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1984 December: 'Democratic Monument' by Alan Colquhoun

[ARCHIVE] Alan Colquhoun comments on one of the most important post-war statements about monumental building in a democratic society. The first in a series of analyses of Stirling & Wilford’s Stuttgart Staatsgalerie

This issue (AR 1984 December) is about interventions in the city and, in 1984, any such scheme must focus on the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie by James Stirling, Michael Wilford & Associates. Completed earlier this year, the building is a major contribution to contemporary urban thinking. It re-knits parts of the city; it provides a new and exciting range of public amenities; it suggests an approach to the monumental appropriate for a democracy. And it is an amazing popular success - it has moved to being West Germany’s second most visited museum from fifty-second place; by the end of the year it promises to top the league. The building is shown on the following pages and its importance is analysed by five international critics, starting here with Alan Colquhoun, who is Professor of Architecture of Princeton University and partner in Colquhoun & Miller, London.

The city of Stuttgart, which used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Württemburg and is now the capital of the Land of Baden- Württemburg, has a spectacular site. It is situated at the head of a valley along the floor of which runs a linear park about two miles long, which penetrates into the heart of the old city and terminates in the eighteenth-century and medieval palaces. The nineteenth-century suburbs climb the sides of the valley and give the city the appearance of a huge amphitheatre. The city, however, has been irreparably damaged by post-war traffic engineering and commercial development.

The new Staatsgalerie by James Stirling, Michael Wilford & Associates occupies a site at the foot of the south-eastern slope of the valley. It is next to the original Neo-Classical gallery and is connected to it by a bridge. Both buildings face the Staatstheater - also Neo-Classical but with extensive modern additions - which is sited on the edge of the park. But these two groups of buildings are now separated by an urban freeway and the Staatsgalerie is thus physically cut off from the cultural core of the city of which it is fundamentally a part.

The old gallery has a three-sided avant cour which presupposes a leisurely frontal approach. But this is made impossible by the presence of the freeway; one’s view of both the old and the new galleries is predominantly distant, fleeting and diagonal and is cut off from one’s actual approach, which is by means of a pavement, squeezed between the buildings and the road, from which there are no anticipatory views. The site is a rectangle with its long side parallel to the road. It is an island site and rises steeply towards the back. The city asked for a public footpath across the site from front to back, and also for the base level of the gallery to be raised one storey above street level to provide for car parking at ground level.

Stirling & Wilford’s building is a brilliant and forceful response to these difficult topographical, contextual and programmatic conditions. It consists of ‘shelves’ of accommodation stepping up the site and overlapping in section. The ground level is occupied by a car park. A first-floor terrace leads to the entrance foyer, from each end of which a staircase and a ramp lead to the galleries on the floor above. These take the form of a U-shaped block in the centre of which is a large open-air rotunda acting as a sculpture court.

Behind and above the gallery block is an archival and administration wing and a small music school, accessible from the road at the top of the site. On the side opposite the old gallery a separate block, attached to the gallery wing, houses an experimental theatre. This also has its own entrance.

Viewed from the Staatstheater across the freeway, the building appears as a series of ramps parallel to the building plane leading to a terrace over the entrance foyer; behind this are the drum of the rotunda and the gallery; behind these again is the administrative block which merges with the houses mounting the hillside beyond. This escalade reminds one of an Italian Baroque garden, or even more, perhaps, of Leo von Klenze’s Walhalla, except that it is studiedly asymmetrical, and leads to no frontalised mass beyond.

Rather than being contained within the arms of the gallery this tumultuous series of plastic events projects forward, and partially conceals the gallery wings. The central axis of the building is marked by a steel and glass aedicule at the foot of the ramp and by a central door into the building at street level. But this door turns out to be merely a ventilation opening into the garage - possibly another reference to Walhalla. The actual entry to the building is off-centre, and by means of a movement parallel to the building plane, through a projecting ‘free-form’ lobby.

This violent and fragmented composition of inclined planes and cylinders is brought under control by a clever secondary move whereby the experimental theatre block is pushed forward so as to balance the right wing of the old gallery. The entire composition thus reads as three gable-end facades (two old, one new) containing two contrasting spaces: the void of the avant cour and the system of ramps to the new building. This does not exactly correspond to one’s intellectual understanding of the organisation of the building, in which what dominates is the V-shaped gallery block.

Whatever the convolutions the building presents in its frontal view, its basic scheme is rather simple, and is clearly related to Schinkel’s Altes Museum. As in the Altes Museum there is a rectangular block consisting of a peripheral sequence of spaces, with a rotunda in the centre. The Staatsgalerie, however, differs from the Altes Museum in two crucial respects. First, its front range, which, like the Altes Museum, contains a foyer and an external, lateral staircase, is lowered in relation to the main body of the building and does not present a frontal surface of any substance to the street.

