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Sackler Museum at Harvard University by Stirling and Wilford

[Archive] The Sackler’s spectacular spaces have their own power while creating an architectural promenade that terminates in the old Fogg building

First published in AR April 1984, this piece was republished online in September 2015

On 19 September 1983, Harvard University announced the reorganisation of its art museum complex as three equal facilities under one central administration. Two of these existed already: the Busch-Reisinger Museum of central and northern European art, housing the largest Bauhaus archive outside Germany, and the Fogg Museum, representing virtually every period of art and providing a principal training ground for student art historians. The third, still under construction, had been conceived as a much needed extension to the Fogg to display its ancient, Oriental and Islamic collections, to provide a climate-controlled, flexible gallery for temporary exhibits, and to accommodate the diverse educational, curatorial and administrative functions essential for a great teaching museum, but in short supply at the Fogg. With restructuring, this entity was now to become one of a triumvirate, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. What had been commissioned as a part of the Fogg is now its equal.

This footnote of administrative history merits mention, for James Stirling’s new Sackler Museum is, despite institutional pronouncements to the contrary, the most deliberate of additions. A fragment with its own brash identity, it oscillates between dependence and independence. As a whole, it is not so much the sum as a collection of its parts, but this collection is calculatedly incomplete. Major decisions express this structure’s subordinance to the existing Fogg Museum, which will keep it at arm’s length by means of a connecting bridge-only now approved by the city of Cambridge.

The Sackler’s clear focus on the old Fogg appears in its attitude towards the complex site, where two districts overlap. The university is prominent along Quincy Street, running north and south at the edge of campus with such cultural landmarks as Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center and H. H. Richardson’s Sever Hall, the Fogg on one side of the Sackler, John Andrews’ Graduate School of Design on the other. The city of Cambridge intersects this campus path with a wedge created by Cambridge Street and Broadway, which divide around a city fire station right in front of the Sackler and run through urban neighbourhoods of apartment buildings, groceries, and civic institutions. The new museum’s site is the only one so much a part of both worlds, with clear differences in the identity and significance of its surrounding streets and buildings.

Stirling & Wilford’s design responds to only one specific aspect of this context: the location of the Fogg Museum across Broadway. They have placed the entry on this short end of the L-shaped site, with the entry block of the building pulled off Broadway’s diagonal to align with the north end of the Fogg. Quincy Street and Cambridge Street become equivalent secondary sides, with all the focus on this south end. As one approaches the Sackler along Quincy Street, strange forms begin to reveal themselves on this odd end elevation of orange brick. Because it appears from behind the far end of the Fogg, one first sees this Sackler ‘front’ only partially. First, a huge indented margin of buff stucco takes shape as quoining of Cyclopean scale. Then a tall concrete column appears without any load to bear.

Walking further, one discovers a large punched window divided into four panes atop an extrusion of glass from an Egyptian-like doorway. Then another column and more quoining complete this symmetrical frontispiece. This is surely the biggest Gibbs surround in history! Its free manipulation of traditional ornament and scale seems to express Stirling’s comfortable settling into territory explored by Robert Venturi and Michael Graves. This stucco quoining wittily restates the thinness of local Georgian revival detailing as found on the Fogg, the fire station, and the quoins of the apartment building next door. However, although Stirling uses stucco, he achieves a greater effect than does the local stone trim. This frontispiece has a totemic quality with its central window, Boullee-like scale, silent columns, crystalline void, and the collagist’s juxtaposition of materials and forms.


Source: Steve Rosenthal

Entrance: ‘the biggest Gibbs surround in history’. Bridge will emerge from window over

But the Sackler’s grand entry occurs on the side, not the front, of its site. Aside from a possible nod to Broadway and the city, the only purpose this end entry location serves is to emphasise the building’s subordination to the Fogg, a 1925 structure whose bland design belies its cultural importance. This entry placement defers to the older building by looking away from Quincy Street, thereby allowing the Fogg to maintain unchallenged its preferred entrance off that street. Moreover, by relating the entry to the future bridge connection (intended for the opening above, supported by the concrete columns), Stirling has created a pavilion that will be, in effect, an abutment. Once the bridge is constructed, this symmetrical composition will be impossible to see as a whole. The centralized rhetoric sets the stage for its own violation.

Beyond this frontispiece on Broadway, one sees brashly-coloured orange and black banding running down Quincy Street. This unbroken abstract pattern contains the irregular rhythm of punched windows floating in the dark bands along the two ‘side’ facades. The pattern’s top-to-bottom character and its bold scale make for an eye-catching fragment of wall, but yield a somewhat unfriendly street level. Even Adolf Loos’ starkly banded house for Josephine Baker acknowledged the street through the Classical convention of a base. But Stirling passed over his own early studies which showed bases, parapets, and cornices that gave a more complete architectural reading to this wall. Instead, he ran the stripes right down to the ground, where they are no longer justified as an ordering device for the random windows, which stop one band up, some 9ft above grade.

