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1984 December: 'Virtuosity around a Void' by William Curtis

William Curtis offers the final analysis of Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie

‘… it is important to consider whether this building should influence the course of modern architecture. The sensational impact … on the visitor is significantly not sustained for any length of time and when the emotions subside there is little to appeal to the intellect … This entirely visual appeal … may partly account for its easy acceptance by the local population … The desire to deride the schematic basis of modern architecture and the ability to turn a design upside down and make it architecture are symptomatic of a state when the vocabulary is not being extended, and a parallel can be drawn with the Mannerist period of the Renaissance.’ JAMES STIRLING: ‘Ronchamp: Le Corbusier’s Chapel and the Crisis of Rationalism’, 1956.

When the model and drawings of James Stirling , Michael Wilford & Associates’ design for the Neue Staatsgalerie and Kammertheater in Stuttgart were first made public a few years ago, it was obvious that the building would eventually stimulate discussion on the general state and aims of contemporary architecture. The dominant image of a cylindrical drum sunk between wings with ramps and curved flanges ascending over terraces stamped itself on the memory as a significant addition to the stock of architectural shapes.

The plan was an emblem compressing together many ideas and suggesting private agendas of the architect’s own. Over and above the already demanding problems of site and programme, Stirling seemed to be grappling with issues of generic importance to do with monumentality, rhetoric, civic space, context, ornament, precedent and the very basis of architectural vocabulary in an age of scepticism and glut.

Now that the building is complete, it needs to be assessed in the light of these broad concerns as well as for its workability as a museum. Its sheer sculptural inventiveness and control over sequence place it apart from the mere facadism of Post-Modern Classicism, though there are some cosmetic and indecisive details. The finished building even suggests that Stirling has been able to play a sort of pantomime with recent cults in a way that outwits their more reverent and earnest adherents. The substructure of the design - its real formal and intellectual foundations - have roots in Stirling’s earlier work and within the Modern Movement, especially in the work of Le Corbusier. Type solutions have been abstracted, then consciously mannerised in a collagist’s private stratagem which emphasises displays of architectural virtuosity.

The problems posed by programme, site and city virtually required a solution based on polarities and contrasts. The site sloped down to a motorway that cut the old cultural area of the city in two. The new gallery had to complement the old, a Neo-Classical building with symmetrical wings. The terrain, the demands for ground-level parking and for a ‘democratic’ path through the scheme, recommended a stack of terraces traversed by a meandering sequence of ramps.

Distinctions in the programme between galleries, offices, a theatre and a music school prompted a variety of formal treatments that might in turn respond to different pressures in the setting. Oblong flanges and wings could stabilise these fragments while recalling the Neo-Classical parti of the neighbour and palatial ancestors from the grand Classical past of this part of Stuttgart. The theatre wing echoed the two wings of the old gallery.

Stirling found a suitable icon for the institution ‘museum’ in the circular drum, a public space at the heart that could also act as a pivot resolving the varied circulation patterns and formal gestures. A number of museum paradigms seem to have influenced the Staatsgalerie: the suite of rooms, the free plan, the spiralling ramp, the grand people’s palace. Stirling found the ideal model in the Altes Museum by Schinkel. But the formula of portico, stoa, axis, domical heart, symmetrical wings, grid and sequence of perimeter rooms was transformed, even subverted, by ‘anti-monumental’ gestures such as the free plan, the zig-zag route (instead of the authoritarian axis) the sliced-off colonnade (a row of stumps in the model) or the decapitated cylinder (instead of the Pantheon dome of high culture). The central void was treated as a sort of social theatre linked to the space of the city.

Stirling’s style has never possessed tight rules between elements and system but there are recurrent motifs and devices. The Staatsgalerie is a cousin of the rejected museum projects for Cologne and Dusseldorf. In both, the programme was broken down into a series of elusive urban fragments; Surrealism and a witty play with figure and ground had already emerged in the scheme for Derby Civic Centre. Ceremonial areas between wings can be found all the way through the oeuvre, as can diagonal ramps and stacked podia. Free glazed curves are often used to dramatise the flow of movement and a delight is taken in confronting free plans with areas of enclosure. Even in his supposed ‘Modern’ phase (which is obviously still in progress) Stirling was already adept at juggling types and references from history, and combining these with objects trouvés.

