An Essay for Peter Waldman's Lessons of the Lawn

Originally written for ARCH 1010: Lessons of the Lawn with Peter Waldman at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, Fall 2018

Essay 1:

A city is the physical embodiment of the values, philosophy, and order of a people. The urban fabric grows out of the philosophical and programmatic essence of space. As Rychwert seems to argue, the inception of a city begins with the spirituality of a site, and the physical is erected about this core belief system. The surveyor establishes the cores of a city in line with the strongest values of the people who inhabit it. The further edges, lines, boundaries, roads, etc. further establishes the value and order of the people, creating a physical link between the earth and the people; the spiritual nature is encapsulated in the built environment. Thematically, a city is planned as a sort of narrative. Historically, the urban environment was planned about ceremony and festivity, with monuments punctuating the scene, highlighting revered elements of society. The ancient city of Athens in Greece highlights the many lessons of lawn through its attentive design which created a dialogue of the idea of a town, as well allowed for a conversation between citizens and strangers throughout time.

As the surveyor analyzes the city, it quickly becomes apparent that there are two main cores to the city: the spiritual soul and the communal gathering space. These two garments are vital to the urban fabric of the Athenian society, and each establish a different philosophical axis. Purves asserts there are two types of axes; the horizontal- the known world, human to human, right/left, sunrise/sunset etc- and the vertical- the unknown world, imagination, God/Devil, sky, etc. The Athenian agora is the horizontal axis since it is where Greek civic life blossoms. This was the gathering space for governmental life, the commercial hub where markets are bustling, a true heart of civic life. As Holl argued, architecture (and furthermore the urban environment) is tied to the experience of a site. A surveyor clearly can establish a link between this ‘horizontal’ axis of assembly and the central core of Washington DC. In DC, there is a political core where senators, representatives, and other political figures gather, much like the Bouleuterion in Athens. The Athenian lifestyle was built on the idea of democracy, and thus a major center of their city embodies what they believe in, much like the central core of DC embodies the core of American government. Both of these cities were planned to reflect the values of their societies. Within the Agora, there are specialized monuments to honor those who founded the city. The Statue of Eponymous Heroes was a monument to honor the twelve (four less than the number of columns in the Parthenon, two times the columns of the Rotunda) tribes that made peace, came together and became Athens, shedding the individuality of their tribes to unite under a single collective identity in an urban context. This monument further solidifies the values of Athens and continues the narrative of the city. In a similar way, DC honors the founders of the nation by creating large monuments, which again, tell the story of the city, specifically the founding of the United States. The physical iconography of the veneration of the important figures of US history like the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, etc. function to solidify the origins and identity of American Society, much like the Statue of Eponymous Heroes. The philosophic ‘sticks and stones’ origins of a people is an important feature in the design of a city. Although Athens and DC were developed in two separate moments in time, they have a continuous dialogue with one another. The idea of a town is an ongoing dialogue between different peoples and cultures throughout time; the profound lesson of the lawn is that there is connective tissue between the design and theory of architecture and urban landscape that transcends time as a linear mechanism.

As the surveyor develops into a sort of philosophical nomad, they realize that the Athenian Acropolis exemplifies the Purves’ vertical axis. The Acropolis is physically raised from the city of Athens, forcing one to physically move in the vertical to engage the space. This space is the spiritual core of the Athens. The Parthenon, the ideal icon of Athenian Architecture, houses the statue of Athena, highlighting the spiritual ideology of the Greek Athenians. The raised plateau of this sector of the city seeks to connect the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses to the Athenian people. This core of the city- an axis mundus of sorts- physically asserts the vertical axis of the city, highlighting the deep connection of religious overtones in Athenian life. Jefferson’s Academical Village has a similarly-functioning vertical axis. The Lawn is Jefferson’s ideal nation, created in the form of a small town. At the core of this theoretical city stands the Rotunda, a library of relationally larger proportion. The vertical axis of the ‘city’ is not spirituality, but the immense importance of knowledge. Jefferson seems to argue that knowledge should be at the core of American society, it is the higher power, the unknown, by which Americans should revere and worship on a path to enlightenment. Along the same lines, the core of Washington DC is the national mall, designed so that every major roadway leads this central point. The National Mall contains the monumental iconography of American History as well as a collection of museums that highlight the triumphs of humanity. The National Mall is the crown jewel of DC, and a symbolic representation of American and human history, culture, and life throughout time. Each of these cities have designed their city in different ways, each gets at the core of the people who inhabit it, reasserting the values and identities of the citizenry, as well as continuing the dialogue of the idea of a town. As the nomadic surveyor travels (perhaps occasionally analyzing the cities at a night, rejoicing in the ways of the lunatic), they can experience the narrative of the people who live there: learning the identity and values of the people. From the democratic spirituality of a collection of tribes uniting under one common self to the Arcadian, knowledge-valuing place of antiquity, to the cross-axial town of hubs, designed around one true core, this nomadic surveyor is the highlight of a stranger engaging in dialogue with citizens in the lessons of the lawn.

Essay 2:

The unprivate dwelling space is an architectural assertion which advocates a design theory. These works are popular case studies across the architectural field since they are the philosophical keystones to great architects continuing the ongoing conversation of what a dwelling space could be. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye is a vital case study of modern vacation spaces which outlines several design theories which have impacted the architectural field in an immense way. As Kahn would say, architecture is an offering to the spirit of architecture. Villa Savoye is a dwelling space that offers architectural theory and proposes the ideal vacation house. Le Corbusier believed that there could be no art without a system. The grid and systematic components of Villa Savoye create a truly Vitruvian design of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. The space was created in line with Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture. Nomads travel from far and wide to see this argument in design theory to study the ways of modernism, as defined by Le Corbusier, in a work that seems completely original but actually is in dialogue to the strangers of the past. This unprivate work invites nomads and provides them with Kahn would call an offering of the mind.

