The God Is in the Detail

Virginia is our birthplace, the molds that shaped our bold country casted from its rugged, breathtaking terrain. The first permanent English settlement, the oldest continuous lawmaking body on the continent, and the first president – all Virginian.

And, also, Sandra Bullock, Rob Lowe, and Pharrell Williams. OMG, right?

pharrell

Pharrell’s hat belongs to Virginia. (Edited. Original photo by Shawn Ahmed.)

It should come as little surprise, then, that the modern university is, too, Virginian. And like many an American institution, Thomas Jefferson played an important hand.

Not that UPenn would agree with any of this. To that contingent of naysayers, however, I point to “the Rotunda” in Charlottesville.

University of Virginia was Jefferson’s baby, his last grand gesture to the American people. It was, in many ways, a summation of his life’s work, combining his love of classical values with his rejection of divine right and belief in meritocracy. He personally designed UVA’s campus, styling it as an academical village in the tradition of Plato’s Academy.

A domed, red brick structure with a dramatic Palladian portico upheld by Corinthian columns, the Rotunda is as at once Roman and American. Modeled after the Pantheon, it upturns the values of antiquity by using forms previously reserved for religious institutions as the basis for a secular university. It places people, not God, at center stage.

rotunda

(Edited. Original photo by Phil Roeder.)

Dorms and classrooms radiate from the Rotunda, creating a U-shaped campus of interlocked buildings around a terraced landscape referred to as “the Lawn”, where students and teachers can spend sunny afternoons in vigorous debate.

hall

Jefferson noted that students could travel from their dorm rooms to class without ever stepping foot in the rain. Probably because he hated it when his hair got wet. (Edited. Original photo by Chad Fennell.)

OK, so maybe Jefferson was bit of an idealist. He’d undoubtedly have turned up his nose at the – erm – anatomical studies occasionally undertaken on the Lawn by today’s students. Yet there’s no denying the charm and eerie power of his campus. Even now its dorms are coveted by students. It was a bold statement for a new nation, a visual declaration of our independence from the dead weight of the old world.

Jefferson didn’t create UVA in a vacuum, of course. Though he’d heaped scorn upon the design of the College of William & Mary, his alma mater, it’s clear that Williamsburg’s ol’ brick kiln (as he likened it) profoundly influenced him. The Rotunda and Lawn are essentially elongated, decentralized takes on William & Mary’s Wren Building, where in Jefferson’s time, the entire college was housed. It too was U-shaped, and students and professors slept, studied, and masticated under the same roof.

wren

(Edited. Original photo by R.N.X.)

Take a stroll through even the most hellaciously brutalist college campus and you’re likely to see at least a couple Jeffersonian touches.

Famously, Vitruvius wrote: “As for men upon whom nature has bestowed so much ingenuity, acuteness, and memory that they are able to have a thorough knowledge of geometry, astronomy, music, and the other arts, they go beyond the functions of architects and become pure mathematicians. Hence they can readily take up positions against those arts because many are the artistic weapons with which they are armed. Such men, however, are rarely found, but there have been such at times.”

Thomas Jefferson was such a man. In his dogged pursuit of the secular, he stumbled upon the divine. May we bear witness.

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3 thoughts on “The God Is in the Detail

  1. The University of Virginia is one of America’s elite public institutions, along with Michigan, UC Berkeley, UNC, and. . .well. . .not too many others. UCLA? U-W Madison?

  2. I had forgotten the term “public Ivies,” but now I am reminded. That link will make for good reading. I actually had no idea that MAC-sponsored Miami of Ohio is such a good school.

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