Thomas Jefferson, chief author of the Declaration of Independence, slave owner and slave trader, 3rd President of the United States, lawyer and architect, founded the University of Virginia in 1819. He designed the school's architecture curriculum as well as the campus, incorporating the serpentine wall design that we looked at here.
Jefferson presumably chose the design for its thrift. In the document below, owned by UVA, we can see Jefferson working out the calculations for how many bricks would be saved by using the one-brick-thick serpentine design (roughly 25%, it turns out).
As mentioned in the previous post, the design was invented by the Dutch. But we Americans--like the North Koreans who believe Kim Il-Sung invented the light bulb--love attributing inventions to our Founding Fathers. Thus the design of the serpentine wall is commonly and incorrectly attributed to Jefferson, just as library steps are said to have been invented by Benjamin Franklin.
The walls are quite attractive.
In 2018 Theresa Williams, then-President of UVA, commissioned a study to look into the University's historic ties with slavery. In the resultant "Slavery and the University" report, details about the intended function of the serpentine walls were revealed:
"Jefferson's architectural plan for the University created distinct zones for the students and for the enslaved. The enslaved were to live and work in the basements and in the garden work yards where students were in theory to have little reason to venture.
"…The high walls of the gardens were designed to limit the ability of the enslaved to see beyond them and to essentially isolate the enslaved from contact with anyone outside the walls….
"The walls were also intended as barriers separating people owned by one faculty member or hotelkeeper from another and designed to make it easier for their owners to monitor their enslaved people.
"Jefferson's design, in theory, was intended to make it easy for the professor or the hotelkeeper to watch the enslaved as they worked."
I have no idea how widely-read the report was, and if the average UVA student realizes those pretty walls were designed to keep slaves isolated and "easier…to monitor." What I do know is that UVA recently partnered with Nike to redesign the logo for their athletic teams, the Cavaliers. Earlier versions of the logo featured a "V" over crossed sabers:
The unknown designer(s) of the new logo added facets to the V, and added a wavy handle grip to the sabers…"to mimic the serpentine walls:"
The new design was released on April 24th. Backlash ensued the same day.
Unfortunately it took nearly two months (and, well, nationwide anti-racism protests) until UVA finally announced, this week, that they are changing the logo to get rid of the serpentine detail.
"After the release of our new logos on April 24th, I was made aware of the negative connotation between the serpentine walls and slavery," [Virginia athletics director Carla] Williams said. "I was not previously aware of the historical perspective indicating the original eight-foot-high walls were constructed to mask the institution of slavery and enslaved laborers from public view.
"Over the last few weeks, I have worked to better educate myself and that education will continue.
"There was no intent to cause harm, but we did, and for that I apologize to those who bear the pain of slavery in our history. As such, we have redesigned the logos to remove that detail. All other aspects of the logos will remain the same."
The latest design, with the handle fixed.
The subtle difference between the two designs.
This story illustrates a challenge that designers are going to face, moving forward. While we do not know the motives of the designer(s) of the logo in adding the serpentine detail, it is possible that it sprung from ignorance--the designer spots the serpentine walls during a campus visit, does not know their significance, and simply thinks it a "neat" detail to reference in the design. Should they have been more curious? Ought they have taken the next step and asked someone "Hey, these walls are cool--what are they about?"
Even if they had, there's no guarantee they'd have gotten the answer. If we take Williams at face value she, the school's athletic director, didn't even know what the walls were designed for.
If we assume the above scenario is true, then it means that if the designer had done more research and asked more questions, this entire situation might have been avoided.
Question for you all: Is this the designer's responsibility? Can we do better?
Join over 240,000 designers who stay up-to-date with the Core77 newsletter.
Test it out; it only takes a single click to unsubscribe