Monthly Archives: December 2015

Raleigh

DSCF7692Back when I was single and worked in New York, I used to like business trips.  They were often to second- or third-tier cities – places you would never choose to go to as destinations in themselves, but there was (almost) always something interesting once you got there. I would always try to add an extra day or two onto a trip so I could explore a place, and eventually I got to see a good part of the country.  This trip has worked much the same way – there are the primary destinations, and then there are the places we’ve seen just because we were driving by, or had some other reason to go there.  Raleigh was one of those – our reason for visiting was to see my cousins who live there, but once again we discovered a lot of interesting places.

P1060078We drove to Raleigh on two-lane roads from Virginia Beach, going along the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp.  (Greta thought the drive was worth it just to say she’d seen the Great Dismal Swamp.)  The northeast North Carolina countryside is completely flat and pretty monotonous – cotton fields, poor small towns, and a growing number of photovoltaic farms replacing tobacco farms (since it has surprisingly many sunny days).  Raleigh is back up in the Piedmont, and seeing some topography was a welcome change – it is a beautiful, rolling landscape.

Raleigh is close to Durham, Chapel Hill and Wake Forest, with all of their many universities anchoring the Research Triangle.  It’s one of those southern cities that has been so inundated with outsiders that it doesn’t feel quite southern anymore (even to one of my cousins, a northern transplant herself.)  The city feels like many other prosperous American cities of this size.  Downtown, there’s a mix of 19th century commercial buildings, early 20th century office buildings and relatively banal postwar skyscrapers, as they had the good sense to not knock everything down.  There is the district where old warehouses are being converted to hipper uses.  There are the great old inner residential neighborhoods that have maintained, and there are the not-so-great older residential neighborhoods that are being rediscovered and gentrified.  We’re starting to see patterns.DSCF7592

Raleigh is the state capital, so the downtown includes many state office buildings of the normal quality.  The old State House from 1840 is quite fine, having been designed by Ithiel Town, AJ Davis and a few others.  DSCF7668a

As with many other older capitols, as the needs of the government outgrew the building, a new facility for the legislature was built nearby, and the capitol houses the governor’s office and the former assembly rooms which have been well-preserved.  capitol

The rotunda contains yet another sculpture of a Founding Father as a Roman, with an interesting history. The original statue of Washington was sculpted by Antonio Canova (selected on Jefferson’s recommendation) after 1815, but was destroyed in the capitol fire of 1831.  This statue is a reproduction, based upon sketches and descriptions, but it is still does the job.DSCF7603

Outside there is a monument for the three presidents who were born in North Carolina.  As we walked around the grounds we came across statues of people who are so obscure that we had never heard of them, so we wondered why all three presidents were packed into one monument instead of each getting his own.  Perhaps it’s because they feel somewhat ambivalent about Johnson, and didn’t want to honor him too much (and it does look like he’s being nuzzled by Jackson’s horse).  DSCF7600

They made the unfortunate choice of Edward Durrell Stone as the architect for the new legislative building, and he produced pretty much what you’d expect.  DSCF7625

These state buildings sit on a pompous and barren closed street / plaza, along with a couple of museums;  it would take a lot of buses of school kids to bring this one to life.  The state history museum is by C7 Architects (formerly Cambridge 7), and may be okay inside, but the exterior suffers from the same silly grandiosity you see in Washington DC – having a big phony exterior grid/framework is bad enough, but when it gets covered in stone I just can’t even look.  It’s a good example of what happened in the late 80s, when very good modernist firms felt the need to make gestures towards Postmodernism.  Grids often resulted.  They couldn’t make themselves go overtly classical, so explicit post and lintel systems ruled.  And little pyramids.DSCF7644

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences was designed by Verner Johnson, a firm which seems to specialize in science museums.  The expertise shows:  it’s not a building which wows you with the architecture (more watered-down PoMo), but it is a superb natural science museum.  It had many of the things that you see in any natural history museum these days – such as a few dinosaurs – but the strong focus is upon the environment and natural history of North Carolina.  This also seems to be a pattern these days – regional museums and zoos are focussing on the environment and biology of the region, rather than doing a mediocre job trying to explain the whole world.  This museum had excellent sections on the coastal region, on the Piedmont, and on the mountains.  There were full-scale dioramas for each of these:

Piedmont

Piedmont

Mountain lake

Mountain lake

that were really informative and comprehensive.  By the end we had a good handle on North Carolina’s geography and environment – much better than what we had gotten from the college-level geography text Greta’s been reading.

