Compare and Contrast: Palace of Fine Arts and University of Virginia

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Compare and Contrast: Palace of Fine Arts and University of Virginia

This essay paper is a comparative analysis of two architectural structures, the Palace of Fine Arts and the University of Virginia. The architect behind the construction of the University is Thomas Jefferson. In building the construction, Thomas Jefferson used bricks extensively, as for the periodic style, he used Neo-Classical. On the other hand, the architectural design of the Palace was done by Bernard Maybeck. The style that Maybeck used in constructing the building is known as Beaux-Arts. As for the materials, the old construction was built using steel structures and plaster as it was meant to be temporary. The buildings share an architectural theme in that they are both inspired by Roman architecture. The objective of this research is therefore to learn how two different styles interpret from the same source of influence.

Visual Analysis

Structure One

The structure of the Palace is erected on a site that has a small man-made lagoon. The palace has a wide pergola that measures 340 m (1,100 ft). The formation of the pergola is an arch and it has a wide walkway that is framed by Corinthian columns placed in rows. In the middle of the pergola is a rotunda that is centrally placed by the lagoon (Yu n.p). The intention of the lagoon was to those found in classical Europe. The artificial water body was supposed to act as a reflective surface to mirror the magnificent structure and create a panoramic view that would be appreciated from a distance. In building the Palace of Fine Arts, Maybeck’s intention was to create the appearance of Roman ruins in decay.

Structure Two

The University’s architectural structure is a magnificent building that resembles the neoclassical temples of Europe. The construction features a Pantheon that measures two-thirds of the scale (Kostof 625). The pantheon is set at the head of a rising mall with interconnected columnar pavilions on the flanks. In its planning, the library was housed by the Rotunda while the pavilions were the living quarters for lecturers as well as lecture rooms. Each pavilion offers an individually unique representation of the classical Roman order design (Kostof 625).

Stylistic Analysis

Structure One

The architectural style that the Palace was built with is an expression of the architectural neoclassical style that was taught in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. Until the year 1968, the instruction style of Beaux-Arts went on without any major interruptions (Middleton 10). In the period between the years 1880 and 1920, the architecture in the United States was heavily influenced by the architectural style of Beaux-Arts. The period between 1860 and 1914 saw the gravitation of European architects who were non-French towards the academic centers of their natural countries instead of being fixated on Paris (Klein, Fogle, and Wolcott 38). The mainstream patterns of the Imperial Roman architecture were highly emphasized by the training used for Beaux-Arts. These patterns ranged from the period of the first emperor Augustus to those of the Severan dynasty, Italian Renaissance as well as Italian and French Baroque. However, the training was applicable on a wider series of models. Architects from America who learned the style of Beaux-Arts were more inclined towards the Greek models. This was because of the 19th century American Greek Revival which gave the models historical prominence locally.

The Beaux-Arts style was dependent upon sculptural decorations that were conservatively modern. It employed the use of Italian and French Baroque as well as Rococo designs mixed with realism and impressionistic finish. Even though there was an approach of a renew spirit embodied in the style of Beaux-Arts as opposed to a set of motifs, the architectural style included principal characteristics such as: a flat roof, symmetry, arched windows, subtle polychromy, arched pedimented doors, rusticated base with a raised first story and statuaries, mosaics, murals, sculptures as well as other artwork combined in a theme that portrays the building’s identity (Klein, Fogle, and Wolcott 38). The style’s classical architectural details include acroteria, cartouches, garlands, pilasters, balustrades, as well as an outstanding display of clasps with rich details, supporting consoles and brackets (Klein, Fogle, and Wolcott 38).

There has been controversy as far as the Palace in relation to the Beaux-Art style is concerned. The Palace was loved by the people but not given recognition by the architects. Maybeck’s training was in accordance with the French academic system but it is argued that his work is not befitting of the American Beaux-Arts architect’s ideals. This is because he restrained from adding design elements from his previous works. The Palace therefore was not able to be compared to any archetypes of European architecture (Yu n.p). Nevertheless, the Palace still bears characteristics of the Beaux-Arts style from its rusticated base, arches as well as its classical architectural details like sculptures, pilasters and murals.

