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'Turning Point' by Emilio Ambasz

Once curator of design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Emilio Ambasz, and partner of Martorell, Bohigas & Mackay of Barcelona, Oriol Bohigas, comment on Sterling’s Neue Staatsgalerie

Originally published in AR December 1984, this piece was republished online in March 2011

The Neue Staatsgalerie by James Stirling is, unquestionably, a work of excellent architectural craftsmanship; practical and functional, cleverly respectful of its historical context, and coquettishly attentive to its urban surroundings.

As in the best of Fellini’s films, this museum is full of bewitching vignettes. Not even the most diehard acolyte of the Single Grand Concept in architecture could avoid taking delight in the impeccably proportioned exhibition rooms of this new museum, or refrain from tipping his hat to the brilliant conceit of connecting the old and new museums with a bridge, wittily furnished as an ante-chamber framing the view to the Schlemmer sculptures.

Also, like Fellini, Stirling is an artist who deals masterfully with ambiguous meanings and ironically juxtaposed fragments, or, as he defines it in pseudo-professorial dicta: ‘Abstract versus Representational’, and ‘Traditional versus HighTech’. Any observer soon realises that the Neue Staatsgalerie is a work full of parodies. Witness the self-deprecating references to past influences as evidenced in the entrance ramp’s exaggerated High-Tech railings, and the neo-historicist entrance canopy.

Those of us who believe self-mockery constitutes a laudable instance of moral courage cannot but admire Stirling’s ironic identification, malgré lui même) with that quirk of the British spirit which persists in confusing vulgarity for vitality. Should we accept him therefore, at face value, when he states that the garish green rubber flooring ‘reminds [us] that museums today are also places of popular entertainment - it seemed more appropriate as well as having an acoustical value’?

As in his other works, parody plays in the Neue Staatsgalerie a defensive role. It doesn’t criticize either the Post-Modern, the High-Tech, or the Neo-Classical modes but is, rather, self critical of his own use of these devices. Stirling renders this reversed criticism acceptable by anticipating a mockery. Moreover, he seeks to beat us to it. It is what Empson calls ‘pseudo parody to disarm criticism’. But one could also suspect that Stirling is a Romantic who uses architectural parody to disguise his passionate love for architecture. So much for Stürm und Drang with a Liverpudlian twang.

These episodes of architectural parody, brilliant as they are, rapidly recede into the background when, in awe, we call to the fore the powerful, earthy sounds which seem to emanate from the marble chords composing the circular courtyard. The ramp can be perceived as crescendo, the wall openings as basso continuo, and the open sky as a chorus. But they cannot, by themselves, explain the powerful telluric sound which pervades this chamber as if it were coming from a gigantic mountain horn. This courtyard is one of Stirling’s most memorable creations to date. To walk inside is to enter into a magical domain where architecture is condensed to its essentials: the courtyard is a processional stage set where the spirit of architecture promenades its hieratic presence.

Not unlike Cameron - who draped a most princely garment on provincial St Petersburg’s imperial dreams - it has again taken a British architect - the greatest since Luytens - to sing with a marble voice the legitimate cravings of the German soul for a secular chamber where to celebrate a Te Deum in quiet grandeur. In this courtyard dwell together the spirits of Biedermeier and Schinkel; if ever a present-day culture were to declare that its longings have found permanent embodiment, Germany would have to point to this courtyard. It is a reformulation of the recurring archetype of the Pantheon, but with a roof made of transient clouds. By providing a monumental frame for ineffable rituals, this courtyard stands as metaphor for the spirit of the building, and so doing, raises it to be the exalted level of memorable architecture.

Emilio Ambasz was once curator of design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He is now a product and graphic designer as well as architect and interior designer.

Stirling & Wilford’s new Staatsgalerie sums up the most positive aspects of the current turning point in architecture. The best of contemporary architecture, far from being in a state of phoney crisis and reactionary ‘Post’ stances, is following a process common to periods of stability and continuity throughout architectural history. Today, the root of this process can be found in the rational period of the Modern Movement. The process is one of gradual re-adjustment to the postulates formulated at the beginning of the period in a challenging and Utopian spirit.

