Independence Day Thoughts on Architecture

Another Independence Day is upon us. With the current political and social climate, freedom and the role of government is top of mind. Right now, it seems some divisions are too deep to pledge to be an indivisible nation. There are issues that our nation has battled from inception. Watching Lin Manuel Miranda’s, “Hamilton” reminded me that the bipartisan split was also prominent among our founding fathers. No one is perfect. The choices of our founding fathers are under a microscope once again as we face racial injustice. It begs the question: can an imperfect person still design the right system for governing? I think so. It amazes me that a document devised over 200 years ago remains in effect with some revisions today. One of my goals as a designer is to create timeless buildings. As awareness heightens about sustainability, designing framework that evolves over time is critical. The US Constitution and Bill of Rights serves as a model of an effective flexible framework.

In South Dakota, we have a monument that honors the men who created and preserved the structure of the government that we follow today. Mount Rushmore is one of the monuments that is under scrutiny as our nation reviews our history. While it is important to acknowledge the controversy, I am not going to explore the intricacies of this debate today. What I would like to discuss is one of the subjects portrayed in the monument: Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson is remembered as a founding father, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third U.S. president among other notable traits and accomplishments. Did you know he could also be remembered as an architect? In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s the regulation of the practice of architecture was much different than it is today. Thomas Jefferson did not formally study architecture. There were not any schools that taught architecture in America or its colonies then. His focus at the college of William and Mary was law, but he read about Palladio and classical architecture. Jefferson regarded reading books as the ultimate source of knowledge.

Through reading and traveling, he learned the discipline of architecture. He was drawn to the order of neoclassicism; symmetry, proportion, balance, and hierarchy are all evident in his designs. The argument could be made that this order translated to other areas of life and his philosophy on the role of the government. Furthermore, his desire for a disciplined orderly world could reveal his need to rectify the chaos of his world before, during, and after Revolution. Given the unrest of the present, I can relate. The more things are out of control, the more I look to the things I know and the predictability that comes from rules and familiarity.

As an aside, I can not celebrate his accomplishments without acknowledging the fact that he owned slaves. While he did many great things, one can’t ignore his perpetuation of the practice of slavery in America.

As the Fourth of July approaches, I challenge you to reflect on our nation’s history. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Acknowledge the triumphs and shortcomings of our nation. Remember how we the people have and can continue to learn and grow. Pause and appreciate those that came before (in all their imperfection) who fought to preserve our inalienable rights. We are blessed and we will overcome the challenges. We are a resilient nation of people who hold different backgrounds and beliefs; however, we are united by our shared value of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let freedom ring and continue to pursue equality!

3 Replies to “Independence Day Thoughts on Architecture”

  1. Well articulated, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you, Liz, for bringing together the past, the present and the less-well-known side of Jefferson as an architect. And thanks for leaving this post up beyond July!

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