There’s a new addition to the museum that addresses changing idea about educating kids.  First, there are a lot of bells and whistles – is this a natural science museum, or is it Vegas?  DSCF7655

Or the mall?  Lots of flash, lots of screens, lots of “interaction.”
DSCF7652

Second, and perhaps more substantively, research areas used by museum staff are incorporated into all of the exhibit areas:DSCF7663

We were there on a Monday when these rooms are not used, but supposedly visitors can see staff at work and hear them explain what they are doing.  This would be quite valuable if it works as billed.  We’ve gotten behind the scenes and talked to scientists at a few museums, and it’s been one of Greta’s favorite parts of the trip – not just seeing objects in a museum, but talking to those who do the work, and starting to understand what science is all about.

On our way out of town we caught the North Carolina Museum of Art.  The1983 building was again designed by Ed Stone (did North Carolina get him because Rockefeller had Harrison and Abramowitz tied up?), which is fairly innocuous for him (they later replaced all the marble with brick) and is used for temporary exhibitions (including an excellent one on Escher while we were there).

The new building for the permanent collection is by Thomas Phifer, and is a remarkably rigorous and elegant building.  It resembles Piano’s work not in appearance (the exterior seems to be Mies Goes to Scandinavia with Steven Holl), but in having the main expression for the building through the articulation of the systems – skin, structure, and lighting. DSCF7678

It is easy to find the front door.  DSCF7719

The building structure is on a strict module, with the differentiation between structure/service walls and spatial partitions very evident (although he doesn’t feel the need to pull the partitions off the grid or angle them to make the point).  DSCF7699

The structural bays are uniformly roofed with curved daylighting monitors, which illuminate evenly.  The sidelighting from walls of glass is controlled with curtains.DSCF7702

You can see the influence of Mies, Kahn, and Aalto, without it seeming busy or forced.  It’s rational, rigorous, neutral, flexible.  Perhaps too neutral – there isn’t any compelling spatial design – nothing moves you through the building, there are no architectural surprises.  It’s a curator’s dream – well-lit, flexible space which can be reconfigured to suit any installation.  But much preferable to an object building that is all about architectural over-reaching while diminishing the experience of the art.

Frankly, it’s quite a bit better than the collection, which has not-great works from a wide range of eras.  Raleigh wasn’t a big city with a lot of money in the 19th century, when you could still buy great things, so they have mainly pedestrian work by big names, or interesting work by people you’ve not heard of.  However, they did have a huge collection of Rodin sculptures, including one i’ve never seen anywhere else, and which I liked better than the others – Old Man Looking out the Window.  DSCF7706

The Hofheimers

When we started to plan this trip, the first thing I did was map out all the people on our route around the country we could visit.  There were family, friends we saw pretty often, friends we hadn’t seen in quite a while, friends we’d really lost touch with, and then there were what we might call secondary friends – people we knew mainly through other friends.  A number of whom said, if you make it to our neck of the woods, we’d love to see you.  The Africanos in Illinois were the first we visited in this category, and the Hofheimers in Virginia Beach were the next.

DSCF7575i first met Jo Ann and Buzzy Hofheimer 35 years ago.  Jo Ann is the oldest sister of my friend Karen Zeno (now in Seattle), and Buzzy is some level of cousin to Mike Zeno, Karen’s husband.  (This was our first introduction to the interconnectedness of southern families.)  We met at Karen and Mike’s wedding in Norfolk, and compared to us recent college grads, they seemed markedly grown-up – married, with kids and real jobs. They had both been raised in the Norfolk area, and settled down there, where Buzzy worked in title insurance and real estate, and Jo Ann owned a bookstore, while raising two charming children, Kate and Robert.  Over the years I would see them at Zeno family occasions – births, bar and bat mitzvahs, etc., and it was always fun hanging out with them, although it was always for short periods of time.  (At one point in the early 90s, their son Robert stopped in to Eugene on a cross-country drive, and I had the pleasure of taking him on an Animal House tour of the UO,  fulfilling one of his lifelong dreams.)

