Authenticity vs. evocation: When imitation diminishes design

The completion of UVA's Darden School of Business in 1996 took Jefferson's vision to the extreme by copying the Academical Village, complete with a smaller, stockier Rotunda and its own version of the Lawn. Photo: Jack Looney The completion of UVA’s Darden School of Business in 1996 took Jefferson’s vision to the extreme by copying the Academical Village, complete with a smaller, stockier Rotunda and its own version of the Lawn. Photo: Jack Looney

Every new restaurant looks like a factory. Or, so says a recent NPR article. Reclaimed wood, brick walls and exposed beams, the piece asserted, have become so popular in interior design that new furniture is being treated to look weathered, and new apartments are being built loft-style with “factory” windows. Where does this preference for things that look old—even if they are, in fact, new—come from?

The manufactured appearance of age and wear is not unique to modern fashion. Nineteenth century English gardens featured artificial Roman ruins and today, denim is sold pre-torn. In both examples, the components suggesting age and history lend the designs character, an air of authenticity that is perennially perceived as missing from everyday life.   

In the UVA School of Architecture, a seminar entitled Landscapes of (In)authenticity is compelling students to contemplate the centuries-old impulse to flee urban life and the abstract spaces of corporate capitalism for a return to simplicity and truth. We have considered the notions of pastoralism in 17th century European landscape arts, ideologies of country life during the Enlightenment and 18th century discourses of sincerity and the natural world as presented in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; we will continue to trace the impulse through the appearance of faux farms and dairies in landscape gardens, utopian communities in 19th century America and the counterculture landscapes of the 1960s and 1970s.

The widespread intrigue in sites that are neglected or recycled—or look as though they are—is part of a long and ongoing effort to find meaning in our environment and the ways we interact with it. In designing to accommodate this demand, we try to distill what is meaningful to a place and find ways to evoke it. But where is the line between evocation and imitation? What is the extent to which the charm of oldness can be replicated in new materials and designs, and when is the appeal diminished by falseness?

In Charlottesville, or at least on Grounds, there is an overarching partiality for Jeffersonian architecture: red brick with white columns. While contemporary buildings of this style recall the university’s legacy, it could also be argued that they undermine the singularity of the original campus. Rather than complementing the historic structures, many of these buildings have been designed to appear as if they were constructed contemporaneously with the Rotunda, conflating the old with the new. For some, they carry an identity throughout the architecture of the city, but are they authentic? In this case, as with Roman ruins in gardens and torn denim on models, it seems that genuine, historic origin is less important than the evocation of a romanticized past.

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