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Urbanism: Profaned and Reclaimed

Demonstrators at the University of Virginia march to reclaim their campus and city.

The recent tumultuous events surrounding Confederate statues attest to urbanism’s role in political discourse. Robert E. Lee and others from the Civil War have drawn riotous mobs, but why on Friday night before the bloody Charlottesville rally did a mob with torches shouting Nazi slogans and hurling racist slurs march across the central Grounds of the University of Virginia and conclude by circling a statue of Thomas Jefferson?

Not because it was convenient: Lee’s statue is a mile away. Was it protesting the University’s being a citadel of liberalism and privilege? Was it enlisting Jefferson in its cause? Was it hoping to return the University to when women and African Americans were not admitted, slaves worked in constructing it, and slaves ministered to the university and to slave-holding students? Wretched thought! 

The mob rejected the University’s intention, which is to educate guardians of justice and liberty. In Jefferson’s day students would come from the elite by birth and from those of “worth and genius” emerging from the universal, graduated system of education he envisaged. In our day the elite by birth must pass muster (legacy status does help; this is Virginia) and women, African Americans, other minority Americans, and even foreigners are admitted!

In his day the physical setting was to provide models for the architectural lecturer teaching leaders who would go forth and build. They saw the buildings and Grounds as physical manifestations of the curriculum’s diversity and unity and the content that it organizes. The Grounds, the curriculum, and the content of what they studied were united in conveying fundamental truths that had stirred people since antiquity and who transformed tradition ever after and into the present through new insight, knowledge, and experience. At the University students would learn to reason and to fund truth to dispel error, a program that was as new to the world as the nation itself was, a nation that followed “The maxim held sacred by all free people: obey the laws” and where the people made those laws.

That inscribed maxim greets people entering the Palmyra County Courthouse in Virginia designed by a friend of Jefferson. This small brick building followed the model of Jefferson’s Capitol in Richmond that itself adapted the model of ancient Greek and Roman temples.

The ancients isolated their temples within precincts where they honored the gods whom they believed were the source of their blessings. We don’t. We place them in the landscape among other buildings where they are accessible to all people and where all the buildings work together to make the place where individuals working together pursue the blessings available to a free people.

That open landscape is carefully nurtured into four parts with each serving a distinct role, something that in his day Jefferson’s University beautifully illustrated. It begins in the wilderness; Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark out to map it (there are two statues of these local boys in Charlottesville), and we now preserve fragments before it all disappears. Carved from wilderness is the rural district providing sustenance. Within its extent are dispersed civil centers with two parts. One is composed of gardens, both public parks and the private gardens where buildings are set and where cultivation grows plants for pleasure and the kitchen. The other is the concentration of buildings and open spaces defined by buildings we identify as urbanism where people pursue justice and happiness. At the University’s urbanism buildings embrace the planted Lawn; elsewhere paving prevails. Here is the center of the public, civil life, the place where we plant statues, and later we question their continued presence.

Urbanism doing good service to the civil life, and the civil life it serves cannot flourish without respecting tradition and introducing the innovations that the course of human events call for. Jefferson’s buildings are prime displays of this axiom. Its broad pallet of conventional parts and compositions and open spaces offer an emotionally fulfilling, beautiful, and rationally comprehensible distillate of the good life, here dedicated to the role that education plays in attaining it. Walls, columns, arches, and pediments compose a domed pantheon library, residence-classroom temples, dorm rooms flanking them, and colonnaded and arcaded walkways. Interlacing them are gardens and trees that culminate in the Lawn, a Common where buildings illustrate and discourse interrogates the collected wisdom and knowledge of the recent and distant past. Here antiquity and the experience of millennia are captured in the new, modern world, a place where students, faculty, and others may encounter, modify, reason, and dispute as they expand the body of knowledge and wisdom that we must command if justice is to make us free.

It is tragic that higher education continually distances itself from teaching and developing this civil, humane culture devoted to justice and the common good. Instead now almost everywhere future architects and those who will hire them are taught that architecture is yet another visual art used to display aesthetic or technical accomplishments displayed in buildings that are beyond the capacity of ordinary people to understand or appreciate. Urbanism fares no better; it is separated from architecture and is presented as the implementation of efficiencies that technology and economics define.

I doubt that few if any in the Friday night torch-bearing mob of would-be Nazis and proud racist were concerned about the deteriorating state of higher education today. But the power of the place that Mr. Jefferson built, the place where his buildings and urbanism still teach powerful lessons to those who are receptive to them, moved students and townspeople to act on behalf of what it stands for. They recognized the mob’s action as a profanation and desecration of that civil, humane culture, and so four nights later, simply by word of mouth and without preparation, they assembled and, carrying candles, they retraced the mob’s steps and filled the Lawn where they purged the mob’s stench and rededicated the University to its original, present, and continuing purpose. Here is the power of good urbanism. 

Carroll William Westfall (PhD Columbia University) first taught at Amherst College (1966-1972) and then the history of architecture in architecture programs at the University of Illinois in Chicago, after 1982 at the University of Virginia, and between 1998 and his retirement in 2015 at the University of Notre Dame as the Frank Montana Professor. He also served four years as Chairman of the School of Architecture at Notre Dame. He has published three books and numerous articles on topics from antiquity onward with a focus on the history of the city with particular attention to the reciprocity between the political life and the urban and architectural elements that serve the needs of citizens. He and his family and pets now live in Richmond, Virginia. 

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