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'Sackler Sequence' an interview with James Stirling

James Stirling explains his design intentions for the Fogg extension in an interview with Michael Dennis

Originally published in AR July 1986, this piece was republished in March 2011

Stirling’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum, an annexe to Harvard’s Fogg, has caused a great deal of controversy - is it clumsy, wilful, perverse? Or an appropriate response to a chaotic part of town and a suitable home for a grand, yet very heterogeneous collection? Here Stirling explains to Michael Dennis the context and collection as he saw them and explains how he tried to create a building that was domestic, yet monumental; intimate yet powerful. (Dennis is Professor of Architecture at Harvard).

MD: Your work to date has been involved with juxtapositions, contradictions, and collage: early buildings seem consistently ‘modern’ in their materials and formal cacophony, whereas your recent work includes more ‘traditional’ ideas in its juxtapositions. This is especially true of the museum projects: Düsseldorf, Cologne, Stuttgart, the Tate, and the Sackler. They are all ‘contextual’ projects, and all utilise traditional typologies and materials. Yet among these projects the Sackler is unique: it is small; it is a teaching museum; and it fills the available envelope of the site, becoming as much urban fabric as monument.

As a teaching museum, the building seems elegantly and functionally arranged, and the public sequence of entry hall, grand stair and galleries is a powerful idea. Some planning decisions seem especially crucial, however: for instance, why are offices on the outside and galleries on the inside? And other decisions about the types of internal spaces also seem important: why are the galleries traditional rooms, and why is the stair abstract, unresolved at its ends, and treated as an outside space?

JS: To respond to your question about the stair ‘that doesn’t go anywhere’, usually one thinks of the grand stair as a feature in a continuous sequence. But I prefer to think of this staircase as an event in itself. The circulation flow in the Sackler is interrupted by a series of contra axes and stop movements as you move from the entry hall and up the stair to the top-floor galleries. The in-between transitional elements normally found in Baroque ensembles, such as vestibules and ante-rooms, are here excluded, making for an abrupt juxtaposition of basic elements. The staircase is therefore more a picturesque and less a sequential element in the spatial whole.

MD: Harvard has several good traditional rooms, and it has one very beautiful space - a room ‘inside out’ almost - in the Carpenter Center. But to the best of my knowledge, there are no grand modern rooms on campus, so the presence of your entry hall is a gift. I also agree that the stair is a place in its own right. However, you wouldn’t deny that it is part of a grand sequence of large entry hall, grand stair, and galleries above, with an implicit connection back to the Fogg Museum. In your mind there is the connection, and the interior courtyard of the Fogg is very much a part of your conception. I would further argue that you can’t understand the Sackler unless you know the Fogg.

JS: Absolutely. When you arrive at the big window, having gone through all the galleries, you’re confronted with the Fogg and with the desire to make the crossing, as it were, ideally, of course, through a long gallery connecting the two museums.

I hope that visitors moving through the Sackler will experience a succession of minor shocks or jolts. Firstly, they have to go down instead of up to enter the building. Then, entering through the glass lobby between the columns, the cross axis of the entrance hall immediately creates a stop movement: across the hall the staircase reverts to the axis on which they entered and, when the gallery at the top is reached its axis is again at right angles and so on. In a short staccato walk the reorientation of stop/go axis changes is a substitute for the transitional vestibules in a Baroque sequence.

MD: This also fits with the idea of the stair’s being, in a sense, an outside space. On one side of the stair the galleries are traditional or representational in the nineteenth-century sense - large, simple rooms arranged in enfilade. On the other side are staff and curatorial offices planned with the windows in the centre of each room. Embedded between these traditional arrangements is the staircase, repeating the stripes from the exterior and making it quite abstract, like the outside of the building.

JS: The staircase has been likened to a Neapolitan street. But I tend to think of it as a steeply inclined bazaar with overlooking windows, people talking and flanking activities. There will be the traffic of students en route to classrooms and the flow of the public visiting the galleries; it could be quite active, a sort of mini-bazaar.

MD: We had our beginning architecture students analyse the entry spaces of the Sackler. It was interesting because the most successful drawings were frontal axonometrics; perspectives did not yield the same sense of the building. The students were initially perplexed, trying to figure out the absence of resolution of the joints - resolution in the Classic sense - and the lack of exact alignment of the parts.