When you live in the northeast or the northwest, you actually don’t get to know many southerners;  you know people who have left the south, and you know some people who have moved to the south, but you seldom come across people who were born and stayed there. So in some way Jo Ann and Buzzy provided me with my model for what southerners were like.  This was obviously a somewhat skewed view, as compared to most southerners they are coastal and liberal, but the differences from the northerners I knew were evident – a deep gregariousness and immediate friendliness, talking at a less-than-frenetic pace, and a manner that is always  welcoming and gracious.  So as we started to head deeper into the south, it was wonderful to begin the acculturation process with them.

They are both retired now, and have sold their house in town to live full time on the beach in Virginia Beach, a few blocks from where Buzzy’s family’s house was when he was growing up.  They beautifully remodeled an older house on the dunes, which is simple and comfortable, and includes a feature most of us would love – a stair hall with bookcases two stories tall (with books perfectly arranged, as befits a former bookstore owner).  When we arrived Jo Ann shooed us out onto the beach so we could catch the light before dusk, and then we returned for a fabulous dinner of local fish.

DSCF7374The next day Greta and I accompanied Jo Ann on her four-mile morning walk in First Landing State Park, leading to the estuary of the Lynnhaven River.  We thought we were in pretty good shape from all the touring we’d been doing around cities, but she had us both sprinting to keep up with her.  Then we visited the Brock Environmental Center (which I’ve previously posted) – Jo Ann is a docent there, where their daughter Kate is the Vice President for Development for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  After an afternoon in Norfolk we rejoined them for dinner at a local seafood restaurant, where I began my renewed involvement with eating oysters (which has continued across the south, but which Greta will not be blogging about).

The sites in Norfolk were interesting, but we mostly enjoyed having the opportunity to sit around and talk (and eat and drink) with Jo Ann and Buzzy – just the four of us, not in the general hubbub of a big family party.  That has been the fun thing about secondary friends – people you’ve always really liked, but with whom you’ve never been able to spend enough time to really get to know them.  After a couple of days of conversation and hospitality, I think we can remove the “secondary” from the classification, and we hope we get to see them more often.

Brock Environmental Center, Virginia Beach

DSCF7459

Back in the 1970s, there was an explosion of research and innovation in energy-efficient and solar building.  It largely disappeared in the 1980s – partially due to the lack of support under the Reagan administration, but also because it had focussed almost exclusively on building performance, neglecting the many other factors (included in firmness, commodity and delight) that motivate humans in their building preferences and decisions.

We’ve come a long way since then, and the Brock Environmental Center exemplifies how the new generation of high-performance buildings are not just machines for saving the earth in, but buildings that satisfy the full range of human needs.  The goal of making a very high-performance green building isn’t in conflict with making good architecture;  this building shows how those performance-oriented features can fundamentally enhance the quality of the architecture overall.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is a multi-state nonprofit, dedicated to saving Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.  They have a history of making buildings that embody their environmental goals – their Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis was the first LEED Platinum building in 2001.  They have recently followed this with their Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, which is on track to be certified as LEED Platinum, plus meeting the even more stringent requirements of the Living Building Challenge. Both of these buildings were designed by the SmithGroupJJR.

The context of the site, both local and regional, is critical to understanding the meaning of this building.  We arrived in Virginia Beach in early December, not fully realizing how it was our first exposure to the environment in which we’d spend most of the next two months – the edge where the great Southern coastal plain meets the sea.  We descended from the Piedmont around Charlottesville into this plain, which is extremely flat, with fairly monotonous pine forests and shallow broad rivers with very little fall in elevation, which widen out into enormous bays that join the sea.  The mouth of the Chesapeake is one of the largest, opening to the Atlantic in the Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News-Virgina Beach metro area.  The beaches are wide and beautiful, and in many places are protected by constantly shifting barrier islands (although not here).

