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Thomas Jefferson and the Corona Virus

If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he would ask, “Haven’t we learned anything about the proliferation of disease?” In his time, specifically 1804, Jefferson observed that “large houses are always ugly, inconvenient, exposed to accident of fire, and in bad cases of infection.” Not just about large houses, but he had become aware of the problem when comparing his thoughts on designing a new college with his experience attending William and Mary. It is thought that Jefferson contemplated the notion of smaller structures while serving as American ambassador in France. Parisians understood that their traditional model for hospitals was not a best practice; instead, a series of interconnected structures would limit the spread of disease. So why not translate this formula to model all future academia?

A master of architecture and landscape, Jefferson applied his study to designing the academical village for the University of Virginia.

It is infinitely better to erect a small and separate lodge for each professorship, with only a hall below for his class and two chambers above for himself; joining these lodges by barracks for a certain portion of the students, opening into a covered way to give a dry communication between all the schools.

Coupled with Jefferson’s affinity for Italian architecture, the resulting academical village promote knowledge and good hygiene. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s design did not venture far as a model.

I bring this subject to your attention because of the building of mega structures in California, effectively altering the urban landscape. The Apple headquarters comes to mind. This is possible with modern air filtration, but diseases spread in other ways as well (wash your hands). Now, multiple companies are closing offices for weeks at a time in hope of containing the corona virus. Not long ago, tech employees were encouraged to work at home, but company policies changed to require people to come to the office nearly every day. Now, employees are once again sitting in home offices keeping offices up and running…until further notice.

For a summer week in 2010, I resided in Jefferson’s academical village while attending Monticello’s Historic Landscape Institute, intensively learning about Jefferson’s contributions to architecture, landscape, horticulture, and farming. The air was heady, fireflies dipped and swirled in the elegant lawn outside my small room located within the colonnade between academic pavilions. The ambiance inspired thought, unlike my own party town chaos of Cal Poly SLO dormitories, where, in winter, one person’s cold became everyone else’s.

Where this pandemic will take us is still an unknown, but the corporate and academic landscape might need to make some changes that brings health and safety to the fore. Is it time to revisit Thomas Jefferson’s ideas?

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