JS: You’re right, perspective drawings might not do too much for you in the Sackler except depict an atmosphere. In some parts I hope there is the quality of ambiguity that you sometimes see in Soane (who devised ceilings that float and introduced light from mysterious sources). For instance, in the Ancient Greek gallery, when looking back to where you entered from the staircase, you cannot see the recessed door. People will just appear in the gallery, as it were from the mist of the wall; alternatively, one moment they will be there and, when you look again, they will have disappeared without a trace.

MD: Much of your work seems to involve the juxtaposition of ideas, both in concept and in detail. People generally notice, I think, small things like the bright green trim on the exterior and the different handrails on either side of the main stair, but the shocking or surprising aspects of the building are there at a larger and at a more conceptual level as well.

JS: I see the building in some ways as very unshocking; for instance, the conventional arrangement of the staff/curatorial rooms and corridors. The galleries are intended to have a more public though not monumental persona, to have an ambiance verging on the domestic, especially when the ancient, Islamic and oriental objects are installed in the galleries, and if arranged with the charm and slightly idiosyncratic layout I associate with the Fogg, the domestic character should be reinforced. The galleries will, I hope, be more personal, more like those annexe rooms of grand houses which display the owner’s private collection than galleries in a public institution.

MD: Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was a great polemic about flexibility and open-plan exhibition spaces. Louis Kahn, for example, made an open-plan museum at Yale. But nowadays, there has been something of a return to the idea of traditional rooms, and your preference for that type of exhibition space represents this change in attitude.

JS: Well, the Sackler does have rooms, but not always with an axial relationship to each other; some have two openings per wall, so you may experience some ambiguity as to the type of room you are. The final gallery with the big window is parallel to the first gallery but the in-between spaces may seem somewhat like a maze.

MD: Nevertheless, they do have a rather impressive sequence and a distinct regularity.

JS: Only the galleries on the middle floor are in enfilade - although your enter them obliquely - where openings line up with a dead-ahead relationship of room to room. However, on the top floor where there is daylighting, the nature of the spaces and the route through may be less obvious.

MD: Can we talk about the idea of literal or phenomenal connection to the Fogg?

JS: Yes. Do you mean the bridge in the mind or the bridge in reality?

MD: I realise you had to allow for the possibilities of both, but do you think that the bridge is crucial - not to the functioning of the museum - but to the sequential idea of the two buildings, or the two buildings becoming one building?

JS: I don’t think the bridge is fundamental to the existence of the Sackler. However, if it was there as a long gallery and not an airport glass tube, it would be very practical and beneficial to both museums. But I don’t think it’s necessary as a formal or aesthetic element. In a way the gesture is made, the flanking columns support an imagined structure and the entrance focuses towards the Fogg. The big window suggests in the mind where you would make the leap, and I think the termination of the galleries at that window is how you connect back, not only to the Fogg, but to Harvard itself.

MD: And you know in your mind that the completion, or perhaps the beginning, is the courtyard of the Fogg itself?

JS: That’s right.

MD: I find myself in a dilemma about that because, functionally, the bridge would be a great asset; on the other hand, it would drastically alter the facade. To come out of the Yard into the enclosed space in front of Sever Hall, facing the Fogg, and to see two modern buildings - Le Corbusier’s and yours, on the diagonal right and left of the Fogg - is a strong scenographic idea. The fact that your facade is facing that ensemble is no accident, I’m sure.

JS: There are precedents. In London the Gibbs Church faces sideways overlooking the front of the National Gallery, and a proposed extension to the National Gallery (with linking bridge) on the opposite corner of Trafalgar Square could also face sideways towards the Gallery.

MD: Harvard seems to favour representation and decorum on the outside, and to keep any abstraction or oddity well concealed on the inside. Your building is almost the reverse: traditional ideas are found on the inside - the grand entry hall, the galleries as rooms - while the building is primarily abstract and differentiated on the outside. It is hard to tell how much is due to intent, and how much to evolution based on logical planning, humane considerations and so on.

JS: Well, nowadays one can draw equally, without guilt, from the abstract style of modern design and the multiple layers of historical precedent. Here we are combining the abstract repetitiveness of the long facade with the more representational character of the entrance facade which is larger in scale and where there is a cyclopean focus on the oblique.

MD: You might not like the fine-grained distinction, but I find it curious that you use the word ‘facade’ to describe both those conditions. I would prefer ‘elevations’ as a basic description, and to say that there is a representational facade with abstract elevations on the other sides.

