1987 June: 'Tate and Clore' by John Summerson
John Summerson examines Stirling’s extension to London’s Tate Gallery and finds the work of a master collagist. Charles Jencks interviews James Stirling on his intentions
Stirling and Wilford’s Clore Gallery and the Turner collection within it have attracted the biggest crowds the Tate has ever known, yet so far it has scarcely been well received by architectural writers. In contrast, John Summerson finds the building to be one of great originality and invention. Charles Jencks interviews James Stirling who explains some of the main intentions behind the design.
Summerson sees Stirling’s Clore extension to the Tate Gallery as a kind of surrealist collage of the recent past and history within which the architect re-invents with great originality - and which offers a set of rooms in which the Turner bequest has been gloriously hung.
James Stirling has done three good things here. He has provided a set of galleries, traditional in form and perfectly lit, in which the whole of the Turner bequest now gloriously hangs. He has built a building which is contextually right, at once deferring to and sharply mocking the Victorian sugar-merchant’s palace of art. In between these two accomplishments he has exercised his invention in a way peculiar to his eccentric genius, which does not ask for flattery but is full of high spirits and dangerous play.
The Clore building consists of two arms, one joining the Tate gallery just behind one of its lateral pavilions, the other turning at right angles from this towards the river and coming within a few yards of another residuary building, the ‘Lodge’, formerly part of the Military Hospital but now a permanent part of the Tate complex. The first and longest of these arms contains the nine Turner galleries on the main floor, with the auditorium, education department and usual offices below. The second contains the entrance hall and main staircase, followed by the ‘social room’ with, above, various technical, administrative and study rooms. In the angle between the two wings is a landscaped garden.
Sidney Smith’s Tate building of 1897 is a coarse-grained derivative of the Beaux Arts school. It stands on the inherent dignity of its style and on a basement of rock-face rustics which is one of the more enjoyable things about it. No building could be more resistant to extension, but Stirling & Wilford leave it unembarrassed. Smith has two orders: the Corinthian of the portico and a secondary order which is Ionic but has a way of suddenly turning Doric. Stirling has taken Smith’s Ionic/Doric cornice and run it continuously, with a blocking course, along both arms of his new building. More by chance, one supposes, than by design, the Gibbsian cornice of the red-brick Neo-Georgian Lodge strikes exactly the level of Smith’s. Between the old Tate and the Lodge, nothing rises higher than the blocking course, except a brief attic storey at the Lodge, containing the curator’s office.
This self-restraint as to height leaves Smith paramount. It also means that whereas you climb a ceremonious set of steps to the Tate, you enter Clore on the flat: indeed a trifle below, the basement floor of the Tate being a few feet under ground. At this modified level is a stone-flagged terrace with a pool of water, gently bubbling (there will be water lilies), and a pergola with seats dressed against the Clore Gallery block. Here the Tate pavilion comes exactly opposite the public entrance to the Clore and both are axially reflected in the pool. Tate, grand and proud, pedimented above and windowed only in its rocky base, looks across at Clore with monumental anonymity. Clore, putting the shapes in reverse, out-faces Tate with a yawn and a wink.
For this rather shocking device I can think of no precedent. It is cut out of a virgin sheet of Portland ashlar stretched across the width of the hall. This is Clore’s ‘frontispiece’. The shape of the opening is best conceived if you imagine a primitive temple projected through a stone wall and then made to vanish. The entrance is the ‘trace’ of a low, gabled (or pedimented) building which is not there. The masonry joints take no notice of its absence; they just stop where the vanishing temple has cut them, with a profile sharp as a razor.
My first reaction to this was that it was a rather jokey conjuring trick in the spirit of Magritte. But I prefer to see it now as something less trite - a gesture of spectral primitivism; and this is confirmed for me by the lunette above, which goes with, for example, Dance’s lodges at Newgate, Soane’s primitivism (or was it Dance again?) in the old Bank of England rotunda and a good many other Neo-Classical versions of the primitivist image. The ghostly element is partly exorcised by the bright green metal grid which fills the opening and clasps the revolving door.