Structure Two

The University’s architectural style is defined by Neo-classical architecture. The style was born of the mid 1800s neoclassical movement (Hopkins 199). The style came about both as an outgrowth of some Late Baroque features as well as a response against the Rococo style that featured naturalistic adornment. The form of the architectural style lies in the emphasis of the wall as opposed to chiaroscuro. It also sustains separate identities to each individual part (Hopkins 199). This architectural style is picturesque and evocative and its frame is in line with the Romantic emotional response. Rationally the sense of neo-classism was to return to renaissance classism, Greek and Roman arts which were perceived as pure.

The neoclassical architectural style is characterized by a grand portico with a porch built in full height. To add on, the portico’s roof is supported by full classical columns that are usually fluted with capitals that are ornate Corinthian or Ionic (Hopkins 199). The style is also symmetrical in terms of balance; it has a centralized entry with a balanced arrangement of windows on its flanks. The neoclassical style features subtypes that are varied in roofing style of the portico, width as well as height. Porticos with flat and curved roofs are rarely seen. Other defining features of the style include elegant clean lines, neat appearance and massive building size. The principal form that the neoclassical style is based upon is the temple (Hopkins 199). The temple represented the purest form of classical architecture and this was an ideal conception of the style.

In designing the structure of the university, Jefferson blended various architectural styles. The building evokes the principles of European architecture of the French, Greek and Italian influence and is blended with the Chinese touch as well (Jefferson and The Politics of Architecture n.p). The blend of architectural influences is ultimately cast in building materials from America and showcased in an academic community. In an effort to blend the classicist style even further, Jefferson used different materials from different areas. For instance, the third Pavilion was constructed with columns made from Italy and transported under the guise of educational materials to the site, whereas the columns on the first pavilion were made in Charlottesville (Howard and Straus 189). Jefferson pieced together the European architectural styles on the structure and blended them to his own liking in an effort to make it have a unique American appearance (Jefferson and The Politics of Architecture n.p). The features of the university that are characterized with the neoclassical architectural style are mainly the columns, the building’s portico, and especially the temple like design of the structure which is part of the styles ideal.

Cultural (Historical) Context

Structure One

The Palace of Fine Arts was built as one of the magnificent constructions of San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915 (Kale n.p). It was located towards the middle of the expansive construction of the exposition and it stood out as the most inspiring structure at the fair. The Fair was in honor of the Pacific Ocean’s discovery as well as the Panama Canal’s completion (Maybeck and Elder 2). There was also an added purpose to the Fair which was in celebration of its own comeback after the devastating fire and earthquake of 1906 (The Palace of Fine Arts n.p). Once the site had been chosen and the groundwork had been developed, the Palace was the last structure to be erected. In representation of its culture, the structure of the Palace was built to show grandeur. This was done by placing the arch’s center behind the rotunda to avoid their concentric alignment in rings. Due to that, a wider arch was able to be built on the same space (Yu n.p). In its plans were a colonnade and a rotunda which amazed the commissioners and fulfilled Maybeck’s dream. The exhibition hall of the palace was built to house the artworks of living artist (Maybeck and Elder 3).

Another element that shows significance to the culture and events associated with the palace is its appearance. The palace looks like ruins of classical antiquities. Being hailed as the exposition’s most authentic design, Maybeck added the elements of Roman and Greek antiquity and also incorporated his own creativity to make the building unique (Maybeck and Elder 5). His idea was influenced by the structure was from Piranesi engraving of Roman ruin (Yu n.p). His thoughts were that there was a feeling of sadness to the building personalized by the sense that there is a soothing influence to beauty (Yu n.p).

The initial construction of the palace was temporary and not intended to last after the Fair was concluded primarily because it was built on valuable land (Maybeck and Elder 2). With that notion in mind, it was merely constructed with plaster which was supported by structures of steel (Yu n.p). The palace was however not brought down as a result of its influence on the people. In a preservation of the culture and influence of the palace, the demolition and rebuilding was set in motion in 1964 (The Palace of Fine Arts n.p). The columns and the rotunda were brought down and the building was rebuilt on a permanent basis with a steel structure just as the initial construction. The reconstruction of the palace’s buildings was done using permanent light weight concrete that was poured into place. For the rotunda’s dome, steel I-beams were hoisted into place (The Palace of Fine Arts n.p). The sculptures and all the decoration were newly constructed by pouring concrete onto pre-casts of the figures so as to ensure that the eventual result matched the original models.

