South Lawn setback: Modernist architects off the job
In the fall of 2001, with all sorts of fanfare, UVA announced it had hired famed New York architecture firm the Polshek Partnership to head up the long-awaited South Lawn project.
"We interviewed six firms over two days– it was the best, most energizing interview series I've ever been in," boasted the architect for the University, Samuel "Pete" Anderson, at the time. "Polshek put it all together better than anyone else."
Three and a half years later, it seems Polshek– known for the modern aesthetic of its designs– won't get the chance to "put it all together" after all.
While at press time neither side had publicly announced the split, a widely disseminated email from Adam Daniel, associate dean of arts and sciences, to "South Lawn Deans" reveals that the denouement occurred some time in April, after Polshek delivered an elaborate design to key stakeholders including UVA President John Casteen and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Ed Ayers.
Most notably, the $160 million South Lawn project calls for demolition of New Cabell Hall and creation of a new "Lawn" of sorts beyond– and over!– Jefferson Park Avenue.
While the idea of burying JPA created a buzz, the devil was in the details. Noting its proximity to "Jefferson's Academical Village," Daniels relayed that the new complex's exterior architecture was not considered appropriate. And it was expensive.
"Accordingly," he wrote, "both parties have decided not to continue their efforts together on the South Lawn Project, effective May 2005."
Neither Daniel, Architect for the University David Neuman, nor Casteen returned the Hook's calls by press time, but UVA spokesperson Carol Wood says the decision to go separate ways was a "very friendly, mutual agreement."
"Everyone thinks Polshek is fabulous," she explains, "but is it the right time and the right place?"
Tim Hartung, Polshek's lead architect on the project, says it took a while for both sides to realize it wasn't going to work.
"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 says. "You can only push the envelope so far, and eventually one has to accept the reality that it's not going to happen, so you gotta change horses."
Jason Johnson, a local architect and UVA professor, blames UVA's "insistence on a classical exterior" for the split.
"The idea that UVA wants the South Lawn to be a nostalgic pastiche is offensive," says Johnson. "The UVA grounds and recent projects like the Darden School are more like theme parks than living, breathing, contemporary institutions."
Polshek, says Johnson, has won international acclaim for its work on famous institutions including Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian, and the American Museum of Natural History.
"In each case," Johnson says, "they were praised for their ability to weave contemporary ideas into historic places."
But not everyone is angry. While he acknowledges his colleague's frustration, Harry Gamble, chair of religious studies, says he's willing to live with the switch.
"I think it's important that the University get it right," says Gamble, who believes a modern structure at the south end of the Lawn would be "inappropriate," and that the South Lawn project ought to be as thoroughly compatible with the school's existing architecture "as modern buildings can be."
There is one thing everyone can agree on: The change in architect means an inevitable delay in the project's completion, which had once been envisioned for 2007.
Daniel's letter reveals that the school hopes to complete an expedited search for a new firm by mid-August, and suggests the delay will be only "a few months."
That may be wishful thinking.
Hartung says any newly arriving architects will face the same budget issues, and that the new firm will likely want to review everything that Polshek worked on.
"You could not blindly accept what the previous architect did," he explains. "You'd need to come to your own conclusions."
Polshek will continue to consult on the project, Hartung says, hoping to help UVA "move forward."
"Arts and Sciences has been looking for a new home for a long time," he explains. "We don't want to be a reason for that not happening."
For Johnson, that's small consolation.
"The South Lawn was a unique opportunity for the University to do something progressive, maybe even inspiring," he says. "It looks like that won't be happening here."
Behind Old Cabell Hall (shown here) lies New Cabell Hall, a 1950s era structure that gets a brief reprieve while UVA searches for new architects for the South Lawn.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO