Aristotle once observed that “the speculative life is the highest life of man.” When I think about the University of Virginia’s design, I see a physical embodiment of the speculative life. Thomas Jefferson was a farmer, an inventor, a writer, a dreamer, a statesman, an archivist, and an architect—but through all of that, a teacher. It is fascinating that the creation of this place near the end of his life was Jefferson’s lasting clarion call to a young citizenry that they acquire knowledge through wide personal observation. By design, UVA was the pedagogical model which posited that self-directed study was the tool to set minds free.
In an early Republic that lacked a system for liberal education, Jefferson wanted his model school to emulate an idea of community. So he made a village. And it was laid upon a natural ridge line where topography reinforced a plan that was fundamentally urban in its time. With this, Jefferson rejected the dominant model of older early American colleges that were housed in a single large building. Despite the position of the Rotunda library, for the “Academical Village” to succeed as a lasting idea was more important than the grandeur of a singular building. The originally open south end symbolized for Jefferson the infinite possibilities the human mind could acquire through inquiry, as the north end Rotunda collected the known world in its library. Between the two, it is fitting to compare the Lawn’s pavilions and connecting colonnades with the ancient Agora in Athens as a “marketplace” of democratic engagement.
I have long admired Pavilion IX in particular for its understated architecture. It is the only pavilion to use subtractive form with a recessed exedra entry. Benjamin Henry Latrobe was a design critic for Jefferson, and they may have been inspired by the Hotel Guimard in Paris. For me, it’s one of the most remarkable buildings in Virginia because the unique façade seems to emit its own glow—capturing the sun as it travels and reflecting it back, creating the illusion of lightness. As Jefferson intended, the study of architecture at UVA first began with the pavilions themselves as life-size precedent models of design, and today they still enlighten.
Each year in April, Virginia celebrates Historic Garden Week with public tours of prominent houses and gardens, so in this month’s ABODE, we’re excited to share our visit with Pavilion IX resident and Dean of Nursing, Dorrie Fontaine. Historian Richard Guy Wilson from the School of Architecture and Mary Hughes, the Landscape Architect for the University, offer insight into the design of Jefferson’s plan, which is perhaps the best conceived tapestry of buildings and landscape in the United States. I hope you’ll take some time in April to visit and observe a little closer the beauty of this place.—Josh McCullar, Editor-at-large
Josh McCullar is the publisher of vamodern.com and practices with SMBW Architects in Richmond.