Structure Two

Unlike the Palace of Fine Arts, the University of Virginia’s structure was not part of a massive project but rather a project on its own. The building hails as the country’s first state university (Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture n.p). The construction of the university building was not just a general design but a design drawn by an architect full of the belief that the heart of the American course lied within architecture. He considered a building as more than just a wall structure but a symbol for the American ideology (Howard and Straus 187). Jefferson also perceived construction as a process that was equal to creating a nation. According to him, any American architecture was supposed to illustrate the split of cultural and political ties with Europe (Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture n.p). He hence went forth to set the standards of the country’s architecture aesthetically as well as politically.

Jefferson hence went on to instill his educational and cultural ideals into the design and construction of the University’s building. In a representation of the European culture’s influence, the appearance of the building is quite classical as a result of Jefferson’s influence from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture n.p). The likeness of the Basilica and the rotunda lies in their approach. The way that leads to the Rotunda goes down towards a shaded passage lined with columns that leads to the main focal point of the structure. Jefferson substituted the great stone Piazza with the wide natural space of the lawn (Howard and Straus 189). Instead of a view of the Italian city of Rome, the university’s visitors are given a natural magnificence of the Blue Ridge Mountains which can be viewed to the south (Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture n.p).

The university uses classical vocabulary to represent America as the inheritor of European architecture style. The collections of styles that are incorporated on the Lawn of the university are symbolic of the New World Order by Jefferson in both an architectural and intellectual sense (Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture n.p). In designing the building, the European customs have been revised, borrowed, integrated and then redone in an American way in terms of materials, tastes and needs (Howard and Straus 189). The riddles within the architecture do not stop with the random collection of styles but goes beyond. It actually extends onto the Lawn’s layout. Jefferson’s adaptation of classical styles incorporates the mixture of architecture of the Italian villa, together with Doric columns and Corinthian pediments as well as Chinese Latticework and French curves (Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture n.p). He represented them in painted wood and the red brick of Virginia and finally put them across the Lawn’s open public space in contrast with each other. The Lawn’s physical space is hence transformed into a vision of intellectual inquisition and curiosity (Howard and Straus 189). In building the university, Jefferson speaks through classical architecture and ideas. Each of the structure’s pavilions is in visual communication with the other (Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture n.p). This effect presents the scholars and students on the Lawn with a debate from a structural as well as ideological perspective that culminates from the architect as well as the architecture.

Another point that is portrayed by the cultural influence of the university’s structure is evident from the Rotunda which is symbolic of power. Unlike the Basilica, Jefferson’s version is a secular cathedral which was built in tribute to knowledge and power with a new world order in mind. The designs done by Jefferson are bordered on the simple aspects of the neoclassic style as opposed to the detailed ornaments of the cathedral by Bramante or the curving colonnades by Michelangelo (Jefferson and the Politics of Architecture n.p). The Rotunda is not symbolic to the ruins of the Roman Empire but rather accentuates the marvel of nature alluding to the synchronization man and nature that is at hand in the university’s architectural material and its pure geometrical design (Howard and Straus 190).


The two structures of the palace and the university are quite unique and do not relate in several aspects. The two buildings are made by different architects, have different period styles and are varied in terms of their historical events as well. However, despite all these major differences, their styles are influenced from the same source which is the classical Roman architecture. The differences are marked by the individual ideas and concepts of the architects designs and their purpose of blending them with the culture and historical events during their times of construction. However, beyond the differences are key elements that are synonymous with the classical Roman architecture such as the classical architectural details like the pilasters, sculptures and murals on the palace and the Rotunda, columns and the temple like designs of the university. Conclusively even though the structures are diversely unique, these notable elements from the classical Roman architecture are indicative of the inspiration behind the building of the structures and how they are able to manifest differently.

Works Cited

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Middleton, Robin.The Beaux-Arts: And Nineteenth-Century French Architecture. London: Thames and

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Klein, Marilyn W, David P. Fogle, and Wolcott B. Etienne.Clues to American Architecture. Washington,

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Kostof, Spiro.A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.


The Palace of Fine Arts”. Exploratorium. 1998.

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Yu, James. “Palace of Fine Arts”. UMD. 2015.

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