Friday, April 10, 2009

Individual Work: Jefferson's take

Architecture as embodying theme, in Thursday's New York Times, no less! I wish there was more architectural criticism of Poplar Forest, but it is a general-interest article.

"Its elegance is as stunning as its impracticalities, its form creating less a place for living than one for contemplation (which is why so many of the home’s owners, over the years, were compelled to make modifications). Restored to original form, the house reflects an ideal, lightly compromised. It seems an echo of Monticello’s larger, more polished expression of that ideal."

"Jefferson's Blind Spots and Ideals; in Brick and Mortar"


  1. I also find it nice that people are interested in meaningful architecture and, well, meaning, again. However, I find something disturbing about this particular example. One, the writer chose a Thomas Jefferson building, citing rightly that it reflects an ideal. However, is this ideal relevent in our contempory times? I believe that there is a great deal of problem solving and forms that can evoke the same experiences or be a framework ofr similar experiences whether from 1769 or 2009, but at the same time, this example reminds me of that first lecture Kyle gave before we left to go abroad. Why does there exist that school of thought that is drawn to Neo-neo-classicism and neoclassical ideals?

    I think, too, the comment made by the writer of the Times also made obvious the failure of this scheme to speak to those who have lived in it over the years. Jefferson, like his contemporaries believed in the individual, in the quiet and powerful American gentleman farmer lifestyle. They would have lived well in this "place of contemplation." I also believe that this form would be swell for people of the same mindset today. Most likely. But the sheer statement:

    "Its elegance is as stunning as its impracticalities, its form creating less a place for living than one for contemplation (which is why so many of the home’s owners, over the years, were compelled to make modifications)."

    is sincerely telling that this writer is somewhat a modernist and believes not only in the "practicality" (read functionalism) of a home, but that a place of contemplation is not in keeping with a greater world view that seems to be dripping out of his words: efficiency.

    I question something else in this reading. It has to do with contextualism and a need for theorists to have a strong sense of "ideal." Did we all not learn, as good American architecture students, that Jefferson took the classical ideals and made them relevant and in keeping not only with the new American ideals, but also was a master of making it the "common man's" (read gentleman farmer's) and modern man's (read man of 18th cen.) place of living? That you could, really, truly live in them? I would ask the theorists this question: Was he he really "compromising" an ideal? Or, because of the American context, that it was extremely appropriate for the views, expressed well and without compromise? We were not men of Rome, after all.

    I don't see, of course, that project 4 sought to make us build diagram buildings, but instead give us yet another tool to find our own "roman ideal" and then be Jefferson's, making it fit into many material, volumetric and contextual frameworks. (even Monticello was a similar response to its place, not a regurgitation of some theoretical line on paper.)

    I don't know if my conclusion to this post should be: "Lay off Jefferson", or "New York Times: where is the contemporary man's meaning?" or "let's consider what "compromise" means. Maybe all.

  2. The reason why I posted this article is that Jefferson's design seemed quite similar to our Project 4 assignment - and that it's rare that a mainstream article so directly connects architecture to meaning. Look at the headline: Blind Spots and Ideals in Brick and Mortar. That's exactly our last project! But hopefully we had more successful execution and less blind spots.

    Jefferson's ideals - his worldview - about life, liberty and happiness are absolutely relevant today. For us to express those ideals today in neoclassical architecture is absurd. But we can still learn from Jefferson's effort.

    Jefferson thought that individual contemplation was important and decided to design a place for that separate from the big house at Monticello. He chose to express his world view about contemplation through perfect octagons and cubes, an oculus, panoramic views, and by prioritizing air and light. Did that work? The reporter seems to think so. But Jefferson was also designing a house; and in that respect he fails in response to programmatic activities (access to kitchen through bedrooms). Jefferson compromised program in favor of experience - and people didn't like it and modified the house. These, too, are lessons for us.

    Contemporary architecture is not in the scope of this article; it's a museum review. Perhaps the NYT could do a follow-up piece on how life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness could be expressed in contemporary architecture.

    My favorite part of the article: "He may disappoint us, but his vision is so powerful it ends up inspiring anyway." What an amazing tribute!

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  4. I'm going to guess that one of the east or west chambers was the "kitchen" in the reporter's view and that the front chamber was the "bedroom." One, I was under the impression that chamber was simply a space, like in many of the villas we studied in archie-history 300. That they were somewhat flexible. Perhaps they were used in that way, but how does the reporter know? can we comment on the sleeping situations of 200 year old men? Plus, there was access to the corridor (privacy tool) just as much as there is access to the "kitchen." Perhaps a man of contemplation takes tea and cake in the early mornings and his slave must bring him breakfast in bed. Should a slave be able to walk through the private hall? Why shouldn't there be a separate entry to the kitchen? Perhaps that is in keeping with Jeffersonian habits. I'm not sure.

    I just still am not convinced that Jefferson made any compromise, or that a contemplative life as well as another kind of life cannot exist simultaneously. What kind of life would something so simple be? When would he have had time to drink spirits with the other Virginian delegates and sign the declaration of independence?


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