Pass now to the adjacent elevations. Picture galleries, like prisons, mausolea and power-stations do not ask to be windowed. If they look at all, they look inwards. The Classical masters played Classical games on blind walls; Soane’s game with the Tivoli order at the Bank, Dance’s formidable rustic niches at Newgate, Cockerell’s delicate antae at the Ashmolean are familiar instances. Sidney Smith dodges the problem simply by blocking up Venetian windows. Stirling has found his own answer in a different mode-a system of ‘gridding’.
A grid of Portland stone ribs starts from the frontispiece (the ribs are on the same plane) and wraps the whole building. The ribs contain square panels filled either with buff stucco or with red brick. These grids have nothing to do with the structure (the actual structure is a reinforced concrete frame, unseen) and they are disposed in such a way as to make this self-evident. The verticals never come at the corners and in the one case where an opening breaks the system - the corner window of the social room - the horizontal rib is snatched away, leaving the brick panel in an apparent state of imminent collapse. One thinks of Giulio Romano’s slipping voussoirs at Mantua.
In the gallery block all the panels are filled with buff stucco. In the other block partly with stucco and partly with red brick to match the Lodge, the brick panels mounting diagonally towards the Lodge: a gesture of friendly greeting to the Neo-Georgian stranger surviving from the hospital.
Going back to the terrace we pass through the green revolving door. We tread now on shiny Scotch granite and see in front of us the grand staircase. This is set sideways and we recognise it not by welcoming flights of steps but by the hard profile of its solid, raking, pure white balustrade: up, along, then up; along again. The fascinating thing about this staircase, we soon discover, is that it leads not towards but away from the Turner galleries, so that if you are making for the galleries (which is the most likely reason for being in the building at all) you must first climb the stair, then turn about and retrace its length along a corridor.
This is open on the staircase side so that you look down over the balustrade at the people on the granite floor who are looking up at you, wondering why you are going the wrong way. That you are going the right way you can be sure because a round-arched opening (the only one in the building) outlined in provocative colours, draws you like a moth to a candle and signals the entry to the galleries. If, before reaching this archway, you cast your eyes upward you find no ceiling: the staircase and corridor are, as it were, in a chasm, roofed by a skylight, a very long way up.
It is almost as if the corridor was an outside balcony which had got itself inside and, sure enough, the wall is gridded on the same scale and pattern as the outside walls. It is an intriguing inside-out experience and when you do reach the arched opening you do not pass through it; you are sidestepped to a pair of swing doors. Once through these you are in the Turner galleries. Now you walk a thick carpet and all is peace.
I find myself writing about the building as if it were a bit of a lark, and so it is, but it is functionally and lucidly planned. It works, notwithstanding the humours; and Stirling’s humours are rare and subtle. If they provoke us to laughter, we are laughing with the building, not at it. Laughter is a solvent which English architecture has denied itself for a hundred years and which returns with Stirling because he has the courage and imagination to be at once wonderfully irresponsible and robustly sane.
In the galleries Stirling retires and the great painter reigns supreme. There are nine rooms in all: first a big room, then a long ‘spinal’ room which has much the shape and proportion of an Elizabethan long gallery; four smaller rooms lead off this and in one of these is a Stirlingesque version of what the Elizabethans called a carrel window, which is to say a bay projecting into a peaked oriel; its metal lights, painted green, make a somewhat impertinent appearance in the centre bay of the outside elevation. This happy Tudor concession to the menace of ‘museum fatigue’ is the only eccentric touch in the Turner suite which concludes with another big room, connecting with gallery 32 of the old Tate. A separate room, adjoining the first big room, darker. and differently decorated, is reserved for watercolours.
The lighting, which has been the subject of intensive research since 1979, combines natural and artificial light, and adjusts itself automatically to the conditions prevailing in the external world. Turner and his contemporaries saw pictures by natural light or not at all. Technological expertise allows us, at least in theory, to enjoy the fluctuations and accidents of the natural and when these fail, to be content with near-perfect artificiality.
The colour scheme is identical throughout all the Turner rooms except the one devoted to watercolours: buff fabric and off-white paint. There have been objections to this. It is said that rich and sombre tones would have been more to Turner’s taste and more to the advantage of the paintings. The first may be historically right but the second I doubt. It would lead to ambiguity as to the historical correctness of the hanging and I hardly think we would want to see the pictures hung frame to frame and rising in leaning ranks as they were seen at Somerset House. We surely welcome the generous spacing; and the cheerful non-committal colours which have followed us through the building seem to me about right.
