Daniel Bluestone’s article “Captured by Context” argues that a tradition of strict adherence to the Jeffersonian Neoclassical style has stifled creativity in campus architecture at UVA. New construction cannot stray too far from Jefferson’s design, nor can it outshine the original buildings. This has led to a culture of designing new buildings as intentional background noise, or “a legacy of mediocrity” in UVA’s architecture.
I agree that the new buildings on UVA’s campus are not individually arresting. However, I would argue that college campuses are not made special by individual buildings, but instead by the way these visually combine to create a sense of place. Campuses are physical landscapes, but they are also sites of collective memory shared by generations of alumni. As such, alterations to campuses are scrutinized closely by a vast number of passionate stakeholders, many of whom are less concerned with architectural innovation than they are with the sanctity of a memory landscape. When considering the development of historic landscapes, what responsibility do we have toward architectural innovation?
Some campuses may be better suited to architectural experimentation than others. For example, the University of Pennsylvania has a long tradition of innovative design. However, this isn’t necessarily the norm. In addition to UVA, Washington & Lee and Davidson College have mostly clung to interpretations of the neoclassical style in new architecture. In terms of architectural innovation, Penn has an advantage in that it is located in a city filled with diverse architecture. College towns such as Charlottesville (UVA), Lexington (Washington & Lee), and Davidson (Davidson College) were historically rural into the 20th century. Modern architecture would perhaps be more unusual and incongruous on a rural campus than in an urban context.
Additionally, many of our readings have argued that support for preservation has grown stronger in times of intense change; as we feel threatened by the unknown, we clasp more strongly at shared tradition. The social and intellectual landscapes of colleges are constantly changing; the entire student community turns over every four years. What unites the community into the future is tradition, and one of the ways to maintain a shared tradition is through architecture.
As preservationists, we shouldn’t issue a blanket rejection of architectural innovation on historic sites. And I agree with Bluestone that designing a new parking garage, or the enormous John Paul Jones arena, in knock-off neoclassical style to achieve continuity is ridiculous. But it is important to weigh how new buildings will complement the existing built and natural landscape in the minds of the stakeholders. While Bluestone mentions a large list of architects who bristled at their commission to design boring, matching buildings, he doesn’t delve into the desires of the UVA alumni and students. They might be more understanding of the mediocre, modern neoclassical architecture. People are passionate about their alma maters in the way they are nationalistic about their countries. The blandness of UVA’s new architecture ensures that each generation of students will cherish the same architectural classics as did their academic forbears.