Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture
"How is a taste in this beautiful art to be formed in our countrymen, unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, of presenting to them models for their study and imitation?...You see, I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise."
--to James Madison, September 20, 1785
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson; ed. Julian Boyd, 8:535
Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture
Among the many groups which look to Jefferson as the model of their purpose and embodiment of their ideals, American architects especially can attribute the roots of their profession to the "Sage of Monticello." Although never formally trained in architecture, Jefferson had studied the structures of Europe and read extensively on the great architects of Europe. Possessed by a penchant for Palladio and a natural ability for design, Jefferson set out to the wilderness of Piedmont Virginia to create his architectural masterpieces in a community he would establish as the ideal American village: The University of Virginia.
Jefferson believed that architecture was the heart of the American cause. In his mind, a building was not merely a walled structure, but a metaphor for American ideology, and the process of construction was equal to the task of building a nation. The architecture of any American building should express the American desire to break cultural--as well as political--ties to Europe. American architecture, Jefferson believed, would embody the fulfillment of the civic life of Americans, and he sought to establish the standards of a national architecture, both aesthetically and politically.
The University of Virginia was to become the physical model of Jefferson's cultural and educational ideals. In the design of his "academical village," Jefferson envisioned a democratic community of scholars and students coexisting in a single village which united the living and learning spaces in one undifferentiated area. In the plan at left, Jefferson organized the space around the open expanse of "The Lawn," surrounded it with student rooms and central pavillions which housed faculty members and offered common rooms for the community, and crowned the space with the Rotunda, his monument to Classicism. The effect of this design was intended to represent Jefferson's plan for American education: progressive, yet rooted in classical disciplines; broad-based and elective, but still centralized; and accessible, but still reserved for the privileged elite.
Although expressed in terms of education, Jefferson's political beliefs resound in both the theory and the design of his University. In both the layout of the buildings on the Lawn and in the jumble of architectural styles, Jefferson continually evokes and confounds the dictates of European architecture and emerges with an architectural "bricolage" of Italian, Greek, French, and Chinese influences--all cast in American building materials and presented in an academic community. As if to frustrate the pure classicist further, some materials, such as the columns on Pavillion Three, were made in Italy and imported as "educational materials" (to save customs duty), while other materials, like the columns on Pavillion One, were manufactured in Charlottesville. Jefferson has excerpted styles from the European traditions and reordered them according to his own tastes, expressing his wish to sever the ties to Europe and devlop a uniquely American identity. The assemblage of styles present on the Lawn serve to symbolize Jefferson's own New World Order, both architecturally and intellectually. The European traditions have been studied, borrowed, incorporated, and then recast in American materials according to American needs and tastes.
The architectural riddling does not end with this collage of styles, however, but continues with the very layout of the entire space of the Lawn. Jefferson has adapted classical styles and mixed Italian villa architecture with Corinthian pediments and Doric columns, united French curves with Chinese latticework, and presented them in Virginia's own red brick and painted wood, but then positions them at odds with one another across the open public space of the Lawn. The physical space thus becomes a visual invitation to intellectual curiosity and inquistion: Jefferson the architect converses with classical architecture and classical ideas; each building converses visually with the others, and students and scholars on the Lawn study the structural and ideological debate presented by both architect and his architecture. With the completion of the Rotunda, Jefferson's shrine to Palladian classicism, the original approach from the south Lawn inspires yet another architectural conversation with another masterpiece of classical antiquity: St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. Like the approach to St. Peter's, the approach to the Rotunda leads the visitor down a shaded column-lined passage toward the central structural focal point. Instead of the great stone Piazza, Jefferson substitutes the vast natural space of the Lawn, and in place of views of Rome, visitors can gaze upon the natural majesty of the Blue Ridge mountains to the south. Jefferson's cathedral, of course, is a secular one erected in honor of knowledge, and his design innovations all center on the simple lines of neo-classicism rather than the elaborate ornament of Bramante's cathedral and Michelangelo's curving colonnades. The counterpoint to the Rotunda, rather than the vestiges of empire, is the scenic wonder of the natural world, suggesting the harmony of man and nature present in the pure mathematical design and in the architectural material of the University.