One or two things have escaped mention. There is a back entrance, suitably low-profiled, for school parties. There is an elegant but not specially exciting auditorium to seat 200. There is a ‘social room’ for occasional use, with a spiral staircase in one corner leading to the secretary’s room. That officer can look over a balustrade into the room, or outside to the terrace (through a tiny, peaked oriel), or inwards to the staircase hall (through an open triangle) with scarcely a movement from his or her desk; I am reminded of Norman Shaw’ s ‘den’ above the inglenook in his dining-room at Hampstead. And finally there is the garden, laid out with two curvaceous gravel paths, both of which bring you to a paved rond-point with concave/convex steps (Bramante in miniature) leading down to the terrace.
How, I wonder, will the London public take to this new accession to its architectural collection? Not, I suspect, with acclamation. Stirling is playing the ‘Post-Modern’ game in his own, highly idiosyncratic way. He absorbs from the recent past and from history. He selects and re-invents. Then, in a flash, comes a synthesis which is new, probably shocking and something which neither he nor anybody else has done before. Nobody can be sure how seriously to take it, and that is always a worry. Stirling is a great player. Some years ago I wrote an article about him headed ‘Vitruvius Ludens’ (AR March 1983). After the Clore I think I prefer ‘Vitruvius Ridens’. With Stirling there is always laughter somewhere in the works.
Here, James Stirling, in interview with Charles Jencks, reveals some of the generative thinking behind the design for the Clore Gallery. The interview is taken from ‘The Clore Gallery’, published by the Tate Gallery.
CJ: The Clore Gallery will be unique as your building is some kind of memorial to J. M. W. Turner. The gallery spaces are contextualism to him, whereas the outside is a quixotic contextualism to things around it - so you have two different contextualisms.
JS: I would hope there were more than two. As you come through the Entrance Hall and up to the galleries the interior may have a slightly sepulchral atmosphere. The exterior relates to the gardens in front of the Tate and there are service elevations to the back which are very different in character. There are three or four different types of elevations on this small building, and each makes specific response to its context.
CJ: What about Turner’s work?
JS: I like late Romantic pictures - painters like Caspar David Friedrich in Germany and Turner in England - the transition between Neo-Classicism and Romanticism. I think transitional periods are rather exotic, more so than periods which have settled down and become rather fixed in their output.
CJ: You were asked to provide a traditional background to his paintings.
JS: We created a neutral wall zone, on which the paintings are hung. At the top of this picture zone there is a non-functional picture rail, a division between the picture wall and the angled ceiling above which goes on upwards, becoming a light scoop down which daylight is bounced onto the picture wall. The centre of rooms should be slightly darker than the walls and we hope this will be an ideal atmosphere for looking at pictures.
CJ: And the light scoops allow you to have very nice sculptural shapes in the ceilings.
JS: Which may contribute to the feeling of a slightly mysterious light source, like Soane’s interiors, where he reflects daylight down walls and you’re not quite sure where it’s coming from.
CJ: At the main gallery level you have nine different rooms which correspond to different phases of Turner’s work, so there’s the possibility of taking visitors through in some kind of sequence. But there’s a paradox, because you have two entrances - so that you could enter through the end of his life …
JS: This paradox has existed in most of our galleries. At the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart we also made an extension to an existing building and it’s turned out that most people now enter the old building through the new one. However it’s unlikely to be the same with the Clore which, unlike the Staatsgalerie is small compared to the original building. Nevertheless, we had to plan for the public coming from both directions and this may present a problem for the curators as to how they hang their pictures.
CJ: Your room shapes are Classical and axial, with a minor shift off axis in one room where you can have a view to the outside.
JS: That’s because the bay window, where visitors can sit down with a view to the river, is central on the external wall and the shift is caused by relating two axes - the axis of the exterior and the axis of the opening into the gallery.
CJ: I see, perfectly logical, but it looks arbitrary.
