think that we were selected because there was a desire and a hope to do something different and more modern," he told the Hook.

Others weren't quite as diplomatic.

"The idea that UVA wants the South Lawn to be a nostalgic pastiche is offensive," UVA architecture professor Jason Johnson said. "The UVA grounds and recent projects like the Darden School are more like theme parks than living, breathing, contemporary institutions."

A few months later, an open letter signed by over 30 UVA architecture professors appeared in the Cavalier Daily. The letter amounted to a full-scale revolt against the University's promotion of "faux Jeffersonian architecture" and something called "apologetic neo-Jeffersonian appliqué."

Furthermore, the letter accused the Board of Visitors and the administration of allowing public relations and marketing to dictate their design decisions, and of perpetuating an architecture with "symbolic, synthetic veneers lacking any virtue beyond familiarity."

Not surprisingly, the letter triggered a war of words and theory between architecture's conservatives and liberals– or, as Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell dubs them, traditionalists and futurists.

Indeed, in response to the open letter, traditionalists unleashed their distain for Modernism the way Bill O'Reilly lambastes liberal gobbledegook.

Architect Carl H. Jahnes of Ohio, writing on a discussion board, used the debate as an opportunity to slam another college structure by a master of modernism.

"I broke into laughter when I saw it for the first time," he writes of Frank O. Gehry's Molecular Science Building at the University of Cincinnati. "It appears to be in an arrested state of inflation, like a balloon. I expected Dumbo to fly to his freedom, escaping through a fissure when the building burst!"

Traditionalists also took aim closer to home– including an attack on Todd Williams' design for Hereford College, an example of modernist architecture they feel has blighted the Grounds.

"For five decades modernists have presided over the construction of one bad building after another at the University," writes architect John Massengale on the same discussion board. "Recently they gave the Thomas Jefferson Medal to the architects of Hereford College, which many students hate to look at (and which alumni hate more)."

Massengale accused the architecture faculty of being ideological modernists who simply fear losing the control they've wielded over architecture for the last 50 years.

Futurists expressed surprise at the attacks. At a gathering of University Fellows last December, UVA architecture professor Edward R. Ford, a signer of the open letter, wondered why the phrase "apologetic neo-Jeffersonian appliqué" to characterize architect Robert Stern's Darden School had so offended the traditionalists (the futurists like to bash Darden the way traditionalists bash Hereford).

After all, Ford pointed out, "The phrase was not meant metaphorically, for that is precisely what these buildings are... It is neo-Jeffersonian, it is veneered, and it is an appliqué. Is it apologetic? Yes, in the sense that it's trying to convince us it's a solid wall." And in true futurist style, he added, "Perhaps it was just the use of the French."

That was all the traditionalists needed.

"Most folks do not know the dirty little secret of the Architecture School," alum Nathan Norris shot back on the open letter discussion board, "which is that the faculty suppresses knowledge of traditional architecture... It's time to rid the Architecture School of the narrow minds that diminish its stature."

Finally, the traditionalists published their own "open letter" in the Cav Daily, a full-page ad slamming modernist architecture and signed by 62 architects, including two winners of the University's own Jefferson Medal, one former faculty member, and several alums. The letter called modernism a "deliberate, short-sighted ideological break" with classical architecture that has "had unfortunate consequences for the fabric of the University– and for cities and communities worldwide."


Two weeks ago, UVA approved preliminary designs for the South Lawn's $105 million phase I project, as executed by Moore Rubel Yudell, the firm that replaced Polshek.

Sure enough, it's a design that's ambitious and modern in its layout, extending the Lawn over JPA on an elaborate terrace (and restoring the view that Old Cabell Hall interrupts), but its familiar pergolas and red-brick columned exteriors noticeably mimic "Jeffersonian" architecture in the same way the Darden School and the new Jones Paul Jones arena does.

"Polshek really tried with their design," says UVA architecture grad John Rubel, the new lead architect on the project, " but I don't think it came across too well to the conservative folks."

At over $160 million, the South Lawn project is UVA's big production number, a sequel of sorts to the long-running success of Jefferson's lawn, and it appears that UVA's suits weren't about to get embroiled in some newfangled design.

In addition to its modernist exterior, Rubel says that Polshek's design was spread over too large an area, creating many site problems. His job, he says, was to use Polshek's basic concept but scale it down and come up with a workable design.

"I think a lot of things that were expressed in the open letter needed to be expressed," says Rubel, "but it seems to have descended into a divided discussion, with shrill comments on one side and people not really listening on the other. We're not going to answer the questions with this project, but hopefully we're taking a step in the right direction."

But futurist Jason Johnson calls it a big step in the wrong direction.

"Prior to this we had only those fuzzy watercolors to look at," Johnson wrote in an e-mail the Hook after viewing a recently available PDF presentation of the new design. "This," he declared, "is a disappointment on every possible level."

Not surprisingly, UVA architect David Neuman steers the discussion away from architecture almost entirely.

"In any campus planning," says Neuman, "it's about the site first, about site planning and landscaping, and then it's about architecture. When it gets turned around, then we get in trouble."

As Neuman points out, "People don't realize that Jefferson was thinking about site orientation first before he even designed the buildings. The site planning of the lawn is great, and we're trying to follow the same site planning process as Jefferson."

As far as the open letter discussion goes, Neuman tries to be both diplomatic and philosophical.

"There's a lot of psychology going on here," he says, "and a familiar attempt to use architecture as a foil to advance complex theories. But there is really no right or wrong. It's not a theology we're talking about here. Yes, we're raising the level of debate, but at a certain point the 'rubber needs to meet the road.'"

Hmm. We could be wrong, but we don't think we've heard the last from the futurists.

In later phases, the project that leaps JPA could mean the demolition of New Cabell Hall.
Conceptual drawing by Moore Rubel Yudell