The New York Times Magazine ran an interesting article this weekend covering a heated architectural controversy at my alma mater, the University of Virginia. In the planning for a major expansion project at the university, two warring factions have emerged. On one side are those who want to undertake the new project in accordance with the original neoclassical design that Thomas Jefferson employed in the university’s construction. (If you haven’t seen UVA’s Lawn firsthand, you can get a sense of it from a few random photographs here, here, and—decorated for Christmas—here).
On the other side of the controversy are those who want to move away from Jefferson’s neoclassicism in favor of a more modernist approach. The push for this side has been led by the university’s esteemed architecture-school faculty:
“Thomas Jefferson was constantly inventing new building technologies,” Karen Van Lengen, dean of the university’s School of Architecture, [said] recently. . . . “As materials change, you can create things that you couldn’t create before — Jefferson would’ve understood that.”
She goes on to make the case for modernism, repeatedly playing on this note that Jefferson himself was an innovator who would have wanted his university’s physical structures to stay on the cutting edge. The article suggests that, while being different in appearance, the modernists’ buildings would be “more authentically Jeffersonian in spirit.”
The issue for me—and, I suspect, for most other alumni—is one of simple aesthetics. It doesn’t matter if some architecture professors think that their new, sharp, sleek modernist designs will harmonize with the Jeffersonian spirit of change and experimentation. That may well be, but what really matters is the way the place looks—the sense of beauty and awe that the physical structure evokes in the mind of the typical observer. The best way to serve that purpose, it seems obvious, is to stick with the neoclassical style—for the sake of unity, continuity, symmetry, and compatibility.
The architecture professors have cited various instances of what they consider to be admirable, innovative, non-neoclassical structures that have been erected at UVA in the later part of the last century. What’s striking about these buildings is that they are, by most normal accounts, quite hideous—ugly, boxy, hulking reminders of fleeting design trends that, despite never having much currency outside of the architectural elite, nevertheless managed to mar the landscape that the rest of us have to inhabit. Most notable in this respect is UVA’s architecture-school building itself, whose sole virtue may be that it is an irrefutable, brick-and-mortar argument for the necessity of high explosives.
A friend and fellow alumnus recently pointed out the tragic peculiarity at work in the case of the architecture faculty: Like all professors, they operate in an insular environment whose norms and ideals are quite different from the rest of society. The unfortunate distinction is that, whereas the batty scribblings of the super-deconstructionistic-racial-gender theorist of the week can always be safely locked away in some library basement vault, the twisted images that spring from the wayward minds of the architecture professoriate cannot so readily be hidden.
Some of these wayward minds contend that any present-day efforts by UVA to imitate Jefferson’s red-brick-and-white-column neoclassicism can only result in “mediocre buildings decked out in pseudo-Jeffersonian cladding”—“the form without the soul,” as one says. But Jefferson himself imitated and adapted the Classical architectural style of the ancient Greeks and Romans. He proved that, through brilliant design and careful execution, it is indeed possible to embrace an artistic heritage, without being slavishly devoted to it.