JS: I’m not sure that with nine rooms, where door openings are all centrally placed, to have something which is shifted off axis isn’t a relief. The same happens with the internal entrance from the Tate, it’s also off axis though it’s on the central axis of the room within the Tate.
CJ: John Summerson made the remark that Soane would have enjoyed the deep-slotted entrance space of your building and so would Soane’s friend Turner. And he (Summerson) says it’s all a bit mad like the Soane Museum. I think its funny madness comes in this illogical logic; what at first looks arbitrary turns out on further investigation to be so straightforward that you could call it a kind of wilful logic.
JS: It’s the combination of logic and non-logic; instead of trying to be consistent I prefer to have them exist side by side. I think Soane worked this way when he made his new house in an existing terrace, using all the constraints of that site in a very productive way. We have similar constraints of entrances and levels and appearances (of existing building) that produce a combination of logical/non-logical solutions which I think are always interesting
CJ: In a way it’s very underplayed but it ends up looking odd because it fits into both the art and the urban context so rigorously; you provide in this little bay window - a tempietto - a kind of relief from the art. It’s the one place you get away from art and from architecture and it ends in this prow-shaped bay window which is repeated on another facade. Both seem to be exceptions to the logic and the understatement.
JS: They’re both places where we’re trying to bring visitors into sight of the gardens and the river. We would have liked more of these interfaces but it was a compromise with what the curators would accept. The form of these openings is sharp-prowed and pointed; it’s as if-with some difficulty-the interior space has penetrated to the exterior.
CJ: Breaking through the skin … I’ll suppress the metaphor. The Entrance Hall, which crowds enter through a cut-out pediment into a low room - at first low, which then explodes upwards with the staircase into a slot of space, reminds one of historical stairs such as the Scala Regia and lots of Mannerist stairs which are very high and thin - it also reminds one of Le Corbusier. Going up these stairs you then turn and go along another eroded slot of space, so you go from low to extremely high back to low again and that sequence is very dynamic and full of contrasts.
JS: We wanted to exploit the promenade through the Entrance Hall as a prelude to the galleries and bring people through on a zigzag path backwards and forwards across the central axis from the sunken garden. On entering you make a deflect left to the information desk, then you make a deflect right to go up the stairs, then you make a left turn to come back along the balcony towards the galleries, then you make a joggle in behind the arched window which brings you back onto the cross axis of the Entrance Hall. You’re also entering from light to darkness and then into light (the roof light) and then into darkness (the balcony) before finally getting to the galleries-it’s also a contrasting sequence of light. So the public are taking an extended walk through a relatively small space which should make for an interesting entrance sequence; or how, with a small space, to maximise the event.
CJ: Which is very traditional to Chinese gardens, they do precisely what you describe … because they believe the devil travels in straight lines. So they place a spirit wall behind the entrance so the devil can’t get through, then they place zigzag bridges so that he can’t travel in a straight line and whenever you have a tight small space they make it complex, precisely for the reasons you say, to lengthen the walk and make it more dynamic.
JS: At one point in our sequence the public are actually going in the wrong direction for the galleries. So, when they get to the top of the stair, there has to be a strong signal which tells them that the galleries lie in the opposite direction; you are signalled by the large arched opening that you have to return along the balcony to enter the galleries through the arch-except that you don’t go through it, you side-step in behind it. The arched opening is a message, but it’s also not quite the normal way to use it.
CJ: It’s a symbol of a door a la Venturi without even being a door. Is there any sequence of space historically that is similar?
JS: You mention the Scala Regia which does make a return on itself. It’s got that long stretch and then instead of getting to a destination at the end (as you do with the Sackler at Harvard) you have to make a return with another third of the trip to make
CJ: Aside from the peach/apricot, pink handrails turquoise/ultramarine, which are wonderfully dissonant, … if you look at the surface articulations they’re equally Mannerist: all your triangles push up against horizontals and you erode your grid - your square ‘order’ - off the wall and let it slide back to the balcony wall. In detail, colour and space it all reinforces Mannerist notions of tension and contrast.
