The South Lawn at the University of Virginia

Palladio, Villa Pojana
(Image source)

A student recently reminded me of the architectural hubbub of a few years ago at our alma mater, the University of Virginia. In September 2005, to kick off the semester, a large majority of the faculty members of the school of architecture signed “An Open Letter to the Board of Visitors, the University Administration, and the University Community” which criticized the university’s periodic tendency to commission traditional architecture for buildings on grounds. It was penned in response to the university’s firing of the staunchly modernist firm Polshek Partnership and the hiring of the slightly less staunchly modernist firm Moore Ruble Yudell to design the South Lawn Project.

There was a fierce reaction from the international community of traditional architects, culminating in a full page ad in the school paper, The Cavalier Daily, supporting the university’s efforts to extend the principles embodied in The Lawn, the university’s original buildings.

The University of Virginia Lawn, designed by Thomas Jefferson.

Architects, historians, alumni, students, and concerned citizens lobbed more letters back and forth over the net, attracting national attention. Many of those exchanges are archived here. But the most thoughtful attempt to spur the university in the direction pictured below was provided by Professor Edward Ford, one of the letter’s signatories, in his talk Some Thoughts on Architecture at Virginia.

The University of Virginia’s Hereford College, by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
(Photo by Ben Lunsford)

To his credit, Ford was reserved in his praise for the hope-sapping Hereford College, surprising considering the school had recently awarded Williams and Tsien the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Medal. Nevertheless, his talk is a good reprise of the standard fallacies which dominated the discussion. They are the same prejudices which paralyze architecture schools and the profession today. It is worth reading if only because it is not so couched in jargon as your average manifesto. I summarize his points and offer rebuttals below.

1. The Traditionalist’s argument that buildings should respect their context is a fallacy. In Venice, for example, the Renaissance interventions in the Gothic context were not contextual. Therefore, buildings don’t have to be contextual to be good.

2. The argument for Classicism is based on the fallacy of Associationism, i.e., the meanings we associate with certain forms are constantly changing, therefore they provide an unsound foundation on which to form judgments. There are “deeper structures” to which we must appeal if we are to judge architecture properly. We see that deeper structure when we take away the “cow skulls” (i.e., the extraneous ornament) of Classicism.

Ed Ford, Pages from Venetian Sketchbook. Superfluous detail on the left, essence on the right.

3. Modern Classicism (presumably as opposed to traditional Classicism) is a fraudulent appliqué concealing a building’s true construction.

4. Diversity vs. Euro-centrism: we cannot achieve the intellectual (and therefore stylistic) unities of the past and we are richer for it. Therefore we are bound to look beyond style.

I answer Ford’s points as follows:

1. To argue that a Modernist building is to a traditional context what a Renaissance building is to a Gothic context is really to misunderstand Modernism, the Gothic, and the Renaissance. The Renaissance developed naturally out of the Middle Ages. In no serious way can it be argued that the Renaissance represents an approach at odds with the Gothic. In both periods the very same tradition is being tended to, but in the Renaissance period improved scholarship and economic power are brought to bear, as well as a change in taste and emphasis. Modernism, in stark contrast, seeks to end the Greco-Roman tradition, and it pursues the pipedream of an abstract architecture whose forms have no substantive meaning. It is impossible to build an abstraction.

2. Classicists do not argue for a superficial architecture, the smearing of molding sauce all over mediocre buildings without integrity. We hold, as suggested in my point one above, that forms have substantive meaning. Ford’s drawing “Pages from Venetian Sketchbook” is perfect evidence for our case that the Modernists oversimplify classicism. I can’t imagine many would believe Ford has revealed the reality behind the style with these sketches.

3. If Ford really believed he had revealed the reality behind the style, Ford would have to denounce the whole history of architecture. Greek moldings are not intrinsic to ancient stone construction–would the Parthenon be better without the intricacies of the Doric entablature to disguise the real load bearing going on underneath? Are the triglyphs “inauthentic”? Roman architecture is all revetment. When the Romans invented the arch (the high technology of the day) they didn’t reveal the bricks that bore the real loads, they covered them up with archivolts.

4. Ford’s point here seems to contradict his point regarding context. Was Venice, a pre-modern city, uniform or not? The classicists are not arguing for perfect uniformity in any case. We are arguing for intelligibility. Renaissance buildings in the Venetian context were and are eminently intelligible, just as modern Classicism in the context the University of Virginia makes perfect sense.

Ford’s principles lead to Hereford College. And had Polshek not been fired and continued with the now almost complete South Lawn Project, we can be certain it would have turned out in a similar vein. Moore Ruble Yudell, however, are a more compromising firm, shall we say. The results are now coming into full view as the project nears completion.

A view of the Commons Building, a pale imitation–mockery, really–of Jefferson’s Rotunda.

Cue the trombone: WAH-wah! Alas, had the university hired a competent, staunchly traditional firm, the result would have been so much more edifying. The site plan is not awful. There is a fairly clear sequence with good spatial definition. The open circus at the end of the axis is supposed to frame the originally intended view of the mountains, blocked a century ago by McKim Mead and White’s Old Cabell Hall. Strikes me as a rather weak frame, however. Jefferson positioned pavilions at the end of the Lawn to punctuate the composition, while here there is no such gesture.

The South Lawn is in the foreground, Jefferson’s Lawn in the background. In between the two are New Cabell Hall, and Old Cabell Hall behind.

The basic diagram, a miniature of the Lawn set at right angles to the original, is getting to be a rather trite response at this point, having already been tried at the Darden School and Hereford College (such as it is).

The details of the building are an utter disappointment. We’ve already seen the boring and out-of-place glass curtain wall. The masonry bits which attempt to abstract traditional classical elements betray a decided lack of interest if not literacy on the part of the architect. What else can explain these columns and entablature?


Certainly not budget, as in ages past we have been able to do a lot more and with fewer resources. Omitting detail is sometimes a practical necessity; however, there are ways to do it while retaining elegance in proportion. Here is my favorite example, from Palladio’s Villa Pojana.

Palladio, Villa Pojana
(Image source)

So powerful, yet there is so little there! And it is not about capturing the essence of the orders. The essence is not captured by removing architectural detail any more than a symphony’s essence would be captured if we removed half the notes. Remove half the notes and you destroy the symphony! No, it is about calibrating expression to suit the occasion. Here the message had to be toned down, simplified, and it was done with a sure hand.

What is Palladio’s secret? How does he know which lines to remove and which to keep? I can assure you, it is not through the Ed Ford method. The answer is: years of careful study of the canon, from the grandest gestures, to the most minute detail. There are no shortcuts.

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