If the architecture suggests Jefferson's desire to break from Eruope both culturally and intellectually, then the actual construction embodies the toil behind the pastoral ideals espoused by Jefferson as the model for life in America. A project of this magnitude, especially when combined with the concurrent work at Monticello, was nothing short of monumental at the time. Charlottesville's remote location, small population, and limited cache of available resources made the construction project even more difficult that it already was. The university had to be in complete accord with the natural environment around it, and Jefferson had to adjust his design to accomodate the slope of the hill. As Richard Guy Wilson reveals, classical senses of perspective and proportion are distorted to account for the changing grade of the site, and the gardens to the east are larger than the ones to the west, destroying perfect symmetry. But the lack of ideal proportion and the chaos of architectural styles is cleverly contained by the uniform building materials and carefully ordered layout. Order is illusorily imposed on the Lawn, proving Jefferson's own point about the need to recast classical ideas in American terms. Wilson points out in his article, Jefferson's Lawn, that for Jefferson, "classicism is the language, but it was elastic and capable of change and growth."
Jefferson refused to allow anyone to see the project until its completion, which reflects his desire to view America as an ordered garden in the New World. Nothing about the design of the university was accidental, and the point Jefferson wished to make through his architecture required a completed model. Concealed behind the peaceful order and the harmonious relation to the natural world was an agonizingly difficult physical undertaking to construct the university. Jefferson's veil of perfect order covered the machinery of building operations and maintenance which, as Kendra Hamilton has discovered, remains an illusion cultivated by the university even today.
Classicism may be changeable, but Jefferson's vision was not. Despite the architectural genius displayed in his work, he sought total control over the project and executed it with an unflagging adherence to classical order, and the rigid structure of his architecture extended to the society which would inhabit it. The rooms on the Lawn were to be occupied exclusively by privileged young white men only, and preferably those from the south and west. Women and African-Americans had no business on the grounds, except of course, as servants and slaves to the men. Additionally, the control Jefferson exerted even over the privileged faculty and students is reinforced by the architecture. In the original design, the Rotunda faced inward, enclosing the village from the outside and separating it from the town of Charlottesville to the east. Jefferson himself watched his university carefully from his perch at Monticello--a spatial theme echoed later when the President's house at Carr's Hill was built overlooking the Rotunda and the Lawn. The sense of order at UVA was nearly feudal in its organization, and Jefferson's vision of an America of gentlemen's farms and pockets of civility is questionable when viewed through the lens of the University and of his own estate, Monticello. With such an unwavering devotion to his one sense of order, the "father of liberty" is not as progressive and broad-minded as his architectural and ideological mission against Europe and classical thought would at first suggest.
Nonetheless, Jefferson' ideas were brazenly original for their time and do embody, at least in spirit, the intellectual, cultural, and political ideals for the nation. Jefferson contributed his architectural statement to federal buildings as well, assisting Pierre L'Enfant in the design and layout of the new Federal City of Washington and designing the state capitol in Richmond. Jefferson believed that "from architecture would flow education in taste, values, and ideals," ( Wilson, Jefferson's Lawn) and therefore constructed buildings that became ideas for America. The buildings remain as symbols of and showcases for those ideas, but the work goes on around them. Just as the Rotunda was eventually reconstructed to face North, turning its watchful eye outward from the Lawn, the nation itself gradually turned away from Thomas Jefferson's ordered philosophies. But the ideas are still with us, "preserved in amber," as it were, in the living history of life at the University. The Lawn still houses fourth-year students-- carefully selected representatives of the idealized University community-- and the Rotunda is sectioned off with velvet cords and plexiglas to protect the frozen displays of Jefferson's legacy. We have not become the feudal agrarian society Jefferson envisioned, nor have we achieved total social control and harmony with nature, but in many ways, his architecture still tugs at our sense of history and heritage--for better or for worse--and his ideas continue to define what is "American" in us: the need to reinvent and reconstruct for our own purposes, the desire for a distinctive national identity, and a quest for unity, driven by an inexplicable but powerful yearning for order, simplicity, and centrality.
Source: Thomas Jefferson – The Architect of a Nation – http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/JEFF/jeffhome.html