The cylinder at the heart of the Stuttgart design recalls old Stirling pin-ups such as gas-holders, pistons, Martello towers and Bentham’s Panopticon. But these appear to have been elided with various antique fascinations like the circular Maritime Theatre at Hadrian’s Villa or the marvellous spatial play with ramps in the lower terraces of the Villa Giulia. Presumably the manipulation of a sequence through a drum owes something to Le Corbusier’s Maison de Refuge while the Parliament Building at Chandigarh must also be counted a relative. The analogical leap of thought between Cubist guitar shapes, the ambiguities of collage, the spatial acrobatics of Roman imperial planning and contextualism make the Staatsgalerie a far more forceful expression of Colin Rowe’s ideas than anything that will ever be produced by his clones.

Collage seems to offer one of the central clues to the technique of the Staatsgalerie design. Throughout there are dramatic confrontations of images, forms, materials, themes. Figure meets labyrinth, grid meets room, High-Tech meets masonry, supermarket of culture bangs into decapitated Classical museum: modern machine à cultiver wrestles with masonry temple of art. We are treated to an exhibition of architecture, a display of Stirlingisms. Collage is a conceptual device, as well as a formal one, allowing ironical distance from the ethos behind past forms. It is therefore the ideal tool for a Mannerist.

PROMENADE ENIGMATIQUE

A cascade of amber stone stripes, the ripple and sheen of curved glazing, pink and blue railings darting up towards a tumult of diagonals and cylinders, Meccano filigrees clamped to stone veneers-the first glimpses of the Staatsgalerie from a moving car are both inspiring and disturbing. As one approaches on foot from the other side of the motorway the long view admirably fulfils the sculptural and contextual promise of the model. The low terrace continues the line of the rusticated base of the old gallery while the theatre wing, cream-painted in its top part, rhymes with colours and shapes in the old building’s wings.

Terraces, ramps and drum are coated in brown stone stripes which in turn recall venerable buildings in the area while the stepping levels cut a kind of public theatre from the natural slope of the terrain; behind and to one side various cream flanges are handled with less monumentality to merge with neighbours. Alongside this sculptural excitement Leicester Engineering (surely Stirling’s best previous work?) seems quite wooden. One of the virtues of this overall view is the clear manner in which guiding themes of the building are spelt out, particularly the public route rising up to and penetrating the mysterious drum.

Even at this distance the High-Tech adornments and brownish masonry stripes are cause for some alarm. The stripes emphasise a horizontal reading and bind together ceremonial elements but they are very busy and distract from the volumetric crispness that one had hoped for from drawings. The veneer is sometimes used as a thick gravy to disguise clumsy collisions and weak window proportions. The High-Tech adornments appear to be part of Stirling’s strategy of de-monumentalisation: an attempt at a ‘populist’ rhetoric.

The Meccano porticos are relatives of the rather feeble aedicule on the main axis and also recall various canopies around the site. With their diagonal girders and orthogonal glass pediments they help to turn one into the building. The fat tube railings are also supposed to be chummy but end up being plain vulgar; it is odd the way that so many recent architectural theories assume that the man in the street does not want elegance.

The ramp and stairs rising from the ground level immediately announce the theme of lateral movement: the gallery lobby, for example, is entered off the first terrace in this way. The transition is helped by the most successful of the canopies and via the sinuous curved glazing. Except for its shrill green, this is an element of considerable formal sophistication. It lets light into the lobby, guides both lateral, and diagonal, ascending movement, ties together terraces and drum, guides the eye towards the main axis and softens the transition to the old neighbour; in Stirling’s collagist agenda it is a mechanistic touch in the stone cliff and its bulging, transparent planes anticipate the free plan within.