DSCF7368

Behind this beach and a narrow band of development is First Landing State Park, which preserves about 3000 acres of the Lynnhaven River estuary where it joins Chesapeake Bay.  There is lots of low-lying salt marsh,
DSCF7372

plus some uplands with pines and live oaks, and Spanish moss everywhere.
DSCF7373

The Pleasure House Point parcel (about two miles from the park) which houses the Brock Center site was slated for residential development, but after the Crash it was purchased for recreation and the preservation of its wetlands, salt marsh and meadow, and maritime forest.  The building sits on a small upland site, not encroaching on the estuary.  DSCF7468

The parti of the building is simple – a narrow, curving linear scheme, raised a tall story above the ground plane.  The more public lobby and meeting rooms are at the top of the ramp:DSCF7477

The lobby shows the tectonics of the building, with structure and mechanicals exposed within the simple shell:
DSCF7403

A large gathering room
DSCF7417

the curving corridor along the southern exposure
DSCF7418

which has a porch / shading device running its length.DSCF7442

a panorama of the open office space – glazed doors from the corridor on to the porch, balancing glazing to the north, and clerestory lights facing both ways.
DSCF7433

I won’t go into great detail about the all strategies employed in achieving Living Building Challenges goals – as the architects do a very thorough job of that on this webpage:

http://www.cbf.org/about-cbf/offices-operations/brock-center-about/making-of-a-green-building

The Brock most resembles a laboratory in its form and organization:  a simple, open shell, which can accommodate a complex array of mechanical systems and human uses.  This division between the architectural elements and the mechanical ones leads to a building which is conceptually clear, tectonically articulate, and very efficient.  The architectural elements are manipulated to achieve as high a level of passive energy performance as possible.  The section is optimized for daylighting, minimizing heat gain, and enhancing natural ventilation.  This leads to habitable rooms which are commodious, tall, well-lit and very comfortable.  The need for south-side shading lead to a wonderful porch, something not many office buildings have.  The energy performance may have driven the scheme, but the elegant resolution of these demands produced very fine spaces.

Passive strategies take you as far as they can, but have to be supplemented by active ones, especially in a hot, humid climate.  The systems employed in the Brock are sophisticated, and in some cases, unprecedented.  The insulation levels of the envelope are obvious (they have annotated pieces of their materials on display throughout the building).  For mechanical heating and cooling, there is a ground-source heat pump.  For electrical needs, there is both rooftop PV and a couple of wind turbines, which are producing more power than needed on site.
DSCF7437

And for all you ASHRAE geeks reading this, the water and waste systems are extraordinary.  All toilets are composting, using the Clivus Multrum system, leading to containers at the lower level.  The limited amount of blackwater effluent from the tanks is trucked offsite.  As the toilets are located in different parts of the building and some see more usage based upon location, there was an initiative during the first year to get occupants to vary which toilets they used, to spread it around, so to speak.DSCF7448

The building’s greywater is run through various biofiltration systems and delivered to raised-bed planters on the grounds.  But the most innovative system is for the rainwater, which is collected, filtered, and used for th building’s domestic water needs.  This is the first commercial building in the US to achieve this legally.  The various gutter leaders connect below the main floor level:
DSCF7400

and there are lots of pumps and tanks and filters and controls which I won’t pretend I understand:
DSCF7436

DSCF7450

But the implications for the architecture are obvious, and led to a clear design protocol.  Make simple envelopes which can be optimized for passive performance.  Design to accommodate extremely sophisticated active mechanical systems, which may change over time.  Complex machines in simple buildings.

Buildings such as this may rationally resolve an argument that has been going on for a few decades.  Back in the 60s, buildings such as the Beaubourg made the expression of the building’s systems – both structural and mechanical – the basis for the parti.  While there was certainly a conscious attempt to integrate these systems into an overall composition, it wasn’t obvious to laypeople.Beaubourg006

Architects such as Lou Kahn also articulated the necessary elements of the building, but more explicitly integrated them into the buildings overall design intention, such as at the British Art Center.  British005

Postmodern architects reacted against this direction.  I remember Bob Stern making the case that the British Art Center was irrational at its core:  it expressed the mechanical systems, but by making them part of the formal design, it forced them to serve aesthetic goals rather than engineering ones;  in doing this, it increased their cost and inefficiency incredibly, so that what you are seeing is not so much a rationalized mechanical system but a very expensive expression of the idea of a mechanical system.  Stern asked if we had any idea how much a round stainless steel duct cost, and argued that if you wanted an efficient, cost-effective building, you should design the spaces you want for human habitation, build them out of steel studs and gypsum board, and leave lots of spaces between where the engineers can put all the mechanical equipment they want, without having to worry about making it beautiful.

