by James A. Bacon
The University of Virginia’s newly formed Karsh Institute of Democracy will be housed in a signature building, a key part of the Ivy Road corridor in Charlottesville that will include an Olympic sports center, the football program, the School of Data Science, a conference center, and structured parking. Expecting to invite world-class speakers to the venue, UVa officials want the building to make a memorable architectural statement.
In a presentation to the Board of Visitors last week, University Architect Alice J. Raucher walked board members through the thinking behind the preliminary design. Thematically, the architects sought to link UVa’s founding ideals while looking ahead for the next 200 years and highlighting the university’s “global identity” as a forward-looking institution, she said. The signature staircase was inspired by the Oval Rooms in the Rotunda, and the window panels by the classical columns of Thomas Jefferson’s academical village. The design also is meant to communicate the “message of democracy” by being a “welcoming, inviting, inclusive” place that is “open and transparent.”
Some board members liked the design. But it left others cold.
“The building is a beautiful building, but it has nothing to do with the University of Virginia,” said board member Bert Ellis in the first response to the presentation. There is nothing in the design to tie the building to the rest of the UVa grounds, where the dominant motif is red brick.
A robust discussion ensued about the merits of red brick, reflecting a long-running tension between those who wish to make bold, forward-looking architectural statements with UVa’s new buildings and traditionalists who want to maintain thematic continuity with Jefferson’s world-renowned design of the Lawn and Rotunda.
The Board’s background materials said that the 65,000-square-foot building is “envisioned as an ecosystem of spaces designed to support scholarship and engagement around the challenges that face democracy.”
The four-story building will feature a 425-seat state-of-the-art auditorium that will allow events to be hosted in-person and broadcast globally, as well as classrooms, a media-production suite, meeting space, and research areas. The building will “encourage impactful collaboration” between the Karsh Institute, the Batten School of Leadership (which will occupy 17,500 square feet), and other groups on the Grounds.
The design team is Howeler + Yoon and Hanbury Architects, which designed the university’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, and the project has incorporated input from the Karsh family whose $50 million contribution was critical in funding the Institute.
Some board members said the use of limestone instead of red brick helps the building stand out. “I thought it was a phenomenal design,” said Stephen P. Long.
“I happen to like the building,” said Rector Whitt Clement. “I think the building should be different. It should catch the eye.”
Former Congressman L.F. Payne said he thought the design stays true to the Jeffersonian tradition. At the same time, he said, the Ivy Road Corridor is a new “precinct” of the university and should be allowed to have a distinct identity.
Louis Haddad, the CEO of Armada Hoffler Properties in Hampton Roads, offered the strongest voice in favor of the design. Iconic buildings invariably stir controversy, he said. He can see the building hosting world-class events, such as presidential debates. “Opportunities to do something of international renown don’t come along very often. Don’t blow it by compromising.”
“A building designed by committee will be a mess,” he added.
But other board members shared Ellis’ reservations.
Carlos M. Brown said the design reminded him of brutalist architecture, referring to a post-World War II modernist movement that critics reviled as soulless. “I don’t feel that [the building] is the temple of democracy.”
“I admit to liking brick,” said President Jim Ryan. “You want an iconic building,” he said, but the design should should have “echoes of the Rotunda.” He asked Raucher if the architects could “play around” with the design a little, incorporating red brick as an element.
All the other buildings on the corridor will be built of red brick, Raucher said, and it is a “reasonable request” to ask the architects to submit revised designs.
Editor’s note: Bert Ellis is president of The Jefferson Council.