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Few Second Acts at U.Va.

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Pity the architects who've tried for almost 200 years to follow the genius of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.

Their efforts bring to mind Fitzgerald's remark regarding the dearth of second acts in American lives. In Charlottesville, though, we're talking about the life of one of the nation's finest master plans -- and the mostly lackluster structures that have proliferated around it.

At the time of its design, the spirit of Jefferson's 19th-century "academical village" was innovative, experimental and environmentally sensitive. Those who've come after have more often deferred to that spirit rather than tried to keep up with it.

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"Jefferson created an unbelievably powerful landscape," said Daniel Bluestone, director of the Historic Preservation Program at U.Va. "There's just this stunning resonance in the way the buildings intersect with the land."

Bluestone devoted a chapter in his new book, Buildings, Landscapes and Memory, to the banality of the buildings that followed the master in Charlottesville. It's titled "Captured by Context," and it explores the relationship between historic sites and adjacent development.

When Jefferson designed the school, it was to house 10 professors and 220 students. Today, those numbers have increased by a hundred fold. The result is a scale and density that he hardly could have imagined.

"McKim Mead & White's strategy was to go monumental, but small in deference. They tucked buildings into the landscape so as not to trump or overtype existing buildings," Bluestone said.

Others followed their cue, using Jefferson's bricks and columns in a dizzying array of design aesthetics that disappoint more often than delight. Some serve as unfortunate testaments to the fact that it's the music, rather than the words, that's most important in architecture. "Jefferson had a huge sense of the combination of land and buildings, and when you reduce it to red brick and white columns, it just doesn't work," Bluestone said.

But there are notable successes too. Gilmer Hall, designed and built by Louis Ballou from 1959 to 1963, is a modern and dynamic essay, with a clever comment on the university's serpentine walls. The original Campbell Hall by Pietro Belluschi and Sasaki, Dawson and Demay, 1965-70, also paid attention to earlier themes.

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"Like Stanford White before him, he paid special attention to the character of the brickwork, in order to harmonize his walls with those with the original parts of the university," Bluestone writes of Belluschi. Also successful are additions to Campbell Hall, the most recent being the East Wing by W.G. Clark in 2008.

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The school flirted with Louis Kahn for a Chemistry Building, but dropped him.

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It solicited designs from architects like Stubbins, Polshek, Stern and Graves, with varying degrees ofsuccess.

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"The real problem is that they keep trying not to do density," Bluestone said. "With 20,000 students and several thousand faculty, it's hard to do density and pretend you're still in the midst of a rural community."

Perhaps his most telling point, though, is contained in the last sentence in the last paragraph of the chapter. "Excellence, in the end," he writes, "should inspire excellence."

In Charlottesville, that's happened only rarely in the past two centuries.

For more on Daniel Bluestone and "Buildings, Landscapes and Memory," go to http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Buildings-Landscapes-and-Memory/
For more by J. Michael Welton, go to http://architectsandartisans.com