Minimal ‘connexions’ with the neighbouring buildings make this pattern’s abstraction more vivid. While the wall is of brick, it is not Harvard red brick; and while the striping may refer to the polychrome slate decoration on nearby High-Victorian-Gothic Memorial Hall, the colouration arid scale are entirely different. The banding does suggest ribbon windows, as on John Andrews’ George Gund Hall (the Graduate School of Design), but what is glass there is brick here, and, furthermore, the treatment of ‘spandrels’ and ‘windows’ as stripes of essentially equal width lessens the reference. The rounded corner perhaps recalls the auditorium’s curve at Memorial Hall, but the Sackler’s is an applied gesture where Memorial Hall’s expresses the theatre form.

Stirling must have gone to some lengths to select two colours that lack either any direct reference to the varied surroundings, or any intrinsic symbolic quality. By contrast, Loos’ black and yellow War Ministry striping was to be overtly symbolic, and the black and white bands for Josephine Baker perhaps had some wry reference as well, given the black performer’s penchant for white screens of feathered boas, greasepaint, or even, according to one story, flour.

The striping differs from Loos’, or from Stirling’s use of banding on such other recent projects as the Stuttgart museum and the Berlin Science Centre, for it dominates this piece of building and makes it read more as a part than as a whole. Unlike the ‘stripey Victorians’ whom Stirling has admired, he neither uses stripes to unify picturesque massing, nor breaks the stripes for fenestration or focus. The closest parallel may be the banding of 1930s Modernist warehouses and power plants, where the taut, thin, free facades of the International Style were transmogrified into solid walls of masonry and glass block, in a sort of utilitarian, industrial Modernism, as seen in the Hecht Company warehouse in Washington DC. There is perhaps a truer, functional quality to these than to the more fragile, metaphorical machine images of the International Style. Stirling’s wrapper has a machinelike quality: its abstraction and its architectural incompleteness make it appear not so much a part of a building as a piece of some mechanical assemblage. This bold striping calls for attention from afar; yet it deflects, if not rebukes, that attention as one approaches. It imbues an uninteresting mass with the visual punch of Le Corbusier’s three-dimensional coup-de-poing up the street, but also, at the same time, anomalously, allows that mass to maintain a background position. This makes sense only with respect to the ‘foreground’ position of the old Fogg on Quincy Street.


Source: Steve Rosenthal

From the university side (courtyard of Sever) Hall. Bridge will connect new building across Broadway to Fogg

This treatment brings to mind Venturi’s use of pattern at the Alien Art Museum, which was recalled in an early facade study for the Fogg addition showing an oversized tesserae pattern topped by a cornice. Venturi’s chequer-board veneer draws the eye to the receding addition but does not hold it, yielding a structure that both challenges and defers to the older building. Similarly, Stirling could not have created a sharper contrast with the old, while still respecting it. For all its boldness, Stirling’s veneer has its ambiguity. At first glance, the bands suggest a two-dimensional skin, a reading reinforced by the suggestion of ribbon windows. Also, the randomly floating punched windows may imply a non structural skin for a facade. But had Stirling wanted to build on this reading, he either would have revealed the one-brick thickness, or would have concealed the end condition altogether. Rather, he starts the stripes with a 1ft return, which seems to suggest, contradictorily, a solid wall of pattern. (Conversely, at the entry block, which appears from Quincy Street as a solid object, Stirling has created a false fronted parapet that shows only from up Broadway.)

While this striping causes the Sackler Museum to appear along Quincy Street as a less important object than the Fogg, its expression of private rather than public spaces furthers this reading. Where the Fogg offers a grand public scale expressive of its exhibition galleries in the museum tradition dating back to Durand, the Sackler’s principal expression is of the small educational and curatorial service areas, so important in a teaching museum. Instead of the customary placement of galleries on the main facades, where the result is often blank exterior walls because of internal demands, Stirling has put the galleries back on the service yard. A blank facade of grey industrial brick picks up the colour of the adjacent apartment’s service court and renders this clearly the ‘back’ of the building. The light and views of the street are then available to the everyday spaces: offices, seminar rooms, labs.

This inversion of public and private affects the facade as much as it does because the services are stacked as single-storey levels with floor-to-floor heights of only about 9ft, whereas the galleries wrapped on two sides by these services are double-height. This combination of volumes brings to mind such traditional types as the palazzo and the French hotel, similar fixed urban blocks that tend to exploit all available space. These buildings occasionally paired double – and single-storey volumes by introducing a mezzanine or entresol to gain additional domestic or service levels. Stirling has conflated the spaces of a section like that of the Palazzo Niccolini, Rome, and has reversed the type, with functional logic.