It exemplifies the architect’s erudite and witty attitude to modern precedents since it is surely a descendant of the complex curves that Aalto uses to ease transitions or else of the ‘acoustic’ curves over the side chapels at La Tourette. Here, though the rustic masses in heavy concrete of the latter are replaced by a svelte High-Tech wafer of metal and glass - a typical Mannerist inversion coupled with a Mannerist delight in ‘knowingly’ solving a type problem.

If one does not enter the lobby, the forces of th e building conspire to take one up to the next level and into the drum. So far, this has posed as a one-storey high curio probably containing the relics of an occult society. It is wonderful to discover that it is a deep well carved into the building and that it is really the most public place of them all: a small piece of Stuttgart space turned outside-in suggesting how the future city may be reconstructed as a series of outdoor rooms high above the traffic.

The way in which the ramp penetrates and rises up one side to pass out the other side is another dimostrazione of great ingenuity which serves to underline the ambiguous status of the drum-figure in ground, ground in figure; object in space, space in object. The interior of the rotunda is more whimsical than one expects (I had hoped for greater gravitas) and puts one in mind of the roofless room in the Viceroy’s House at New Delhi by Lutyens. People obviously enjoy the theatricality: they come and go poking their heads through openings that offer vignettes onto other parts of the building.

Throughout the Staatsgalerie one feels that the right occasions for ornament have been identified but that the grammar and requisite craft are sometimes missing. Some of the geometrical junctures of masonry are handled adeptly, eg. where stripes meet diagonal ramps; others lack finesse, eg. the crucial portal into the drum where alignments ape fudged. A few details are witty commentaries on the veneer. Over the low arch adjacent to the restaurant on the first terrace, a splay of flattened voussoirs that are actually three dimensional are detailed to appear almost graphic, like a delicately inscribed Art Deco fan.

Down by the front pavement the commentary works in an opposite sense: a cascade of blocks tumbles out of a wall that is detailed to appear rather thick. Up on one of the terraces a crude and half-drilled lump of stone sits as if just dragged from the quarry. Semi-educated culture vultures peer at it intently looking for the sculptor’s name tag, while over-educated architecture professors can be heard mumbling platitudes about ‘wit’, ‘culture and nature’ and Giulio Romano. But the windows in the lower part of the drum are absolute duds, clumsy in proportion and mouldings; they introduce an awkward note of schmaltz into the best space of the building. If you do not know how to do Classical ornament properly it is as well to avoid the problem or else to put your tongue in your cheek.

The public path continues on the other side of the drum cleverly guided by a vertical line of windows pinched by water spouts and then turns to the left onto the upper, back street. The rear facade is regrettable with its ha-ha Beaubourg hooters and its office and library wing in an oblong perched up on concrete pilotis of inordinate length and crudeness. One wonders if this apparent spoof on one of Le Corbusier’s Weissenhofsiedlung houses (only a mile away) was deliberate. The cult of unrestrained quotation interferes with the building’s sculptural unity and with the contextual moves that are well handled in volume. The clumsy collision of masonry and plaster as a visual line of ‘quoins’ on the office wing corner prompts the reflection that Stirling’s collage method works better for the big moves than for the little ones.

IN SEARCH OF THE GALLERIES

The paths to the galleries themselves are circuitous. One starts in the old building and crosses the bridge; another begins with the arch under the theatre wing which is funnelled in perspective like the linking bridge between the museums. The trick is done much better than in Moore’s Lafayette Arch in the Piazza d’Italia where the problem was also to shift direction and to reconcile different sized arches at each end of a tunnel; and this is not the only place that Stirling outdoes the Post-Modernists at their own game. The ensuing views of receding banks of terraces pointing beyond the curved glazing to the side of the old museum wing are sculpturally strong. But the ramp to the drum tries to pull one away and it has evidently been necessary to add a sign pointing to the gallery lobby entrance.