Without getting involved in too many distinctions, nor wishing to be exhaustive, one could define the present moment by analysing a few of its characteristics: a renewed interest in public buildings versus the former emphasis on social housing; the adaptation of Modern Movement prototypes to the urban context; a move beyond the merely functional as a compositional device, to now include the monumental; the use of colour in lieu of monochrome; an upgrading of the pioneering days, stylistic narrowness by legitimizing eclecticism in a critical re-evaluation of history.

All this is obvious in the magnificent Staatsgalerie at Stuttgart. The new museum brings together, in an almost polemical way, the grand themes of monumental public buildings. Inside and outside there is simultaneous expression of architectural and urban forms as well as of functional and symbolical requirements.
The interiors not only constitute a competent art gallery design, but also offer sequences of rooms that go far beyond their immediate use and constitute an extension within the building of the city’s forms and symbols. The exterior spaces, on the other hand, not only allow for pedestrian movement from one street to another, but constitute an itinerary with constant visual references to the museum.

There is no strain between the building and the urban environment. Further, interiors and exteriors cannot be understood as positive and negative aspects of the same composition. The building becomes city and the city becomes building. In a way, the Staatsgalerie revives the great works of engineering’s long-lost tradition, in which a logical relationship was automatically established between functional problems and the transformation of the environment: in other words, siting constituted a functional requirement.

The way types and models are used is another symptom of the current situation in architecture. At times, Stirling has referred to his projects for the Dusseldorf and Cologne Museums as models for Stuttgart. It is obvious that the U-shaped plan and the central court are a priori concepts which find their source in numerous historical examples. However, these models are used only as a point of departure for a much more complex composition.

The complexity originates above all from an adaptation to the urban environment. Two very expressive components superimpose themselves on the original models: first the theatre, music school and library buildings are designed as a prolongation of the surrounding street pattern and are introduced in an asymmetrical way on the site, squeezing the central body of the museum. These buildings affirm themselves, in an almost brutal fashion, with the use of different materials, colours, and styles.

The result is that what should be the most monumental part of the museum ends up playing a subdued role, since its geometry is diluted by a series of seemingly accidental volumes encountered on the site. The impression given is one of rearrangement of a fragment of the city rather than one of clear imposition of a model.
The second component is made up of the main hall and the lecture theatre. With their violent oblique lines, they also alter the reading of the initial model’s symmetry. The model comes from a Classical tradition, but the way in which Stirling & Wilford have twisted it is an operation made possible only through the lessons of the Modern Movement in terms of composition.

However, the influence of the Modern Movement is much more obvious in the structuring of the entrance hall. This plays a far more predominant role within the complex than do the symmetrical aisles of the gallery. A spatial fluidity, the autonomous expression of each erupting element, the given itineraries that impose an oblique perception of the space, and the modelling of the volume with the under part of the ramp of the drum, all contribute to make this part of the building into an intelligent interpretation of the Expressionistic side of the Modern Movement.

Finally, there is the theme of stylistic eclecticism. Here there is neither frivolity nor regression. The simultaneous references to various vocabularies does not interfere with the unity of the composition. This is because each allusion applies only to isolated elements that do not intervene in the general concept of the work, and because these references become ironical because of the contradictions between vocabulary and technological execution.

It is difficult to find another building that conveys with such perfection, a linguistic coherence and faithfulness to the syntax of the most radical avante garde of the Modern Movement, and this despite the use of various historical quotations. These quotations - Neo-Classical, Baroque, Corbusian, Constructivist or Loosian - have another important programmatic value: they demonstrate how eclecticism can use recent traditions, and thus, how the Modern Movement can be included in the continuum of history.

Oriol Bohigas is partner of Martorell, Bohigas & Mackay of Barcelona. He has been head of the school of architecture in Barcelona and Director of Planning for the same city, initiating the current programme of new plazas and restoration (AR July 1984).

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