JS: Some of the architects in history I most admire must have been Mannerist architects. Certainly it is intended that there are balances of symmetries and asymmetries as well as continuities and discontinuities. The gridding on the staircase wall confronts the visitor head on but isn’t echoed symmetrically up the slot. One side is completely blank, an off-white wall, which turns under and becomes the ceiling over the lower part of the hall. So the asymmetry in form is reinforced by the wall colouring. The gridding of the staircase wall is a reference to the panelling of the exterior where some walls are a combination of Portland stone and stucco.
CJ: What about the vexed question of colour, the dissonance in colours?
JS: There are two basic colours for non-gallery interiors. One is called (I hate these commercial names) ‘Fragrance’ and the other ‘Peach’. They’re an off-white and a kind of … orangey beige. They occur in the Entrance Hall, the Auditorium and the ‘Lounge’, a suite of rooms which can be used in the evenings independent of the galleries (which may be closed) when there is a lecture or film show etc. Drinks and cucumber sandwiches could be served in the ‘Lounge’ and people overflow into the Entrance Hall. In the hall and some other places there are special colours i.e. the turquoise/ultramarine lining of the arch, and the pink (illuminated) handrail. These vibrant colours are really trying to give you messages - this is the staircase you go up - follow the pink diagonal line; the outlining of the arch in turquoise/ultramarine is meant to increase the signal that through this arch is where the galleries are.
CJ: So like at Stuttgart you use dissonant colours to indicate arrival and direction. But still, they could have been less acid and dayglo … Aren’t they very ’60s?
JS: You might say the arch colours are very ‘Regency’ but I don’t really associate colours with any particular period. Though I’m continually amazed that there are only seven basic colours in the spectrum and I have a problem as I tend to run out of colours.
CJ: I think you ought to read Adolf Loos again on ornament and crime - where he starts off on how different cultures don’t see blue, and pink and purple because they don’t have names for them.
JS: I see colours in terms of intensities and I believe there has to be a minimum of two. There are reduced colours, and there are colours which are stable and static and then there are colours which vibrate. According to overall combinations you get different messages.
CJ: So there is a philosophy which is reasonable. However, the particular choices may be a problem for some. Haven’t you been through several here?
JS: The colours of ‘Peach’ and ‘Fragrance’ and turquoise/ultramarine were presented to the Trustees and accepted by them. I would have preferred to use made-up (more subtle) nonstandard colours but cost and control would not allow.
CJ: I’m being the devil’s advocate, partly as I like your colours on second glance-specially true of Stuttgart, where I was shocked, and put off at first and it took me perhaps an hour to get used to them. After the second hour I was positively interested and after the third or fourth, I tried to take them away in my mind and I found the building dull without them. But I feel with the Clore there’s going to be a period of shock and I think you can’t deny it.
JS: It may take a year or so to settle down. Then I think it will be more acceptable and the building will have a certain identity and memory for the public and they will expect to see these colours when they come again.
CJ: Obviously architecture should stimulate and provoke at first and then achieve harmony afterwards. A slight provocation always is to be enjoyed and sought. I mean there are parts of the old Tate which simply put you to sleep.
JS: I think the public coming into the building might be somewhat startled but finally when they reach the galleries, all will be calm and bathed in diffused light. The mood will be very different and I think visitors will appreciate the changes as they come from outside, eventually through to the galleries where the paintings will take over and dominate the space.
CJ: The Brief said, the Clore ‘should express a sense of its own architectural identity although it will be bound to the Tate in certain ways’. You were asked, in a sense, to contrast with the Tate. Some, traditionalists particularly, but also Modernists, will feel that the building contrasts too much with the old Tate.
JS: I don’t think so and the real situation was that we had to get the building through several types of approvals. I felt that deferences had to be made to the existing Tate and connections, like stone courses and parapet heights, and materials like Portland stone had to be repeated. So the building comes out from the side of the Tate, turns round a corner and comes in behind the Lodge - which I thought should be preserved as it maintains a symmetrical balance with a similar building on the other side of the Tate. But as the new building moves away from the Tate it becomes different and more eccentric and begins to express its own personality.
