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1984 December: 'Celebration of the City' by Reyner Banham

In a piece extracted from his ‘New Society’ article, Reyner Banham identifies the Staatsgalerie’s contextural references to Stuttgart and discusses the cultural problems of an English architect who now works mostly in Germany and America

Stirling’s free-form bravura may sound like the usual Post-Modernism omnium-gatherum of eclectic historical details, but isn’t. He is not only one of the most visually erudite architects of his generation but - like Le Corbusier, his first hero - is also extremely observant of things which are not particularly architectural, and can turn practically any of them to architectural effect. If the visitor to the Staatsgalerie will look around him at the city beyond with only moderate attention, he will see that with barely a couple of major exceptions the pit-head gear re-deployed as a lift shaft, the supposedly Piranesi plantings on the top of the rotunda - the details seem to come from the museum’s immediate urban surroundings.

Stuttgart is - in its civic and governmental moods - a stone-faced city, given to large, serious cornices and the like. The segmental-arched window-openings that Stirling employs so freely are equally freely employed throughout historical Stuttgart. But the greenhouse-roofed canopies at the entrances are the local downtown bus shelters. Where the museum’s less grandiose minor accommodations break out above the stone-faced terraces, or up at the back of the site, they display the regular yellow stucco (and even the dotty round windows) that were the commonplaces of Stuttgart’s rebuilding after the air raids at the end of the Second World War, the vernacular townscape of Fassbinder’s ‘Maria Braun.’

In modern architecture, this sort of thing used to be called (cribbing), especially by Stirling and his mates who made no bones about it (‘Okay, then, historian Banham; name my influences!) but when the Post-Modernists and other wets of academe moved into the act, it was elevated to the status of typology or contextualism. What Stirling & Wilford have done at Stuttgart could just about be called typological in the sense that it looks something like a typical art gallery, and contextual in that it looks something like its context - ie the neighbourhood.

Contextualism, however, has been increasingly taken to mean looking so nearly exactly like the neighbourhood that no one will notice that you have done a new building at all, and that is what recommends it to Young Fogey pundits of the David Watkin/Roger Scruton Neo-Conservative tendency. Stirling can do that number, too, as his extensions to the Architecture Building at Rice University in Houston (AR February 1982) testify, all looking so like the blandly third-rate architecture to which they are attached that you don’t immediately twig what a first-rate piece of work he has done.

The relationship to the Stuttgart context isn’t like that at all. This is a big bold building, commanding on its site, respectful of the older museum next door as one professional to another, and - above all - a sort of celebration of the city of Stuttgart itself, and its architectural traditions - including the proud place it occupies in the mythology of modern architecture because of the manifesto houses by practically every accredited hero of Modernism that survive from the exhibition of 1927 on the hill of Weissenhof overlooking the city.

The ultimate strength of Stirling’s design, as William Curtis pointed out in AR August, lies not in its Classical references, but in its underlying discipline of Modernist compositional methods. Stirling himself is prone to compare the plan with that of Berlin’s Altes Museum, because of the central rotunda. But the way everything else is put together goes back to the more formalist aspects of Modernism, such as he was taught at Liverpool in the 40s. It is on the basis of this inward strength that he can compliment the city of Stuttgart by making what are very high-level architectural jokes about it, and for it.

The best of these jokes is that the necessary ventilation for the car parking under the lowest terrace has been made by way of a couple of (accidents) to the front wall. Gaping holes have been made where blocks of stone have apparently fallen out, and there they are, lying half-buried in the grass by the pavement-and everybody in that well-informed city knows that the exact location of each (fallen) block, and the exact degree of its burial in the grass, were meticulously designed by Stirling & Wilford, and equally meticulously executed by the German builders.

They like that kind of wit in Stuttgart, where th e well-known proverb. ‘a German joke is no laughing matter’, has a special meaning, it seems, which Stirling is able to tap - as no German can. This is a building that could only be built in Germany, but no German could have done it; only someone with Stirling’s special relationship to that culture.

At which the Oxbridge Paranoiat will doubtless exclaim, ‘Then why doesn’t he go and stay in Germany for good?’ (like ‘Why don}t all you bloody socialists go and live in Russia?’). That is actually the wrong question on the right topic. It should be: How can so quintessentially English a Liverpudlian Scot as Stirling only find architectural happiness outside his native isles?

The immediate answer would have to be: (Budget). As Michael Wilford said recently of the demise of their scheme for Columbia University in New York, (We are expensive). But good budgets are a product of will as well as affluence, and tend to come from clients who want architecture, not just square footage of floor area.

German culture, since about 1800, has seemed to want architecture, and to attribute to it almost magical powers, both in civic and cultural life, and in the Bildung of the individual human being. No wonder those who saw Stirling at work on Stuttgart, and in meetings on the site, report that he has never seemed so cheerful, so relaxed.

He needs the break - who knows what the Oxbridge hob bits will try to do to him when his Tate Gallery extensions are opened.

Architects James Stirling Michael Wilford & Associates
Quantity surveyors Staatliches Hochbauamt 1; Davis, Belfield & Everest
Structural engineers Boll Partner in conjunction with Ove Arup & Partners

 

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