The Brock Center shows a clear, rational compromise between these two positions.  The architecture can be what it wants to be, but based upon performance factors along with goals for human habitation.  The building systems are exposed where it makes sense – steel structure,  ductwork, piping, sprinklers, conduit – but not everything is dogmatically expressed.  A main rainwater collection tank is openly placed near the entry ramp, DSCF7389

but they made the wise decision to keep the composting toilet tanks in the mechanical room, out of sight, where they can do their work efficiently without offending delicate sensibilities.

Perhaps the key is recognizing the messy, often compromised reality of a building.  Achieving extreme simplicity of appearance requires extraordinary hidden complexity (which is very common in high style buildings right now), whereas letting the purely functional and efficiency-driven goals drive the design is unlikely to produce a satisfying building on other levels.  The Brock Center is a straightforward, elegant solution which integrates many of the issues, not compromising on performance for aesthetic reasons, but also not forgetting that buildings are for people and not just solving technical problems.

And as we design for sensitive coastal environments and the anticipated sea level rise with climate change, for the first time I start to appreciate buildings set up on piloti.  Corbu was 100 years ahead of his time, and he didn’t even know why.

DSCF7454

Kerry Moran and Mark Rylander

I’ve always warned Greta to be careful about whom she talks to the first day in a new school, as you might then be stuck with them for the rest of your life.  My first day in grad school at Columbia I found my assigned desk (no egalitarian lottery system as at the UO), and Kerry Moran was sitting next to me, one of the more fortuitous events in my life.  We would have become friends even if we hadn’t sat together, as she was one of the funnier and saner people in the class, and trying to fit in at Columbia definitely required some grounding with a few sane people.  Kerry had gone to Penn as an undergrad, and we were in the same boat, as well-educated people who thought about design a lot, but had never actually had to sit down at a desk and design something.  We were more than a little intimidated, as at least half of our classmates had BAs in architecture from really good schools such as UVA and Illinois, and their experience and skills were daunting.DSCF7300

Mark Rylander was one of those daunting people.  He wasn’t in school with us, but he had majored in architecture at UVA, and lived with one of our classmates in New York as he began his architectural career, so he effectively became a member of our class, albeit one that only spent weekends in studio when he was helping someone else out.  Mark did eventually head off to grad at school at Yale, where I believe there was a higher percentage of sane people.

Kerry became a close friend (not hurt by her being one of the few students who could or would cook).  She and her roommate Heidi began their long tradition of fabulous holiday parties, and at some point in grad school, they took over running the small lunch concession in Avery Hall; the food was so good that it was discovered by non-architecture students, and soon the business school students with their strings of pearls had moved in and squeezed the architecture students out.

In second year everyone had to tackle a large housing studio in pairs.  Kerry and I decided to work together, and it was eye-opening.  I would sit and talk about what we should be doing, and she would stare at me and say, What the hell are you talking about?  Then she would start drawing, and eventually I’d say, Is that a plan or a section?  And she would say, I don’t know, it’s just a drawing.  Somehow between these two approaches we developed a working method, and things turned out fine – we really worked as a team, complementing and covering for each other (although our elevations were ghastly).  This studio may be where I started to really get the nonlinear, intuitive side of design.  Later on Kerry pointed out how unusual our partnership was – we were the only female/male partnership in the class, and we were probably the only partners who remained friends.

I knew Mark mainly from hanging out at parties, but then one summer we both ended up in Italy at the same time, and spent a few days together in Rome, Florence and Siena.  We enjoyed each other’s company, but I realized there were certain things I couldn’t do with Mark.  We were sketching in the Villa Borghese gardens, and after a while I wandered over to look at Mark’s sketchbook.  Then I just closed my book and walked away – it was just too depressing trying to draw when Mark was seemingly effortlessly cranking out sketches which were all much better than I’d ever be able to achieve.  I’ve felt that way about much of Mark’s career since – you think you have him pegged as a really capable professional architect, or as a cutting-edge expert in sustainable design, or as a really talented designer, and then you realize that he’s just superb at all of those very different things.

