Jumpin' JPA: New Lawn architects signed

Four months after UVA fired the New York-based Polshek Partnership as architects for UVA's long-awaited South Lawn project, there's a new firm on the job.

Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners of Santa Monica, California, beat out 25 other applicants to take over the $160 million project, which calls for demolition of New Cabell Hall, construction of several new buildings to house the school of arts and sciences, and construction across– and over– Jefferson Park Avenue.

Bridging JPA is one thing. Bridging the divide between UVA's Board of Visitors and its architecture professors may be a bigger job.

On September 7, more than half the architecture faculty released an open letter blasting UVA's recent architecture choices and worried that UVA was in danger of becoming a caricature of itself. Yet even some people angered by Polshek's firing are cautiously optimistic about Moore Ruble.

"I recently visited their 'Tango Housing' project in Malmo, Sweden," says architecture professor Jason Johnson. "I was impressed by their integration of sustainable design thinking into the overall planning of the project."

It was Johnson who penned the famous "open letter," eventually signed by 28 architecture faculty, criticizing the direction of UVA's building program.

"The University's recent approach to its physical environment has become largely superficial, regressive, and lazy," he wrote, citing the Darden School, designed by Robert Stern in the early 1990s, as the most offensive example. "A mutant version of the Lawn," he called it.

Architecture professor and former Charlottesville mayor Maurice Cox says he doubts Moore Ruble would be willing to create a "cartoon version of the Lawn." And he believes UVA is ready to expand its architectural repertoire. "The selection of Moore Ruble sounds like the University architect has exercised some true leadership in creating a competitive process that has led to a quality choice," Cox says.

Johnson says he doesn't doubt the talent and innovation of the new firm– but he does wonder whether they can get the job done.

"The question now is whether UVA will give these architects some creative autonomy, or will it again intervene in a less-than-productive manner? Can we elevate the discourse about new UVA architecture beyond 'red-brick and white-trim classicism' to incorporate contemporary design thinking?" Johnson says.

Not everyone wants architects to rule their patrons or views red brick and white trim with such derision. In an October 2 op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Catesby Leigh branded Johnson's letter a screed.

"Most people would celebrate classical architecture's return to the university," Leigh wrote.

Using UVA's starkly modern Hereford residence as an example of all that's wrong with modern architecture, Leigh heats up the attack on UVA's "monolithcally modern" faculty. "They take architecture, which for millennia has involved building places that make us feel, at a very instinctive level, at home in the world," he wrote, "and they turn it into an arcane science that is intensely ideological and pathologically theoretical."

Leigh responds to Johnson's attack on the Darden School, lauding the complex for its "elegance and institutional dignity."

Architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson, while no fan of the Darden complex, calls the choice of Moore Ruble a "very good thing." He says the argument about whether to incorporate historic elements or go entirely modern has been ongoing among architects for the better part of a century. Wilson believes the firm has a good chance of pleasing a wide range of people.

"The problem is trying to do something that reflects Jefferson's heritage but is not mimicking," Wilson says. "There can be many ways of trying to do it."

Moore Ruble Yudell was chosen, says University architect David Neuman, because of its success with complex projects on campuses with "historic contexts" such as Dartmouth, Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Oregon.

Neuman says construction is set to begin in 2007, with phase one completion in 2010.


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


A "ghastly building," UVA architecture professor Richard Guy Wilson calls New Cabell Hall, which is slated for demolition as part of the South Lawn project.