Jefferson’s Academical Village
Although all individuals are flawed, some leaders have created things, institutions, governments, and academies, which continue to enrich human lives long after their founders are gone. An outstanding example of that is Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village in Charlottesville, The Lawn. It firmly expresses the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty, or as Vitruvius called it, “Firmness, Commodity, and Delight.” Encapsulating 2,500 years of architectural discourse, it continues to serve well since its founding in 1819, over 200 years ago.
The idea of the Lawn is that of an early Picturesque retreat campus, with a head building and two parallel rows of pavilions, modeled on centralized lawn plans that Jefferson knew from his service as the American ambassador in Paris in 1778–1785. With such a plan the Academic Village affords a human-scaled, peaceful and friendly place for collegiality and study, along with superior ventilation, cleanliness, privacy, and reducing the risk of infection and fire.
One can enter this permeable poem to built form and garden, to town and country, to the profane and the enlightened, from literally any direction. But to arrive at its center and understand the whole in the process, one wants to penetrate it from the side. Rising up the slight hill, one comes to its backside, the outer Ranges, consisting of six “Hotels” for student services and dining and the utilitarian, barracks-like student rooms.
Progressing between the unique serpentine brick walls—poetically enclosing the professors’ private kitchen plots, and the most efficient way to stabilize a one-wythe brick wall, as Jefferson precisely calculated—we arrive at the back of the Lawn colonnades. In front of us are the student rooms that front directly on the lawn, and on either side are the faculty pavilions, ten in all. Penetrating by way of a narrow passage carved through the row of students’ cells, we arrive at the Lawn colonnade.
We experience the views up and down the colonnade, see its image across the lawn, and then step onto the Lawn itself, which drops in three terraces from north to south. At its head is the library, aka the Rotunda, and at its foot lay a former panoramic view of the terrain, suggestive of the intellectual frontiers open to discovery, but since the early 20th century the view has been blocked by buildings.
Much has been written to celebrate Jefferson’s mastery of Palladian and Neoclassical architecture, in particular regarding the ten Pavilions flanking either side of the Lawn. In them, the professors reside in the upper two floors and teach on the first. Intended to serve as an outdoor architectural classroom, each of the ten brick Pavilions of the Lawn has a unique design. Together they maintain a balanced cohesion, adorning the Lawn’s focus, the Rotunda, the University’s original library, a scaled version of the Pantheon in Rome that Jefferson developed from Palladio’s measurements.
Although this Enlightenment “temple to a temple” is the focus of the Lawn, the climax of this masterclass in classic planning and traditional architecture lies arguably somewhere close to its center—in its void. There, individual body and mind coincide, and the heart and the gut pound out in silence the rhythms of life and the universe.
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Featured Image: Pavilion III, Academical Village, UVA, Thomas Jefferson, 1814. credit: M. Curtis
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