After school we all stayed in New York, and eventually Kerry and Mark got married and lived in Brooklyn.  They worked at a string of good firms – Polshek’s, Gwathmey Siegel, Bob Stern’s – and a few others, experiencing the peculiar joys of life in a high-powered professional world.  One summer in the early 90s I was back from Oregon visiting, and had dinner with them right after their daughter Lane was born.  Mark arrived home from work with a Xeroxed memo that had been placed on everyone’s desk at work that morning.  It was clarifying the extent of the workday, which began at 8:00, and ended at 8:00, and could you please just eat lunch at your desk because things were very busy. Mark and Kerry looked at each other, and at Lane, and said, it’s time to leave this city.

When Bill McDonough was appointed dean at UVA, Mark called him up to offer congratulations (Mark had previously worked for him in the early 80s), and Bill invited him to come along.  So they moved off to Charlottesville, and their son Peter was born there in the late 90s.  Mark worked for McDonough and Partners for 16 years, establishing his own reputation as a sustainability expert, chairing the AIA Committee on the Environment, etc.  In the past 20 years I’ve mainly seen Mark when a colleague drags him out to Oregon for reviews.  Since leaving McDonoughs a few years ago, Mark has worked on his own, with a combination of architecture, sustainability consulting and project management.

Kerry has had her own firm since before they moved, and has continued her practice mainly in residential work – houses, additions and remodels in the historically-compatible style appropriate to a place like Charlottesville.  The work is small and exquisite – seeing a refined modernist sensibility applied to these projects reinforces my belief that the best contextual work doesn’t copy historical architecture but complements it on a level deeper than style.  In recent years, it seems that more and more of Kerry’s attention has gone into community theater.  The whole family was involved when the kids were younger, but now Kerry is a mainstay of a few local troupes – designing (and usually building) sets and costumes, and frequently acting.  While we were visiting Kerry was up to her eyeballs in getting City Of Angels to the finish line, and we were able to catch the soft opening and see the payoff.  It was remarkable; I especially enjoyed the part where the character in an iron lung joined in singing the chorus.

DSCF6862We arrived just in time for Thanksgiving, for which Kerry cooked for days, and were part of a large crew of family, friends, and other passers-through.  We got to meet the latest incarnations of their children – Lane now graduated from UVA in architectural history and just back from working on an organic farm in Utah, and Peter now an art student at VCU in Richmond.  (It seems that both learned enough as children of architects to shy away from the profession, but you can only suppress those hereditary talents so far.)  Greta got her transient pet-fix from Ace, a terrier with a lot of personality who liked to lie on her feet.

I managed to get a picture of Peter smiling.

I managed to get a picture of Peter smiling.

We planned on staying for a couple of days, but Greta got sick, and then the weather turned cold and rainy, so we just hung out for a week, as we couldn’t leave without seeing the landscape around Monticello on a beautiful day. That was really just a good excuse to catch up with old friends, so we walked and ate and talked, and every evening Kerry would head off to the theater while Mark and I drank Manhattans.

Charlottesville

Charlottesville is not your typical college town. Compared to the college town I know best, the population of the city is much smaller relative to the size of the school, yet in some ways there is more going on in Charlottesville that isn’t related to the university. The historic center of the city is substantial, with many significant large houses and civic buildings, and they had the good sense to not knock it down during the urban renewal craze. (Instead, they seem to have razed an adjacent poor African American neighborhood.)  I’m assuming this is because the city had a prior existence, and the size of the city was larger relative to the university in the past, whereas most college towns probably wouldn’t have grown very much without the presence of the college.DSCF6905

There is a pretty active downtown pedestrian mall, something that always intrigues a Eugenian who remembers our past disaster. The differences in Charlottesville seem to be: they kept all the beautiful 19th-century commercial buildings, the mall is only one street wide, local traffic can cross it frequently, and the residents of Charlottesville have a lot more money to spend in nice downtown restaurants and such.DSCF6761

