Bor-ing: Architects blast UVA vision

Earlier this year, UVA parted company with the architectural firm working on the South Lawn project. Now, a scathing rebuke of the Board of Visitors for indulging in architectural "mediocrity" has intensified the "WWTJD" debate.

"Is UVA to become a theme park of nostalgia?" asked 26 signers of an open letter published September 7 in the Cavalier Daily and distributed in a flyer. Through a series of rhetorical questions and polemical statements, the writers– representing more than half the UVA architecture faculty– challenged recent architectural decisions on a campus where building design has been all downhill since Jefferson's death in 1826.

It's a challenge that has been taken up in this column numerous times: what does it mean to honor the past amid present evolution?

On the day the letter was published, nearly 200 students and faculty gathered at the School of Architecture to restate the letter's intent. Ed Ford, the Shea Professor of Architecture, framed the session as the beginning of a more public debate between Modernism and Classicism. Such tension between tradition and innovation is a common debate surrounding every school's architecture, but until this year, the UVA debate has not gained much ground outside of the Architecture School.

The Hook, for instance, was the only local paper to cover UVA's ouster of the architects working on the South Lawn Project, New York-based Polshek Partnership. In Courteney Stuart's June 9 story, faculty member Jason Johnson blamed the split on UVA's "insistence on a classical exterior."

In May, Johnson– who signed the faculty letter– said, "The idea that UVA wants the South Lawn to be a nostalgic pastiche is offensive." Polshek, he added, has won international acclaim for its work for leading institutions such as Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Museum of Natural History.

"In each case," according to Johnson, "they were praised for their ability to weave contemporary ideas into historic places."

In the open letter, published September 7 in the Cavalier Daily (and in the Richmond Times-Dispatch a day earlier), the architecture instructors took UVA to task for elevating Jeffersonian aesthetics over Jeffersonian ideals.

These attempts have been, at best, exercises in groping at tropes that we've come to associate with Jefferson: red brick, white trim, and colonnades. (Somehow pergolas have entered the equation.) Witness the new John Paul Jones Arena on Emmet Street, Robert Stern's Darden School, or the Special Collections library adjacent to Alderman Library­ three recent examples of the poverty of UVA architecture since Jefferson.

Many colleges and universities adopted "Collegiate Gothic," for instance, as a way of evoking the British legacy of higher education. On the other hand, some campuses chose Beaux-Arts to echo the humanist legacy of the Renaissance.

But successfully aping the past does not mean that any contemporary problems have been solved. Some concepts like "the house" have been evolving beyond memory or record. Some, like "the gas station," are only as old as the car itself.

Jefferson knew this. He may not have been the most skilled architect, but his architectural legacy was about progressive ideas and synthesizing past forms with contemporary means.

Architectural excellence, in the Jeffersonian sense, was about maximizing the potential of both form and available means. As 26 of the School of Architecture faculty ask, "Is the University committed to architectural excellence?" The contention is that, given the fact that the School of Architecture has gone largely untapped as a source of excellence, the answer is a resounding no.

Architecture professors Daniel Bluestone and Ed Ford at the September 7 reading of the open letter.