The first point of architecture Le Corbusier defines begins with pilotis, long white thin columns, which replaces the load bearing wall and frees up space for aesthetic quality. The façade of Villa Savoye contains these five column-like pilotis. Perhaps Le Corbusier was recalling the five major classical orders of columns: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan, and Composite. He created this dialogue to classical architecture, advocating for a new style of column in the modern age. In the same way that the Parthenon created an encapsulated “unprivate dwelling space” (that houses the statue of Athena) by surrounding the interior and exterior with a forest of columns to create an idealized image of the perfect Athenian architecture, Le Corbusier surrounds his unprivate house with pilotis to create his idealized image of the modern villa. The pilotis transition space from a heavy, cave-like condition (that occurs with thick load bearing walls) to a tent-like lightness. The effects of the lighter structure contribute heavily to the aesthetic dance the modern villa seems to rejoice in.

Another point of architecture seen in Villa Savoye is the roof garden. These ornamental components work to define to great lessons of the Academical Village. The roof garden establishes the connection of humanity to nature. While Villa Savoye is a vacation house, programmatically functioning to allow people to escape from work and relax, the connection to nature is a vital part to this escapist tactic. The roof garden begins to allow arcadian delight, something Jefferson felt was important. In both the Lawn and Monticello, Jefferson emphasized the importance of humanity’s connection with nature. Monticello, my little mountain, sits high on a hill surrounded by the luscious landscape of the blue ridges, allowing Jefferson to focus on his work, life, etc away from the bustling aura of a city. Now, both Le Corbusier and Jefferson’s projects both are open to curious nomads, providing a beautiful offering of the mind to all. The unprivate house not only establishes an architectural argument, but a story. Le Corbusier put the Garden of Eden on the roof of his house, adding a curvilinear shape functioning as a snake. The playful narrative of the roof adds to his compositional system of rectilinearity versus curvilinearity. The architectural work becomes an almost flea market of architectural history as Le Corbusier picks out old architectural elements and theories from across to compose this one collage of a project that reinvents the dwelling space.

The third point of architecture is the horizontal ribbon windows that are seen throughout Le Corbusier’s worked, but featured heavily in Villa Savoye. These windows are non-loadbearing but provide even light, perfect for getting light into the space or lighting the house up like a lantern at night (delighting the lunatics inside us all). Perhaps the most important aspect of these windows is their ability to frame views. The windows allow residents to look at the beautiful views of nature, furthering the escapist mentality and arcadian essence of the house. Waldman asserts his philosophical argument on windows, explaining that windows are dialogues to the past, threshold areas of transition, and are the ‘easy pieces’ of architecture. Villa Savoye’s philosophical window would look through the lens of villas throughout history, asserting itself in that long line of conversation as it is a project transitioning the villa into the modern age.

The last points of architecture Le Corbusier outlines are the free façade and the free floor plan. These two elements work in unison to blur the line between inside and out while creating a flexible living situation. While traditional villas like the Palladian Villa Rotunda heavily focuses on the ornamental façade of the building as a sign of power and elevation of status, Le Corbusier strips the façade for the modern style which then allows him to emphasize a Venturi idea of ‘both-and’ blurring the line between inside and outside through structural composition. The amalgamation of architectural theory established in Villa Savoye creates a deep connection to history through the appropriation of past architectural components which are then used in a slightly different way to establish an argument and theory for modern dwelling. These ideas from the unprivate dwelling percolated through the architectural community. The application of theory can be seen across projects. Waldman’s Parcel X utilizes the free plan to allow the nomad to experience a transition from cave to tent. The entrance of the house compresses the nomad into a smaller, comfortably low-ceilinged space. When the guest is invited up the stairs, the high ceiling and immense freedom of the free plan living space creates a lighter tent, seemingly learned from the theory of the unprivate dwelling space at Poissy. Villa Savoye has taught many nomads the joys of creating a narrative through the lessons of history, an on-going dialogue with the past.

Part 3:

The nomad enters.

To the North is Athens. A single door opens a gate out to the unknown. To the South is an organized garden (perhaps that of Eden, with a snake lurking in the grasses), featuring the olive tree, an important symbol to the origins of Greece. On this wall is horizontal ribbon windows, a nod to Le Corbusier. A desk with chairs sits facing the garden, and sun pours into the room. These pieces of furniture have rounded apertures that parallel the shape of the arches on the Lawn. To the West is the Sea and to the East is the Mountains. Le Corbusier would always analyze the preconditions of a site from sea to mountains. The western wall has two Jeffersonian windows. The eastern wall is a wall of wooden slits that resemble that of Aalto’s library apertures. The wooden slits recall the verticality the forests within the mountainous landscape, utilizing the natural meter. In the morning, one can paint the sun rising over the mountain range, and in the evening, they can paint the sunset over the sea. There is constant duality in the rooms, juxtaposing mountains and sea, urban city and natural garden, rectilinearity and curvilinearity, etc. The section of the building reveals a plan of the Academical Village (to delight the surveyor). The rotunda becomes a skylight, or a celestial soffit of sorts, allowing lunatics to enjoy the starry night sky.

One door.

Two apertures to the west.

Four ribbon style windows.

Sixteen Aalto-esque vertical wooden strips.

Two hundred and fifty-six blades in the garden.

One good room embodies a dialogue between citizens and strangers.

One good room delights the likes of surveyors, nomads, and lunatics.

One good room is an amalgamation of architectural components across space and time.

One good room contains a multiplicity of recurrent dualities that encapsulates the essence of life.

One good room highlights the lessons of the lawn.