The offices and seminar rooms that sit behind the striped facades are, somewhat incongruously, small symmetrical rooms with central windows and doors. Each room is a different size in response to programmatic requirements, and maintains this formal window placement regardless of its size. This generated the seemingly random window pattern, which in turn led Stirling to the striping as an ordering device. Functionalism was perhaps never so played with as in this ‘direct’ expression of the rooms within.

The other spaces of the Sackler illustrate similar planning devices: establishing traditional formal constrainsts to give an internal identity, but then combining elements in unexpected ways. Entry hall, grand stair, suites of axially disposed galleries, cellular offices: all are familiar types of rooms with as vivid an identity as might be found in the rooms of a palazzo or hotel, but here they are not subsumed by the whole. Each maintains its individual identity through its special wall treatment, centralised or axial planning, and shifted or denied connections. The entry block’s theatrical hall is a spectacular space, only 20ft deep but half again as high and more than twice as wide. Self-contained and symmetrical, it has a theatricality in proportions and lighting, with clerestory windows high at each end, and tall columns concealing continuous back lighting. The sheer inventiveness of this space seems at odds with its traditional elements. Its transverse location at the short end of the building contributes to its surprise. Perpendicular to this space, shifted off-centre, a grand stair runs lengthwise up through the narrow structure, dividing galleries from offices. Ribbons of lavender and cream plaster encircle its walls, a skylight brings in daylight, and Soanian fragments will hang on one side across from punched windows on the other. This stair is like no other: a Scala Regia with a drama infused with joy, not pomp. It is like walking through an exterior space, between buildings, but within a building.


Source: Steve Rosenthal

Top-lit upper galleries from part of enfilade procession back over bridge to courtyard of Fogg

The galleries are vaulted rooms connecting one to another, but independent of the rest of the building which wraps them. The second-floor suite exists almost as a found object: one enters from behind a round column on the stair landing, and discovers the enfilade from the corner of the second room. There are no windows or balconies into the hall or stair. On the third floor, a reflector runs down the centre of the vaults to bounce light from a monitor above onto the plasterboard angles of the ceiling.

The other principal space of·the Sackler is its basement auditorium, which will take the place of the Fogg’s lecture hall. Entered off-centre from its basement lobby, this subterranean space features the only structural columns that one encounters in the Sackler but that doesn’t mean that they are straightforward in their function. Encased in the round plaster sheathing are steel columns that carry the off-centre load of the stair’s masonry load-bearing wall overhead.

Structure itself seems to summarise the composite nature of this building. As the Sackler was going up, it looked like a catalogue of construction types. Concrete block bearing walls took shape next to enormous slabs of poured concrete, along with sporadic steel ‘framing and pre-cast concrete floor slabs. These floor sections are the only exposed structure in the building aside from the entry columns: in the office areas the underside of the concrete is simply painted. Despite its invisibility through most of this building, the load-bearing structure was clearly a deliberate decision, increasing the separation of the spaces. The internalisation of the Sackler’s architectural elements, the stretched, Mannerist proportions of the entry hall and stair, and the shifting of connections between elements, all contribute to a surprisingly varied, extended architectural promenade through this relatively small building. These separate elements hold their own like pieces of a Kurt Schwitters collage that have been called to order but do not subsume their individual identities in that of the whole, or find any easy or exact alignments.

One piece is missing from Stirling’s ‘Elements’, however, for there is’ no true place of rest: no rotunda, no centre, no courtyard, And it is this missing piece that seems to give a logic to Stirling’s fragmented promenade. For with the construction of the bridge, the visitor will enter into the glass crypt below the bridge, pass through the tall shallow entry hall, up the grand top-lit stair, back to the front of the building, and across the bridge into the old Fogg, to conclude at its gracious Renaissance Revival courtyard. Although some of Stirling’s early studies had shown a centralised space in his building, the final design creates places of movement: it seeks repose. The existing Fogg’s courtyard completes the whole. As Stirling’s facades offer a dramatic but deferential response to the Fogg’s primary location and entry, his spectacular spaces have their own power while creating an architectural promenade that inflects toward, and terminates in the old building.

Few buildings match the Sackler for sheer spectacle and power. The great hall and stair are spaces of brashness and joy, and the whole building features a panoply of spaces rare in a structure this size. Yet the bold crafting of spaces and the treatment of the facades has a logic in the building’s indentity as an addition to the existing Fogg Museum. It is an addition, regardless of any administrative declarations of independence, and only as an addition do Stirling’s dramatic, unexpected decisions make sense. One can’t help wondering, though, had the museum restructuring occurred before Stirling’s commission, what he would have designed had his assignment been for a whole instead of a part.

Extension to Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass

Architects: James Stirling, Michael Wilford & Associates
Photographs: Steve Rosenthal

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