ONARCHITECTURE- Seeing past TJ: Exhibit challenges TJ's influence

When you think of the word "architecture" in Charlottesville, what do you see? Admit it: you see red brick, white trim, and columned porticos. But don't feel bad. Our most famous native son's influence is omnipresent, nearly impossible to avoid. Even our airport, entertainment venues, graduate schools, and stadiums still look like his.

However, thanks to a new exhibit at the Charlottesville Community Design Center, there may be a cure for our design myopia. Organized by the local chapter of the AIA in celebration of the national organization's 150th anniversary, the exhibit Hidden in Plain Sight: 150 Years of Architectural Design and Diversity in Central Virginia, on display through April, is an attempt to challenge the supremacy of Jeffersonian design in these parts.

Reading through our series of Staunton articles last year, says exhibit curator Kyle Copas, he took issue with something we said about local architecture. In fact, he admits that in some ways his approach to creating the exhibit was a response to our own architectural prejudice:  

"We may be one of America's favorite places to live, but it's not because of our architecture. Once you've seen Monticello and The Lawn, you've done it," we wrote. "Granted, they are spectacular examples of classic architecture, but they seem to have permanently pinned the rest of the town to Jefferson's drafting table. Almost 180 years after his death, projects like the new John Paul Jones Arena are still aping his designs."

 While Copas agrees there's some aping going on (JPJ is actually included in the exhibit), he believes it has less to do with the lack of interesting architecture in the area than with an unwillingness to look past Jefferson. Of course, in our defense, we were talking about all the great buildings in Staunton, many of which are also included in the exhibit.

"Things that depart from the norm here are easily overlooked in the shadow of that farmer on the hilltop southeast of town," says Copas. "We're trying to show that, reveal that, in the hope that when we talk about what's an appropriate design in Charlottesville, we cannot be so locked into the hyper-real mentality of a single style." 

To that end, Copas and a panel of local architects have selected 150 area buildings dating from 1857 to the present (from the Somerset Christian Church to the "EcoMOD1 OUTin House") that reflect the richness and diversity of area architecture– and which deliberately omit Jefferson.

"You change the nature of the discussion by not including Jefferson," says Copas. "...so now you can look at fresh products outside of that high-Jeffersonian style."

As you may already have noticed, the debate over the chosen design for the South Lawn project, which over 30 UVA architecture faculty formally rejected, looms in the background here. Copas admits as much but says he hopes the discussion will be more productive.  

Two years ago, when UVA parted ways with Polshek and Partners, the original architects for the South Lawn project, Adam Daniel, associate dean of arts and sciences, explained that it was because the architects' exterior designs were not considered "appropriate" for historic area near Jefferson's "Academical Village." Of course, as the design that was finally accepted reveals, the original exterior probably wasn't Jeffersonian enough for the tastes of the Board of Visitors, a notion that baffled the original architects.

"We would like to think that we were selected because there was a desire and a hope to do something different and more modern," Tim Hartung, Polshek's lead architect, told the Hook.

A month later, many in UVA's architecture school lashed out at the decision by accusing UVA, in a letter, of promoting "faux Jeffersonian architecture" and "perpetuating an architecture with symbolic, synthetic veneers lacking any virtue beyond familiarity."

The debate raised the question that architects and non-architects have been asking for years: how long will we continue to repeat the Jeffersonian past? What's more, how long will we continue to argue about it? While Copas says he sympathized and agreed with the disgruntled UVA architecture faculty, he noticed their argument was heavy on criticism and light on any constructive alternatives. 

By presenting the exhibit, Copas hopes to challenge the Jeffersonian aesthetic, much like the UVA faculty did, but doing so by opening up new ways of thinking about, and seeing, the future of architecture in the area. 

"The show was a way to start a conversation about what might follow Jefferson," he says, "about what could serve as great precedents for future designs."

"Architecture is going to become more central to the way we live around here," says local AIA president Jim Grigg, who points out that the county's neighborhood model and the city's new zoning laws will make the area more urban as we continue to grow. 

"We have to get after the notion: what will Charlottesville be like in 2o years? If we do things the way we have in the last 20 years, it could be a disaster," Grigg says. "But I'm very hopeful that Charlottesville can become a better place, a more urban place for sure, and it can be done well.

"There's been alot of fine work in the area, but no one has ever presented it like this," says Grigg, who dreamed up the show. "The show is an attempt to help people realize how pervasive architecture is around here, and to show that it's a lot richer and diverse than you might think. You don't have to go to the Lawn and Monticello to see it."

"There are so many architects with a body of work here that's totally overlooked," says Copas, "because the focus is on Jefferson." Copas mentions the work of William Newton Hale, Milton Grigg, Henderson Hayward, and others. 

Meanwhile, the exhibit itself focuses on buildings many people may be familiar with but never bothered to see as architecture; to see how the buildings reflect their time or fit into the larger fabric of the community's design. For example, to know that the Pentecostal Church at Grady Avenue and 1oth Street was actually built in Palmyra and once stood on the site of the Albemarle County Office Building (the County office building's "green" roof is also in the exhibit), which was once Lane High School, changes the way we view those buildings.

In the same way, the more modern and fantastic "Yard Bird" studio office behind Settle Tire on Preston Avenue, designed by architect Neal R. Deputy, could be easily ignored, like a rare bird, if it wasn't pointed out. And who would ever think to meditate on the McGuffey Hill condominiums, Coca-Cola Bottling Plant #1, or the Fry's Springs Gas Station? But each building has something to say about the evolution of architecture in the area.

In large part, says Copas, the exhibit is simply a guided tour arranged to remind people what they're looking at.  "Even for me," says Copas, "it heightens my awareness of what's out there."

Hidden in plain sight: the Duke house and Timepiece, the Meinburg-Burke house, on Park Street, show the range of architectural styles in the area



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