CJ: Well, I think it’s a chameleon building fitting into several different environments which for me is very exciting and a new idea, taking contextualism to a new level. I mean you’ve joined up the parts, not on the edges where other architects would have done it, but sometimes a quarter way down the façade and then you’ve overlapped them too. A Classicist or a nineteenth-century eclectic architect would change style at the corners and make a front and a back. St Pancras Station has a classic schizophrenia between railroad shed on one side and fantasy hotel on the other. That dualism, like the mews versus the Classical terrace, is the normal way.
JS: I don’t think you can make junctions on corners because if you do, the transition is too strong - it becomes a break … In the Clore, the transition from just Portland stone to stucco panels happens some way from the corner and, likewise, the change from brick panels to an entirely brick wall is away from the corners.
CJ: You’ve introduced a new rule here, which is very interesting but like the colours it will raise eyebrows and some will see it as wilful. You not only wrap the square brick panels round the outside corner but you ‘slide’ the brick and stucco panels up at a diagonal. It’s a new rule for contextualism. No one to my knowledge has ever slid up a building like that …
JS: I don’t see it as wilful because to make a disjunction on a corner is too strong. What I want is disjunctions which are also transitions. It could make an interesting drawing to take the facades of the Clore and make a straightened-out strip elevation; you wouldn’t be able to see where the corners are.
CJ: Well, from a Classical viewpoint you would be criticised for not making grammatical the lengths and proportions of this long sentence, which has been divided into parts that do not have obvious harmonic and scaled steps.
JS: Maybe it’s a different way of thinking about facades: instead of being related to north-south orientations it’s a continuous thing which can be bent at different places - not necessarily at a particular place.
CJ: Yes, but you know that comparison Leon Krier makes between the sentence ‘love my mother’ which has the regular grammar of subject, verb, predicate and is broken up into discrete parts and is opposed to the Modernist version ‘lovemymother’, which is a run-on sentence like a megastructure. Although your building is beautifully cut into discrete scaled parts, the parts are not necessarily grammatical in a traditional sense. I would argue you’ve got a new grammar here because, not only do you have three different languages) but you’ve added a fourth which is your own and that is the square, neutral (order), if you like of stone pilaster and stucco or brick infills which is a very interesting order because it allows you to relate to two different types of Classicism without mimicking either. I wonder how you come to this new Esperanto or new order?
JS: Well, in regard to this particular context, we have the Portland stone Tate on one side and the brick Lodge on the other and our garden facade is trying to mediate between the two. I think if we’d made this facade only of Portland stone and/or red brick we wouldn’t have been able to make the transition between the two buildings in a sensitive enough way, so we introduced a third element, which is the panelled stucco/stone, and this allows one to soften and weld the conjunctions and transitions between the Tate and the Lodge.
CJ: But why did you come to the square motif and its particular relation with the square pilaster systems?
JS: I felt it could produce more stable vertical/horizontal surfaces. It was less directional and allowed you to make transitions diagonally.
CJ: Yes, but Classicists are going to have troubles with this building … Let’s go back to Alberti and Brunelleschi where the pilaster system of rectangular bays on the outside represented a mental order and, perhaps, a real structural order on the inside. In your case you have this square grid on the outside which is repeated on parts of the inside but it doesn’t correspond to anything in particular does it?
JS: I think when Alberti and Brunelleschi et al. were setting up the orders of the Renaissance they were doing it in a more abstract way. They were proposing orders and proportions for a movement in general. What we’re trying to do here is to find a solution in particular … How do you make an extension to this symmetrical/Classical building? What we’ve done here we wouldn’t necessarily do elsewhere. We might re-use the principle, but not in exactly the same way. You would probably have different circumstances … I found it a necessary transitional device and would point out that the grid disappears when you get round to the service elevation at the back but reappears on the fifth facade, which will eventually be the wall of a sculpture garden. So we are making distinctions between public facades and the service (functional) elevations, which you might describe here as low-cost, High-Tech.
CJ: You speak of it as a garden building, hence its informality, hence the trellis, the pergola and lily pond. But is it a garden building in another way? What generic type did you have in mind?
