There is much that Thomas Jefferson would have liked about the visitors center that Ayers/Saint/Gross, Architects + Planners (ASG), under the leadership of principal Adam Gross, has designed for Monticello. The 42,000-square-foot complex, scheduled for completion in 2008, will house a ticket pavilion, a café, a shop, an orientation theater, classrooms, a discovery room, and exhibition galleries—all meant to enhance the public's understanding of Monticello in keeping with Jefferson's vision for his 5,000-acre plantation. The placement of the new visitors center into the hillside a quarter of a mile from the main house echoes the “dependencies” that Jefferson partly buried into the hill to form Monticello's terrace. And the location of the new visitors center on the site of an earlier one stems from the architects' determination to “do no harm on this World Heritage Site,” according to Sandra Vicchio, a principal with Washington, D.C.–based ASG. The planning strategy, she explains, “confines our disturbance to already disturbed land.” It's an ethic that would probably please Jefferson, the father of Virginia's first public university.
Like Jefferson's “academical village” at the University of Virginia, the new visitors center encloses a central outdoor quadrangle, bordered by colonnades and low, gabled structures. And like the outbuildings and slaves' quarters that Jefferson built along Mulberry Row at Monticello, the center's loose arrangement of buildings, with copper-clad roofs, wood-sided walls, and wood-framed porches, recalls the traditional farmhouses of the Piedmont region. “We decided right from the start that we would not do buildings with red brick and white trim,” says Vicchio. Instead the firm, echoing Jefferson's interest in architecture appropriate to the new nation, sought to balance historical forms and modern needs. An example of this is the zigzag roofs that ASG has placed over the outdoor ticketing area, echoing similar roofs that Jefferson placed over the dependencies at Monticello. While such a form has historical precedent, it also links the practical aspect of Jefferson's character with that of modern architecture, using less material to achieve more strength.
ASG's design also reflects Jefferson's interest in new technology and scientific knowledge. Wouldn't Jefferson have enjoyed the challenge of designing for a LEED Gold rating? The inveterate farmer would have been enchanted with ASG's decision to use an intensive green roof courtyard over first-floor service spaces and to place another green roof over the retail area on the second level. Indeed, the greening of American architecture, evident in buildings like this, reinforces the agrarian vision that Jefferson had for the nation, one in which people would live close to and in harmony with nature.
Not that Jefferson always practiced what he preached. He once reportedly said, “Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down one of my favorite amusements.” Let us hope that that particular, not-very-sustainable Jefferson amusement does not befall ASG's visitors center.
Thomas Fisher is dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.
ARCHITECT Ayers/Saint/Gross, Architects + Planners, Washington, D.C.
CLIENT The Thomas Jefferson Foundation
SQUARE FOOTAGE 42,000 square feet
START DATE August 2006
COST Withheld by client