Going South: But where's the Lawn?
If the recently completed South Lawn project were a blockbuster movie, the promo might start like this:
"In a world where UVA launches the most ambitious undertaking on the sacred ground of Jefferson's Academical Village in a century, attempting to reinterpret an enduring classic of American architecture, a band of architectural rebels mount a counter attack to preserve creative freedom in the Village."
Indeed, the South Lawn project has been UVA's big production number. For nearly a decade, its been touted as a radical and much needed extension of Jefferson's Academical Village, and at a cost of $105 million it certainly has a blockbuster budget. But will the South Lawn project achieve success worthy of the considerable build-up?
So far, the reviews have been mixed. In a recent statement on the project, architect for the University David Neuman seemed almost defensive, as if he were expecting another dose of criticism.
"The architectural style of the buildings has provoked a healthy public debate that will undoubtedly continue for some time," says Neuman, "but that debate should not overshadow special features that deserve attention."
Neuman goes on to emphasize the needed space it provides, the energy efficiency of the buildings, the nods to Charlottesville history, and the innovative groundwater management system.
As for the project's impact on Jefferson's architectural legacy, well, Neuman steers the discussion toward the holistic nature of the project.
"The South Lawn design was inspired by the integration of site planning, architecture and landscape that characterizes Jefferson's Academical Village," says Neuman, "and we feel this project has been fully successful in living up to that inspiration."
However, several UVA architecture school faculty declined to comment publicly on the finished product, citing a discomfort with speaking candidly, while others opted to do so anonymously.
"It's clumsy in its detail, its massing, its materials, its fenestration pattern, its effort to hide its bulk, and its relation to the street," says one A-school faculty member. "On the interior, I look up and down those halls, and I feel as if there is a colonoscopy awaiting me behind every door."
In addition to dropping hints about a hospital feel, the unnamed faculty member asserted that the columns and pergola-like elements on the upper level end of the bridge and in front of the glass curtain wall were too weak and small in scale, as if these Jeffersonian elements were merely afterthoughts. But others like what they see.
"They did a pretty good job," says UVA architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson. "I think it picks up the palette of the Academical Village, but doesn't mimic it."
Wilson, no stranger to bashing other recent designs, also likes the fact that the South Lawn offers places to gather outside the classrooms, inside its light-filled conservatory area and gardens, and on the grassy terrace itself, which he sees as an extension of the experience Jefferson wanted to create on the Lawn.
In addition, Wilson commends the nod to African-American history: the Foster historic site. Discovered during the excavation of the parking lot across the street from JPA, the site draws attention to the homesite of free black property owner Catherine Foster, her family, and the Charlottesville community once known as "Canada," as well as a community grave site. An exhibit by Oakland-based landscape architect Walter Hood features a "shadow catcher" that uses the sun to create a shifting image of the home's outline, a "reveal" that exposes the cobble stones discovered on the site, and a plot of undisturbed grave mounds.
The invisible bridge
During a recent visit to the South Lawn, a reporter can't help but notice that it's cut off from Jefferson's Lawn, and that its lawn is basically a patch of grass not much larger than a tennis court.
"The bridge, or plaza over JPA, will have absolutely no function," predicted UVA architecture professor of urban and environmental planning Bill Lucy in 2006. "It's just a phony image with no sense to it."
Today, Lucy is feeling slightly more generous. While he declines to utter a judgment on the terrace, he's heard some professorial grumbling about the buildings.
"I've heard from two faculty that they like it– fine materials, beautiful work, attractive offices," he says, "but a little too small. No room for books."
Oddly enough, for something called the South Lawn, it can't actually be seen from Jefferson's Lawn, or from anywhere else for that matter, blocked off from view as it is by Old and New Cabell Halls and the buildings that surround them.
From Jefferson Park Avenue, the terrace looks like a massive bridge over a non-existent highway. Indeed, the aerial photo in this cover story provides perhaps one of the best views of the project because unless a tourist or new student knew where they were headed– down three flights of stairs in or around New Cabell Hall– there's a chance they'd never find it.
"Yes, it is separate," says Wilson, " but it is a continuation of Jefferson's legacy."
Wilson offers a personal revelation.
"I despised New Cabell Hall for years," he says, "until about four or five years ago when I began to realize it was meant to keep students on grounds, which it has done. The South Lawn is a continuation of that, of keeping students on grounds."
The BOV strikes back
One reason the South Lawn project took so long is because the idea of tinkering with Jefferson's masterpiece appeared to terrify almost everyone involved.
In a 2006 New York Times Magazine feature story on the South Lawn project, called "Expanding on Jefferson," author and scholar Adam Goodheart recalled a member of the UVA Board of Visitors, or BOV, referring to the Lawn as "consecrated ground" and anxiously describing the project as "sort of like putting a wing on the Taj Mahal."