JS: Well it’s also a garden wall containing the gardens of the Tate, and you will approach the new entrance by walking through these gardens. Moreover we wanted to make an entrance which was not competitive with the existing entrance of the Tate where you go up steps and through a central portico symmetrical and monumental. So we turned our entrance side-on to the Tate, deferential to the established entrance. Instead of being monumental ours is downscaled like the entrance to a garden building, such as an orangery when it is an extension to the country house. We also wanted to have the galleries in the new building at the same level as those in the Tate so that the public could go from one to the other without awareness of change, which principle we follow at Stuttgart and at the Sackler (when they build the bridge).It means, however, that the accommodation below, in this case the Entrance Hall, Auditorium, ‘Lounge’, etc, is pushed down below ground level. So we designed a sunken paved forecourt as a transition or doorstep to the new building; instead of going up monumental steps you go down into a paved garden.
CJ: Nevertheless, some of the public are going to have trouble with some of the allusions which are all of such a generic nature that you can’t say the building is immediately reminiscent of anything. The only thing it reminds me of is a previous set of buildings you’ve done, except, that is, the voided entrance pediment reminiscent of Mycenae; John Summerson finds this and the lunette window above like Newgate Jail, reminiscent to him of Dance.
JS: These elements relate to the immediate context and are up/down reversals of what happens on the adjoining corner of the Tate, where there is a pediment up top and a lunette window down. Across the sunken forecourt, we are trying to maintain a conversation between the new building and the old.
CJ: But the fact is that the voided pediment of Herculean size makes one think of those other associations …
JS: Yes, the association of a tomb and then a memorial; also you go down into those sorts of places. Maybe all museums are like tombs - secure vaults containing things of great value.
CJ: But, coming back to the problem some people will have with your allusions - they’ll certainly have a problem with that wonderful corner which erodes the grid just at the point where bricks usually get supported. Above this corner the visual support falls away and the bricks hang in space, which is a provocation not only to the Renaissance but to the Modern Movement and, indeed, the normal bystander who thinks that bricks should be supported. It’s also an affront to Vitruvius … who said that things should look as if they’re solid and can stand up.
JS: One may become a little anxious as to how that wall is held up and gets round the corner, which is a way of emphasising the bay window below as a major element of the interior overlooking the garden.
CJ: But, there’s again a new rule here … you could have lowered the wall eight inches or so and had a transition with a frame on it - just as around the voided pediment entrance there could have been a moulding which would have been a Classical thing. The fact is, you consistently cut your rhythms.
JS: All these cuts - Summerson uses the reference to scissors - expose the reality of the construction. This building is not made of solid stone or structural brickwork as are the Tate and the Lodge; here the external surface is not a structural expression - the materials are all veneers onto an inarticulate concrete substructure. One is trying to indicate that these veneered surfaces are not structural hence the scissoring of walls in strategic places.
CJ: Let’s call it a philosophy of the expressed veneer. You express the veneer by showing it hang in tension or by eroding it, which is a kind of grammar or rule.
JS: I think when using traditional materials in an untraditional way you have to make explicit that they are applied. Here there’s a kind of abstract slashing and cutting which can only mean that these materials and symbols are not as substantial as they appear.
CJ: Yes, but architects don’t have to tell the truth all the time. There’s still a residual Modernist thing in you that wants to tell the observer the truth.
JS: I wouldn’t deny that.
CJ: You’re quite didactic, like a schoolteacher who is using the scissors method and the ways of disjunction to get in his lesson.
JS: I dislike equally pasticherie and revivalism and I’m puritanical enough to want to make it clear that the building, familiar though it may look, is in fact made in a different way. How can one get back to using traditional materials like stone arid brick and stucco in a way that is not false? Because one still wants to use traditional materials for contextual, urban and monumental reasons.
CJ: If we generalise and conclude, there are a series of new rules here which are exciting and stimulating and which push the history of contextualism a stage further. This is the most advanced building on that level I know of in the world and very provocative and enjoyable it is. Though, at first glance, one can experience it as being quite ugly and the tensions and disjunctions as overpowering, I wonder what you have to say to those people who will feel that it doesn’t conform to any of their expectations?
JS: Well, I think they will have to come back a second time to see how they feel about it. It will take a year to settle down. Then I think its different way of doing things will become familiar and accepted.
Architects James Stirling Michael Wilford & Associates
Loose furniture Mary Shand with Peter Miles, Ronald Carter
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