The University of Virginia has always been an institution deeply rooted in architectural tradition and study. It was designed and built by self-taught architecture enthusiast and Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, and is studied by architecture students throughout the nation, being after all, the only university also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The University was intended to promote growth and learning, and Jefferson used architectural design to accomplish this. Unlike most universities of the time, at the heart of UVA’s Grounds is not a chapel, but our Rotunda, which served as the original University library, housing mostly books from Jefferson’s personal collection. The Lawn was designed with the Rotunda as its head because Jefferson believed knowledge belonged at the forefront of an educational institution. It was created to be an academic community, intending to integrate living and learning, with professors and students coexisting side by side. The Lawn Rooms were occupied by students and flanked by professors living in Pavilions. Between the Lawn Rooms were ten Pavilions, which housed Professors and their families above and classrooms below. The Pavilion and Lawn Rooms faced outwards onto the common Lawn space, where students and their instructors could interact and engage. While Jefferson originally intended the Lawn to be an equilateral square, the hilly Virginia landscape and advice from fellow architects Latrobe and Thornton lead to the rectilinear Lawn and terraces we see today.
The Palladian, Neoclassical architecture of the original Academical Village was replicated throughout Grounds as the University expanded. The compilation of traditional red brick, white columns, and marble steps, capitals, and cornerstones is revered as a symbol of the University, as integral as Thomas Jefferson himself.
The University has grown spatially over the past two hundred years to accommodate the growing number of students and faculty, changing the physical landscape. While many of these additions attempt to reflect Jefferson’s original architectural vision, new buildings are increasingly representing a turn towards modernization, void of ornament and trying new adaptations of Jeffersonian architecture. The South Lawn’s Nau Hall, Gibson Hall, Cocke, and New Cabel Hall, the Architecture School in Campbell Hall, and Brooks Hall are just a few such examples. Even the refurbishment of the Rotunda was debated as a platform for modernization. Maintaining the more traditional appearance of the columns, for example, was debated before deciding to refurbish them to match Jefferson’s original design.
With the University’s Bicentennial celebrations, the Lawn has been decorated with an installation provided by the School of Architecture School. This sculpture, modern in shape and material, stands in direct contrast to the original red brick and white columns outfitted on the Lawn behind it. The proposed Enslaved Laborers’ Memorial and the buildings on Ivy-Emmett Road represent two future architectural modernizations being brought to Grounds.
These modern adjustments and additions echo the undercurrent of cries for modernization of the University’s policies, environment, and traditions coming from segments of the University populous. We can look to architecture, arguably the foundation of the school, to see how these demands will play out with the deeply entrenched traditions of UVA.