But once you move a block or two away from the mall, into the neighborhood that was destroyed, the dark side appears: a zone of wide streets and much traffic and car-oriented buildings in the center of town. (And of course like any other American city, the edge of town is big-box sprawl madness.) DSCF6958

The inner neighborhoods are intact and lovely, with houses from a range of periods, and a nice open space or two.DSCF6894

And so began the fascination with southern cemeteries.
DSCF6857

There are even houses by noted architecture professors – I’ll leave it to you to guess which:DSCF6737

But the main reason Charlottesville is not like other college towns is that they didn’t have Thomas Jefferson. His designs for the Rotunda and the Lawn at the University of Virginia are astounding.  I had seen them years ago (as a high school kid who almost went to UVA), and had studied them quite a bit in college, but stepping out onto the Lawn still stunned me.  We have seen a lot of great architecture and landscapes on this trip, but there are those places that just stand out from everything else.DSCF6827  DSCF7014

The Rotunda has been undergoing a substantial restoration in recent years, and luckily while I was there, the new carved capitals were revealed.DSCF6802

When you have a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you do it right. No PVC here.
DSCF6782

But even more than the Rotunda, it has always been the Pavilions which intrigued me. Jefferson worked with a repetitive, modular system, with the elegant colonnades in front of the students’ rooms.DSCF7030

and took a similar approach to the Ranges, which are to the outside of the Lawn:DSCF6837

But within this approach, he introduces variety into the system. First, the difference between a colonnade and an arcade
DSCF7045

(and then uses the gardens with their serpentine walls to separate them.)DSCF7041

Second, in making all the Pavilions unique. They are the same scale, and they fit into the system in the same way, but each one is a gorgeous exploration of the range of ideas possible in the classical vocabulary.DSCF6794

It is not just about style, but about spatial imagination. The way the colonnades intersect with them changes. There are colossal ordersDSCF7010

and single-story orders:DSCF6809

creating different possibilities for light.DSCF6814

There are delicate and sedate pavilions, and robust ones, with the appropriate order used for each.DSCF6808

I’ve seen a lot of mediocre Academic Georgian on this trip, where all that matters is the proper vocabulary, and not the quality of the design or the character of the whole campus. (William and Mary comes to mind – ghastly pedestrian buildings repeated mindlessly.)  Jefferson shows the richness of the classical language, in a way that we’re probably not capable of now. (The decline of Postmodernism illustrates this well.) It brings to mind the joke about the couple who went to see Kahn about having him design a house for them, which he was happy to do.  But then they mentioned that they’d like it to be in the Georgian style.  Kahn said he couldn’t do that, so they asked him if he could recommend a good architect who could.  Kahn thought a bit, and then said, Thomas Jefferson.

So how has UVA fared in the post-Jefferson era?  There are some eclectic 19th century buildings, before the veneration of Georgian peaked in the early 20th century, but then they did have some good and inventive designs in the style, although maybe taking the goal of variety a little too much to heart.DSCF6985

The city itself has fared less well, with some truly execrable examples.  (Sorry, reality intrudes.) DSCF6919

And a few examples of how one can be contextually sensitive without copying the style.  This 1970s bank struck me as quite good – similar scale, materials and overall form, without copying style, rhythm, or detailsDSCF6743

and with the more overscaled, modern elements tucked away in a courtyard.DSCF6908

We are used to thinking of Postmodernism as having tried to correct the anti-contextualism of Modernism, but we often overlook the modern buildings that already did this quite well. (I noted this in Cambridge too.)

Kahn was right – we should just leave Georgian to Jefferson – he was remarkable, especially for someone who had a time-consuming day job.  I did go to see Monticello – on a gorgeous crisp day, after waiting through four rainy ones.  It was invigorating, although less perfect than the Lawn.  Monticello was Jefferson’s own house, so he could do what he wanted – play with ideas, change his mind, add on later.  The principles of variety and exploration could dominate – it didn’t need to have the resolution of an important civic work.  In the Lawn you get the perfection of a few big ideas worked through rigorously;  at Monticello you get exuberant pieces all getting along quite well, while not as concerned as to how they add up.  It was a wonderful afternoon, but unfortunately my computer somehow ate all my photos as I was downloading them, which is not a disaster, as photos of Monticello are not hard to come by.  Or as Greta would say, just go.