AWARDED THE 50TH ANNUAL THOMAS JEFFERSON FOUNDATION MEDAL IN ARCHITECTURE
It is particularly appropriate that internationally-renowned architect Herman Hertzberger was the recipient of the 50th Annual Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture. Appropriate because a milestone honor should go to a milestone-worthy recipient, and Hertzberger is no doubt that, and more. But also appropriate because Hertzberger, known as a “sociological architect,” has spent his entire illustrious career designing spaces that represent an utterly Jeffersonian ethos that places the ultimate value of a structure not only on the structure itself, but also on the structure’s ability to ignite unique and meaningful interactions between people. Presented jointly by the University of Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and Monticello, the Medals are the highest external honors bestowed by the University, which grants no honorary degrees. They recognize achievements of those who embrace endeavors in which Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. president, excelled and held in high regard, including Architecture, Law and Public Citizenry. Hertzberger’s approach is best described in his own words. He describes structure as “not what is constructed, what is built, but the very aspect that construction leaves, or rather, opens up. And this is what we want to shift attention to in order to make space for the unexpected.”
“Herman Hertzberger is the rare architect who excels as a designer, a theorist, and an educator,” said Elizabeth K. Meyer, FASLA, Dean and Edward E. Elson Professor and Merrill D. Peterson Professor of Landscape Architecture. “For fifty years, he has pursued a set of enduring concerns that are timeless, resonating across decades and generations.” Hertzberger’s career and accomplishments, Meyer points out, are all the more impressive when you consider the context of the time he arrived on the scene. “His architecture revels in the everyday, creates spatial frameworks that are adaptable and responsive, and exploits the affective qualities of architectural form and space. These considerations, developed in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, were important critiques of mid-twentieth century modern architecture’s reduction of human experience to user surveys and generic, functionally separated areas.”
“Herman Hertzberger’s architecture offers a powerful antidote to the insatiable demand of transnational capital for scenography and standardization,” said Shiqiao Li, Weedon Professor in Asian Architecture at the Architecture School, “and to the overdetermined techno-utopias which hijack the environmental agenda. Hertzberger’s architecture speaks the language of Thomas Jefferson.”
In fact, Hertzberger’s visit brought him unexpected revelations about Jefferson’s work and style. “Mr. Hertzberger was effusive about Thomas Jefferson as an architect,” Li said, “and how much more complex and inventive the Academical Village was than he had expected given the images and drawings he had seen of it. He was so taken with its tight matrix of public spaces, inside and outside, that were scaled to maximize student interactions with one another, with each other, and with the landscape. It is a great example of the fact that the concept of Jeffersonian architecture extends far beyond its trademark bricks and columns, and that a structuralist can read and interpret relationships across culture, scale, time, and style.”
The academic environment is a particular specialty of the Dutch-born Hertzberger. Since opening his firm (now known as Architectuurstudio HH) in 1960, schools have been a particular specialty, including the celebrated Montessori School in Delft. The school was built around the idea that it would simultaneously address the needs of the school community and the child to facilitate interactive learning. Other specialties include housing complexes and cultural centers, including buildings in the Netherlands, such as the headquarters of Centraal Beheer insurance company, where he employed a design featuring open field repetitive geography to represent equality among employees, and The Ministry of Social Affairs at The Hague, which featured one of the earliest successful examples of an internal street concept.
“I was especially pleased that Herman Hertzberger was our 2015 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medalist, as his substantial expertise in designing buildings that define the shape of the public realm at all scales,” Meyer said, “from a stoop to an interior courtyard atrium to a street, and that emphasize the gradient or threshold between public and private, is one of the architect’s most important tasks. These preoccupations with the ‘in-between’ of architecture is part of what differentiates our university’s historic grounds from most campuses, and it is also characteristic of the School of Architecture’s cross-disciplinary ethos.”
During his visit, Hertzberger shared his vision in a variety of venues, from a public talk on April 13 to a classroom review with students of Professor Margarita Jover Biboum. “He spoke so eloquently about the obligations and joys of being an architect,” Meyer said. “He was authentic, humanistic, and deeply committed to space as a social medium, a theater for everyday life.”