The University of Virginia just broke ground on its new South Lawn Project, an expansion campaign that will be its largest in the last 100 years since Stanford White's construction of Old Cabel Hall, Cocke & Rouss Halls. Too bad it sucks.
I was deeply saddened to learn that Jim Polshek--the architect originally selected for the project-- felt he needed to walk away from the proceedings a few months ago; I think he is one of the brightest lights working in the field of architecture today. Because of his abilities, I think he was much better suited to getting the job done...
This project is a colossal and unprecedented opportunity to not only expand the spatial and operational capacity of UVa, but to make a statement about different architectures--born of different times and operating under differing theories but fundamentally committed to the idea that a built environment can dramatically influence and contribute to the experience of those who navigate it--and how they can work together to improve both the aesthetic and the community that aesthetic serves. Jefferson's lawn was one of the first great laboratories that explored these ideas.
People--sometimes those who like to call themselves preservationists or who espouse a preservation ethos--throw around the term "appropriate" when describing how a new addition on grounds should relate to Thomas Jefferson's original plan. Frequently in the preservation world, however, people mistake appropriateness for the lowest common denominator of design--for that set of materials, symmetry, solids and voids, and massing that draws on existing built fabric in the most apish of ways to yield a product of such extraordinary mediocrity, blandness, and banality as to not only squander the aesthetic opportunity furnished by the project, but also to dilute the brilliance of the original work that it so self-consciously sought to respect. That, friends, is not appropriateness--that laughs in the face of appropriateness. That act is a desecration of appropriateness. Appropriateness--and this is why Jim Polshek was such a wonderful choice to begin with--especially when dealing with a vision of the magnitude and significance of Jefferson's--is taking a chance at making an honest, beautiful, bold thing that honors the spirit of the old thing. The new thing should be a witness (in the theological sense) to the vision that helped make UVa great. And what we get instead is an ill-advised design too timid to treat with any seriousness or originality the essence of Jefferson's ideas which are now imbued with the lessons of 190 years of education, politics, culture and all that other stuff we're supposed to study in these awesome new buildings.
University of Virginia, tighten your shit up.