Once inside this, the glass ripple funnels one on a slight diagonal past various curved objects let down into the free plan, and past the serpentine counter adapted from the Maison de Refuge; but Stirling’s procession through structure lacks the terse clarity of this great predecessor. He tries to use the mushroom columns (or their inversion) as a cue to the route. The green rubber floor is so shrill that one certainly seeks an exit, but the lobby spaces are curiously indefinite and diffused. The outside edge of the drum borders the space and plays against the centralised postcard pavilion: what was sculpturally turbulent outside is spatially neutral inside. The lobby seems too low in its middle.

One begins to feel that interiors may have been sacrificed to exteriors. In most places white paint has negated the problem of more specific and appropriate choices of materials. The toy-like elevator - a true little mechanical marvel - rises in its tubular hoist under another curved area of glazing. This helps one to locate the ramp that loops up and up in a closed sequence; again one feels that the real efforts at orchestrating sequence have gone into the public path above, for this is a lame way to link two main themes of the building-free plan and enfilade of gallery rooms. There is a lot of Stirling to get through before seeing one’s first picture.

Stirling clearly feels that the ‘conservative’ museum solution of a sequence of rooms is best, particularly for fixed exhibitions (the changing exhibition downstairs reverts to a grid of columns). One is glad at Stuttgart not to be bullied by an overdramatic circulation idea when looking at pictures (viz Guggenheim) and it is also a relief not to have mechanical elements wrecking fine Cubist pictures (viz Beaubourg) but the Staatsgalerie rooms are not especially distinguished in terms of light, proportion, details or materials.

A certain quietness and neutrality were probably intended but one misses the nobility of Kahn’s Kimbell or Yale museums. The tough critic will say that the Stuttgart galleries are rather lazy imitations of nineteenth-century rooms but without the benefit of nineteenth-century mouldings. The diagrammatic pediments with stamped numbers on them and canted pseudo-pilasters under them are not everyone’s idea of rigorous detailing. The green of the ceiling light grilles presumably represents an attempt at carrying the lime glazing theme through the interiors, but the colour contradicts the aim at restraint.

The final room of the sequence (the first if coming from the old building) contains a fine collection of Schlemmer’s puppets from the Bauhaus ‘mechanical ballet’. Here Stirling handles the special occasion with skill. The steep perspective of the bridge funnels the space sideways past a single mushroom column (again the cue for a major transition) and through the excavated Classical mouldings of the old building’s wall. The diagonal fire screen and receding sizes of the skylights contribute to the steep perspective while the mushroom column puns with the shape of the most prominent of the puppets. The free plan is at last allowed to invade the room with a spatial dynamism that helps to handle a crucial juncture of major intentions.

When he is solving a real problem with sophisticated means, Stirling is really much wittier than when hitting you over the head with the latest thing from Post-Modernism’s sales department. Another example of this is found where a diagonal path cuts between the music department and the back of neighbouring flats: the cream plaster wall, with its finely scaled windows, breaks into a wave which softens the link, channels the exterior flow, bends to interior pressures, symbolises the function in a piano-like shape, echoes curves elsewhere, and gives precise shape to the flange theme; only then does it evince the obvious Aaltoesque reference, which has not been falsely imposed.

THE MANNERIST’S STRATEGEM

The Staatsgalerie is surely Stirling’s most ambitious building to date. Very many intentions and devices have been crammed in. Polarities are fused in the main cascade and in the drum which must be counted a major invention. But there are some collisions of intention too (which cannot be excused on the grounds of deliberate dissonance) as when collagist fragmentation interferes with the unity and contextual sensitivity of the design at the back. Some moves are even under-exploited. Drum and wings work together better than drum and free plan and free plan and wings. The first views promise a richer dialogue between the mechanistic entrails and the masonry casket than is actually drawn through the interiors.

What Venturi has called ‘difficult unity’ requires both fragmentation and the domination of a Gestalt. Staatsgalerie’s basic ideogram is almost strong enough to achieve this tension; in fact the reconciliation of the building’s contrasts, basic intentions, paths and volumes would have be en quite enough to generate a ‘difficult complexity’. This quality is achieved in the spatial acrobatics of the drum and in the play of the main volumes seen from road and terraces: it is also achieved in those details that resolve a dozen problems at once with an assured and economical flourish, like the sinuous glazing over the entrance.