The rotunda, which one might expect to be at gallery level, is in fact just above the level of the foyer. These vertical displacements and dislocations have wide-ranging implications and lead to the second difference from the Altes Museum. In the Altes Museum (as in numerous Beaux Arts plans of the period) the rotunda acts as the main orientating space. An alternative marche along its axis establishes firmly in the visitor’s memory the spatial arrangement of the whole building.

In the Staatsgalerie this alternative movement system does not exist, and it is impossible to penetrate into the rotunda on the central axis of the building. Instead there is a ramp (comprising part of the public footpath), which crosses over the foyer on axis, skirts the circumference of the rotunda, and returns to the central axis at the back of the building, in a sickle shape.

Under this ramp there is another ramp leading from the foyer to the back range of galleries and archives. Both ramps have views down into the rotunda. The only access to the rotunda is along its transverse axis, down from the galleries or up from the temporary exhibition hall.

The rotunda, instead of being the primary space of the building, becomes an event along a promenade architecturale - part of a temporal and picturesque sequence, which one ‘discovers’ as one might the central core of a labyrinth. The geometrical centre of the building has become a kind of negation - an absence rather than a presence. The rotunda is a solid which forms an obstruction to the circulation. This has all the elements of a scandal, given the building’s overall Classical parti.

It is clear that one is confronted here with a complicated reinterpretation of a Classical paradigm in terms of another paradigm the Corbusian free plan - and that an extreme state of tension exists between the two. And there is no doubt that the rotunda, in the ‘Romantic’ interpretation given it by Stirling, is a wonderfully effective space, magical precisely to the extent that its relation to the building as a whole is unexpected and enigmatic.

It is in the foyer and the ancilliary spaces connected with it that the Modernist free plan is most clearly stated. Instead of converging towards a central space, the foyer fans out from a central constriction. Events tend to be dispersed towards the periphery; movement is syphoned off to the boundaries. On entry one is orientated not by formal symmetries but by a number of freely arranged solids.

Stirling has given these elements the strongest possible figural characterisation; from the warped surface of the entrance lobby, to the temple-like information kiosk; from the lift which is treated like a mechanical toy, to the ramp to the gallery which thrusts back into the foyer space and is supported at its half-landing by a massive inverted mushroom column. Nothing repeats exactly on either side of the central axis; one’s attention is drawn to each element in turn and to the unique function it announces.

The foyer itself is also, in fact, a promenade architecturale and it brings a new intensity and a new confidence to Stirling’s investigation of this Corbusian type of space. Stirling delights, as did Le Corbusier, in working out ingenious interlocking patterns of circulation as if he were designing an intricate piece of machinery. In such a design, circulation tends to be squeezed between solids and one is more aware of the sculptural forms which occupy and deflect space than of the surfaces which bound it. In the Staatsgalerie there is a massiveness in the treatment of these elements which is unusual even for Stirling - a massiveness which sometimes verges on caricature and self-quotation.

Quotation and paraphrase have always been characteristic of Stirling’s work-one thinks of the Constructivist references at Leicester - but here, as in other recent work, the range of references is more eclectic and more arcane. The series of windows, looking onto the rotunda from the ramp with their white marble statuary, has vaguely Klenzian overtones, (the Befreiungshalle at Kelheim?) while there are suggestions of Rundbogenstil in the solitary arched window which lights the main staircase. The flat arch which depresses the space at the foot of this stair seems to have a Gothic provenance.

In the temporary exhibition gallery and the lecture theatre the ceiling ‘floats’ luminously over the majestic mushroom capitals in a way that is reminiscent of the Johnson Wax building. Some of these references are jokes, like the door into the garage-cum-crypt and the other two ‘improvised’ ventilation openings with their rather literal evocation of Giulio Romano. Most of them belong comfortably to the language of the building and have been thoroughly appropriated by the architect for his own purposes. There even appear to be some local references; to the variegated sand-stone walls, massive cylindrical towers and iron-barred doors of the medieval Residenz, and to recent steel and glass canopies used outside Bonatz’s railway station and elsewhere in the city.

Metal and glass canopies are a leitmotif in the building and occur over all entrances. In a curious inversion (which increases the sense of quotation) these ‘High-Tech’ elements play a purely decorative role and are stretched like a filagree over the stone surfaces. They are all asymmetrical and highly mannered and are sometimes used to overcome awkward formal problems as at the main entrance and the entrance to the theatre.

These canopies with their primary colours - and also the brightly coloured window frames, hand rails to the ramps and trim throughout the building - are the least convincing part of the design. They detract from the admirably rich texture and colour of the stone facing, and have an early 1970s’ pop-tech quality which is slightly dated. Perhaps in these canopies Stirling is aiming at the Modern equivalent of Classical ornament. But it is interesting that he has to give this a functional justification; there is no place within the vocabulary of modern architecture for ornament of a purely conventional or metaphorical kind.

Generally, however, the choice of materials is appropriate and the level of thought and craftsmanship that has gone into the detailing of the building is very high.

In contrast to the foyer spaces, everything about the gallery spaces themselves is calm and ordered. Stirling has adopted the traditional arrangement of a sequence of rectangular rooms in enfilade. These vary in size but not enough to destroy the sense of regularity. Rooms have traditional openings; French windows to the roof terrace, and centrally placed door openings between rooms. The casings of these openings have stylised and simplified Classical architraves and pediments.

Everything has been done to keep these space s simple. There are none of those hideous sculptured ceilings which are found in so many recent galleries. The ceilings consist of a gridded panel of semi-transparent glass. All atmospheric and lighting control systems are located in a walk space between this panel and an anti ultraviolet greenhouse roof, and one is dimly aware of them through the ceiling glazing, as through water.

A traditional cove between wall and ceiling softens the contrast between lit and unlit surfaces. The precise lighting angles and other technical details were determined by experimenting with a full-size maquette of a typical room. In this way the architect was able to keep control over the aesthetics of the gallery and avoid dependence on ‘specialist’ advice.

VIRTUES OF THE ENFILADE

Some curators and technicians believe that traditional enfilade galleries do not work today; the modern exhibition-goer - who is more like a, sheep than a human being - has to be guided. So that he passes the exhibits in a prescribed sequence. This might be true of temporary and very crowded exhibitions but the evidence of the Staatsgalerie at Stuttgart suggests that for normal collections the traditional sequence of rooms is as workable as it ever was.

Two features of the galleries should be specially mentioned - both connected with transitional spaces. The first is the glazed fire screen separating each end gallery from its stair lobby. These screens were not part of the original design, but the architect has turned what could have been a disastrous last minute requirement for means of escape into a positive architectural statement by placing these screens at an angle of about 25 degrees.

In this way an interesting transition has been created between the two architectural systems represented by the gallery and foyer. The second is the bridge between the old and the new buildings. This has been funnelled towards the new gallery and a column inserted at the centre of the opening. The slightly theatrical quality of this transition admirably frames a splendId collection of full size ballet maquettes by Oskar Schlemmer, undoubtedly the piece de resistance of the Museum’s modem collection.

AMBIGUOUS ROTUNDA

The most striking thing about this building is the contrast between the Classical conception of the gallery sequence and the free plan foyer, and the ambiguous role the rotunda plays in the dialectic between them. It is a dialectic which has, of course, its origins in Le Corbusier, but the two terms are no longer in exactly the same relationship as they were in the work of the Swiss master. In the recent work of Stirling, and in the Staatsgalerie in particular, the Classical references are more overt. In the past decade we have seen a radical break with ideas of the Classical avant garde, and with its interpretation of culture.

Nowhere is the break more evident than in museum buildings, whose purpose makes a coherent attitude towards the cultural artefacts of the past and towards history essential to both client and architect. The great synthesis between tradition and modernity attempted by Le Corbusier, and exemplified by his museum projects, no longer seems possible. We are no longer sure that history forms a coherent pattern leading to the inevitable spiritual progress of mankind, didacticism and form no longer seem automatically to reinforce each other.

The various components of the Modem Movement have separated out, and we now have two starkly opposed schools of thought: what might be called the supermarket syndrome on the one hand (in its two closely related incarnations: High-Tech and ‘trad kitsch’) and the wish to return to traditional typologies on the other. According to the latter view, it is no longer possible to imagine the preservation of traditional values while ignoring the forms in which these values have come down to us.

This state of affairs is reflected in Stirling & Wilford’s Staatsgalerie. The free plan of the foyer, with its implications of mass culture, is no longer in dialectical tension with the platonic absolute of pure form as it would have been in a work of Le Corbusier; it is now in collision with its ideological and historical rival: Classical figuration. The building becomes a record of the confrontation of contradictory paradigms. No contemporary architect other than Stirling could invest this cultural dilemma with so much drama - and wit. To have designed at the same time a gallery in which it is a pleasure to look at paintings and sculpture is a considerable achievement.

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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