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Boston, USA – James Stirling’s Sackler Museum now under threat in the groves of academe

James Stirling’s Sackler Museum at Harvard faces an uncertain future as the university reviews its development plans

As one of those involved in the 15-year campaign and project to restore the Alvar Aalto’s City Viipuri Library in Vybor, Russia, it is salutary to reveal that a major allocation of 6.4 million euros (£5.7 million) from the Russian Federation will now finally enable the restoration and recovery of this Modernist masterpiece to be completed. This marks a welcome sea change in official attitudes. After the Second World War, the Soviet authorities’ response to Aalto’s by then heavily damaged and Modernist ‘aberration’ was to propose a neo-classical, quasi-19th-century clandestine skin for this ‘confusing’ building.

There is a curious link between Viipuri and James Stirling’s Arthur M Sackler Museum, adjacent to the Fogg Museum, at Harvard University. Close and informed observers will note that the diagonally braced glass and steel side-hung entrance doors are strongly reminiscent of those designed by Aalto for Viipuri. It is such small but nonetheless wonderfully resonant details that point out the continuing relevance of the Fogg extension to late Modernism.

Stirling’s museum was intended to house the best of Harvard’s rich holdings of Oriental, Islamic and Classical art. Most importantly, the brief also required the building to accommodate teaching resources and staff offices. For Harvard, it was to be a major step forward in its art historical teaching and research. Four departments were moved into the Sackler out of the Fogg and the new first floor exhibition space was able to serve all the Harvard Art Museums.

Today, a quarter century after its controversial unveiling, Stirling’s Harvard tour de force continues to confuse, fascinate and divide the cognoscenti, and this debate becomes all the more significant because the university is currently contemplating a Viipuri-style disguise or the outright removal of Stirling’s building. Right now there is serious concern over the ‘known unknown’ options Harvard is considering for the Sackler. And while there is the risk that Stirling and Wilford’s remarkable building may be radically transformed, or even demolished, little information about the relevant academic and faculty board deliberations has been made available.

Michael Wilford, partner of the late James Stirling, says he is kept completely in the dark over such critical matters and is not ‘in the loop’. The Arthur M Sackler Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities (the original sponsors for the building), in the person of Dame Jill Sackler, widow of the philanthropist Dr Arthur M Sackler, is similarly uninformed. But apparently consideration is being given to the removal of the Sackler title from the Museum’s nomenclature. This seems to be symptomatic of the new ethics afoot in the Harvard Yard.

Today, most of the building’s proponents, including Professor Seymour Slive and Sackler, are going, or gone (Sackler died in 1987). Yet though there hasn’t been a real war, as had badly seared the Russo-Finnish experience, there has been a continuing war of attrition among architects and some historians still disparaging of Stirling’s now historic memento.

The Sackler Museum is a teaching museum, and was designed as such. In fact, it would make an appropriate architectural school today. But that is beside the point. There was shock at the opening and awe forever after. Kenneth Frampton, in a postcard to Stirling dated 6 May 1981, on seeing the model, gave the building glowing praise: ‘It really is a small beauty this building. I like everything about this work’. But he also pleaded conversely over ‘the long facade’, with its duotone brick ‘yet shocking disorder’, where ‘every window is in the middle of its respective inner wall’.

There was no equivalent trauma for Colin Rowe, other than a concern about the internal staircase, a kind of Scala Regia, which he liked, but disliked its apparently sudden closure. However, as Rowe said of the entrance, it appears reminiscent of the Lion Gate, Mycenae, or its neighbour Agamemnon’s Tomb: ‘It is a frontal and enclosing presence, Cyclopean and Mycenean.’ Rowe found that ‘facade and elevations are interactive’, and praised the building’s contribution to contextuality as ‘a major revision of the street’, providing ‘the articulant that was always needed’.

The abandonment of the critical bridge linking the Sackler to the Fogg didn’t faze Stirling too much, although of course the entire project had been based on this link going ahead. Responding to the question about what the facade represents, Stirling commented: ‘Well, there is a big cleft or opening main entrance; or there is a head with a face, a visage overlooking the campus. Maybe it has a slightly Eastern or antique gaze, ambiguous as to its origin, not exactly a Western face. Perhaps I was trying to make a face which was, shall I say, not British’. This was notwithstanding the presence of ‘many Soanian elements’, which ultimately came to fuller fruition in the Clore Gallery for the Tate Britain at Vauxhall.

What constitutes an ‘iconic’ building? I am reminded of San Miniato al Monte in Florence, Rietveld’s Schröder House, the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, and of course Aalto’s Viipuri Library. In each case there has been, in development, ‘a susceptibility to the spirit of Antiquity’ as Pevsner allowed. To that company, the Sackler Museum has to be included. Today its unique, historic quality is unassailable. And now perhaps the same mobilisation of effort is needed in the face of wayward academic bureaucracy and ignorance as was required for Viipuri when confronted by old-style Soviet intransigence.

Visit the AR Archive to read a wide range of articles on Stirling including Michael Dennis’ full interview with James Stirling in which he explains his design intentions for the Fogg extension (AR 1986 July)

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