The Lawn: America’s Greatest Architectural Achievement


ALTHOUGH THOMAS JEFFERSON had evolved very clear concepts of what a modern educational system should be, it was not until 1817 that he had the opportunity to put his theories into practice at Charlottesville, Virginia. He was an old man by then, but there was nothing old-fashioned about his ideas. Age and experience had given him a majestic perspective, not merely of education but of American culture as a whole.

As Jefferson visualized it, the University of Virginia was to be the capstone of the nation’s first statewide system of universal, free, and compulsory education. He envisioned a campus that would house the faculty and student body of the new school under conditions of unprecedented comfort and amenity. But he also conceived of the buildings as teaching tools, actual instruments in the process of producing civilized men. Living as he had along the eastern edges of a primeval wilderness—which had been tamed within his own memory—Jefferson had a vivid picture of the civilizing impact of architecture, agriculture, and horticulture upon the whole tone and life-style of society. And throughout the long years of his experimentation in all three areas, there runs a fascinating mix of the utilitarian and the idealistic. In a sense he wanted Americans to telescope the historical process of civilizing the wilderness—a process that had taken thousands of years in Western Europe.

The design of the university came at the end of Jefferson’s long career as an architectural theoretician and practitioner. He was an amateur only in the eighteenth-century meaning of the word—that is, one who does something for love rather than for money, not, as in our current usage, one who does something badly. As a matter of fact, few men in the Western world would have had a broader or more comprehensive experience with the built world. By the time he began the university he had already designed a number of large country houses, he had directed the design and construction of the new federal city of Washington, and he had played a critical role in the selection of a design for the new Virginia State Capitol. His own library, one of the largest in the country, included most of the great architectural folios of the period.

No one had a more thorough understanding of the slow evolution of European architecture across the centuries than Jefferson. And no one had more positive preferences among its many stylistic variations. These preferences were at once ideological and aesthetic. He was already impatient with the baroque fripperies of both the governor’s palace and the capital at Williamsburg; and after his years in France, the rococo style symbolized to him a corrupt monarchy. Thus, when asked for advice on the design of the new capital at Richmond, he turned without hesitation to the ultimate source of all Western architecture—the Greco-Roman temple. And when he finally came to design the university, he decided to make it a veritable encyclopedia of the styles of classical antiquity.

How much of the university is truly Jefferson’s invention? Universities had existed in Europe for centuries, and even in the American colonies there were colleges long established by the time the university at Charlottesville came into being. But these schools had begun as small, private academies limited to studies in theology, classics, or law. Only much later did they grow, by a slow process of accretion, into the multidisciplinary universities that we know today. Most of them are architecturally loose and ill-defined, not visually unified or easily comprehensible. Jefferson’s revolutionary step was to create such an institution from scratch on the raw, red Virginia clay. It would be secular and democratic, owned and operated by the state, the apex of an entire system of free schools at three levels—elementary, general, and professional. The new institution would be interdisciplinary from the very start—with a curriculum that included languages, mathematics, natural and moral philosophy, natural history, medicine, law, and engineering—and this integrated system of separate but equal schools would be housed in a campus that clearly expressed the university’s character.

The splendor of Jefferson’s design is apparent even with the casual glance of an untrained eye.

The sheer aesthetic splendor of Jefferson’s design is apparent even with the casual glance of an untrained eye. But the reasons for the enduring viability of the campus—after a century and a half it remains the center of a great modern university—lie below the reach of vision. This is because of Jefferson’s handling of his organizational problems at two levels—form and function—simultaneously. In a purely formal sense, the Lawn, as the whole complex that Jefferson designed is called, may seem only a graceful replay on a somewhat larger scale of the familiar Palladian layout of many Tidewater plantations—Westover, Carter’s Grove, Mount Vernon, and, indeed, Jefferson’s own masterpiece at Monticello. But instead of using the familiar residential formula of spaces for the served and the servant to house a single family and its slaves, he has adapted it to house a community of scholars.