As Goodheart pointed out, the BOV, consisting mostly of wealthy business people, alums, and political donors– and non-architects– were charged with approving a major addition to one of the few American architectural treasures (along with Monticello) recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage site.
However, the BOV made a rather bold choice when the group selected architect James Polshek to design the project in 2001. Known for his ability to marry the modern with the historic, such as the magnificent glass entrance to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Polshek appeared to have none of the apprehension the BOV had. Over a four-year period, Polshek presented a series of bold designs— what we know of these early designs comes from second-hand sources, as Polshek was prohibited from discussing the designs as part of a confidentiality agreement with the University— that called for the demolition of New Cabell Hall and a pedestrian terrace/bridge over Jefferson Park Avenue the size of a football field. It also studiously avoided mimicking Jefferson.
According to a widely disseminated e-mail from Adam Daniel, associate dean of arts and sciences, the exterior design wasn't considered appropriate by the BOV because it didn't look "Jeffersonian" enough. What's more, cost estimates were approaching nearly $200 million. One of the project's early donors, Halsey Minor, withdrew a $25 million pledge when some parts of the project morphed.
In 2006, the University parted ways with Polshek and went looking for a new architect, a decision that prompted a protest from UVA's architecture faculty. In 2005, over 30 faculty members signed an open letter condemning the University for perpetuating "faux Jeffersonian architecture" and characterized the direction the design was taking as "apologetic neo-Jeffersonian appliqué."
The protest rekindled a long-standing debate between architectural "futurists" and "traditionalists" over how to interpret Jefferson at the University, exposing a difference in aesthetic values every bit as sharp as the social warfare between political conservatives and liberals. Traditionalists accused futurists of being impractical, narcissistic, and financially reckless, while futurists accused traditionalists of being unimaginative and merely paying lip service to innovative architecture.
When UVA finally hired a new architect to take over the project, California-based Moore Ruble Yudell, the futurists threw up their hands.
"This," declared architect and letter signer Jason Johnson after seeing renderings of the new design, which now featured familiar pergolas and red-brick columned exteriors, "is a disappointment on every possible level."
Architect John Ruble, a UVA architecture grad, defended the design by pointing out that it was his job to scale down Polshek's vision and make it "workable."
"Politically, it would have been a disaster to continue with Polshek's design," says non-letter-signer Wilson, citing the cost, the loss of space from the demolition, and the sheer difficulty of removing New Cabell without damaging Old Cabell.
However, now that the South Lawn project is finished, its Ruble and company's design that will have to withstand the most scrutiny, year after year, until history makes it final judgement.
The jewel of the south
As one stands on the South Lawn's terrace, looking back at the massive, flat wall of brick and symmetrical windows that is New Cabell Hall, one can't help wishing it were gone so that a glimpse of what had supposedly inspired this new project were visible.
What's more, the promised recapturing of the vista of the southern mountains that Jefferson had envisioned, a view that was controversially blocked by Old Cabell Hall, hasn't really been recaptured. Perhaps when winter comes and the trees are bare, there'll be a sliver of mountains visible; but with the terrace located three stories below the level of the Lawn a grand vista seems unlikely.
If there is a jewel of the South Lawn, it has to be the modernist, three story glassed-in conservatory between Nau and Gibson Halls, which now house the departments of history, politics, and religious studies.
"Those gathering points are a good idea, and very important," says Wilson," because I've found that more education actually takes place outside the classroom."
Sadly, this modernist touch is the least visible structure from the outside. However, on a recent midday its peaceful, light-filled, and flowing spaces were filled with students and faculty quietly talking, studying, and enjoying a cup of coffee from the café, a sight that surely would have pleased Mr. Jefferson.
The buildings of the South Lawn are actually smaller than the 132,000 square-foot addition to Rouss Hall, opened three years ago as the new home of the undergraduate school of commerce.
From some angles, the South Lawn simply looks like a pedestrian bridge.
Stairs leading from the "vista point" descend below pergolas and white columns, what some critics have called "apologetic neo-Jeffersonian applique."
A stone sculpted water maze was planned for the "vista place" at the far end of the South Lawn, but there were concerns about it leaking into the 250-seat lecture hall below.
Should the grassy area on the South Lawn, just a little longer than a tennis court, qualify as a "lawn"?
Gardens will cover the underside of the South Lawn's terrace
The entrance to New Cabell Hall from the South Lawn
This structure is meant to cast a shadow on the ground of the outline of an African-American homesite that was found before construction.
New Cabell Hall stands about three stories above the South Lawn.
"Those gathering points are a good idea, and very important," says UVA architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson of the Conservatory," because I've found that more education actually takes place outside the classroom."
The jewel of the South Lawn may be the Conservatory, a semi-circular meeting place between Gibson and Nau Halls, which includes a Starbucks, a grassy courtyard, and seating on three levels.