But sometimes at Stuttgart Stirling has worked with a much easier kind of complexity. The spaces inside have a dull additive character and some of the ‘realist’ quotations are not satisfactorily embedded in the building’s dominant formal themes, eg. the round-topped window, the hooters, the strip windows at the back, the ‘High-Tech costume jewellery’ (to re-use a phrase). Stirling has left himself with the almost impossible task of cooking up a new ornamental system, so it is scarcely surprising that there are awkward and false notes; but little jokes and ironies attached to the building do not add much to its far more fundamental wit and irony. Some of the decoration disguises imprecision in the handling of apertures, as if Stirling were not yet sure of an elevation vocabulary appropriate to his plan intentions.

Of course it is the obvious aspects of the Staatsgalerie’s historicising gimmickry that will guarantee the architect a continuing place in the chic Post-Modernist boudoir. But there is absolutely no-one in that camp that can touch this building’s sculptural skill or historical wit. Stirling is more erudite at a formal level and his roots are deeper. Moreover, despite the posing, he would be nowhere without the inherited schemata of modern architecture. These give the means for transforming earlier types and precedents. One suspects that it is the most fashionable and faddish aspects of Stuttgart that will date the most quickly.

The Staatsgalerie’s stances towards urban design surely have long range relevance. Stirling’s building gives a civic place to Stuttgart. The raised ground of the terraces (loosely recalling the urban landscape idea of London’s National Theatre) supply a viable social stage that turns into a veritable performance in the spatial drama of the drum. Volumetrically (though not always in smaller parts) the contextualism is handled with assurance. But the setting is not simply mimicked in plan or in elevation as is often the case. The Neo-Classical neighbour and the historic memories of the place contribute a level of meaning to a three-dimensional idea that lives from many other impulses.

Stirling’s continuing commitment to the enrichment of architectural vocabulary is on the whole admirable, but his desire to be inclusive, combined with his commitment to collage technique may lead him to a facility that is not disciplined by principle. From the outset of his career he has delighted in plastic and iconographic adventures into architectural history and this has sometimes taken him to the brink of formalist caricature. ‘Modern’ quotations were then the most obvious; now the appearances include a wider historical range; and at a deeper level there has been the capacity to penetrate and transform types. But even this typological approach runs the risk of a sort of deductive arbitrariness: at Stuttgart the elision of the Altes Museum diagram with the free plan and the stepped section does not always achieve a tight fit.

Irony so easily becomes the mask for a retreat from commitment just as operatic aesthetic gestures may disguise a basic cynicism. But ethical tension may be a pre-requisite of profundity in a work of art. The Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart furnishes many occasions for aesthetic delight and is one of the most amusing buildings since Lutyens (Corb was wittier by not as funny), but despite occasional brilliance it still lacks a certain probity.

One drives away thinking that Stirling finds no social vision or institutional ideal worth celebrating. Whether this limitation is the architect’s or the society’s is less certain. Stirling’s own words, written nearly 30 years ago about Ronchamp, float back: an appeal that is ‘entirely visual’, a ‘sensational impact … not sustained for any length of time’, derision of ‘the schematic basis of modern architecture’, turning a tradition upside down. Perhaps flaccid aestheticism always lurks as a danger in Mannerism.

From the central drum the priests have now departed leaving a void around which the high architectural game is performed. The forms gyrate in their own ballet mechanique, oscillating between memories of past modern architectural fervour and a collapse into the false comfort of mere revivalism; both positions are mimicked but neither is embraced. The pirouetting between present dilemmas is performed with uncanny virtuosity but it is still a dance around a void.

William Curtis is an historian and critic of architecture. He wrote a large part of AR August 1984 on Uses and Abuses of History. His book ‘Modern Architecture since 1900’ has won the Alice Oavis Hitchcock Medal of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. He also received the Founder’s Award of the American Society of Architectural Historians.

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