JS: I think your distinction is correct, though some people may have a problem comparing the entrance facade with the side elevations because they look so different. We made the decision to put the staff/teaching rooms on Quincy and Cambridge Streets which has the effect of demonumentalising the building and producing an almost residential appearance to the street. Unlike the Wissenschaftzentrum in Berlin, where they required more than 300 staff seminar rooms, here no two rooms seemed to be of the same size or function. The planning programme had produced something very unique in that respect, and we tried to recognise this complication in the seemingly random positioning and size of windows. Which appearance, I thought, had to be counterbalanced by the completely different appearance of the entrance.

MD: I’ve been through the building, including all the service zones, and it’s certainly impeccably planned. The private realm seems very well served from the planning and conceptual points of view, but I do have concerns about the relationship of the institution to the public realm. I think the decision to put the staff/teaching rooms on the outside, so that people in the offices overlook the street, rather than the courtyard space, created a problem.

JS: It was our feeling that these rooms should have a view of the street and an involvement with campus activities around the building. On the other side they would have overlooked the service yard - which might have been rather insensitive, especially as the galleries could not have windows. Maybe I prefer doing the obvious and then designing a way out of the problems it creates. So the galleries became wrapped by the offices and were not exposed to the street. They rely on the interior and the staircase for their presence, which relates to the problem of where to put the public entrance.

The notion of having the entrance face forwards on to the back of the fire station always seemed a bit crazy to me. There were really only two possibilities: either on Gund corner looking towards Memorial Hall, or the other corner looking towards the Yard and the Fogg, which we chose. An entrance by Gund Hall would have been too far from the Fogg and in the wrong direction for the centre of Harvard. Then, having concealed the museum behind a wall of academic rooms, we had to announce on a short elevation that, within, this was a public museum.

MD: For me the most beautiful facade is on the inside facing the service yard, the one with the galleries and the protruding box for the little Asian rock garden. That wall facing the apartment houses is a tough, taut, and beautiful design.

JS: But it’s a straight … one might almost say … 1950s functional facade. It’s almost like Waiter Gropius at that point.

MD: Oh, I don’t agree; to me it’s not just a simple wall. It actually has a presence as a wall and as a facade; it’s both abstract and representational. However, I do find the abstraction of the two street elevations a bit at odds with the urban role of the building. At Rice University, and in the German museums - both at Düsseldorf and at Stuttgart - you had a certain flexibility - room to manoeuvre. Facade issues were not critical. With the Sackler the constraints of programme and site meant the buildable envelope had to be filled, thus defining and enclosing the street. Didn’t this demand a representational facade, not an abstract elevation?

JS: I think one sets up certain stresses which have then to be corrected. There’s a danger in throwing the gestures so far apart, as it depends on one’s skill in bringing them back together again. In this building, we hope it is achieved by the experience of the entrance hall and staircase; it’s essential to enter, otherwise the building may not be entirely understood. I think the entrance facade is respectful to the Fogg (and to Harvard) and I think the Cambridge Street elevation is supportive of Gund. All the movement of Gund Hall is horizontal, and I think our elevation to Cambridge Street makes a stop-end to this movement, giving the architecture school an urban stability it previously didn’t have.

MD: There is an interesting phenomenon on the Harvard campus vis-a-vis the use of brick. To the best of my knowledge there have been three cases where the material conventions of the Yard have been interrupted or violated. The first was Bulfinch’s University Hall, a grey stone building built in contrast to the brick buildings that existed because it was opposite the main gate. The next was Richardson’s Sever Hall, which is a very beautiful, odd, and almost perverse building on the outside. He built it in brick even though the other buildings at the time were in grey stone - the old chapel and library.

The logical thing would have been to make a stone building so that there would have been a brick quad and a stone quad. But Richardson went against the grain and made a different kind of building. Then, when the chapel and library were rebuilt, they were built in red brick - to unify the whole. The next violation of convention (both type and material) was the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts designed by Le Corbusier. He did not want to make a brick building, but rather to relate back to the idea of a unique building such as University Hall. Your building seems to be the fourth in this series of ‘violations’. It is unique not only in its abstraction but also in the materials, and the colour of its materials.

JS: We could have tried for a balancing act either side of the Fogg, with Carpenter Center on its right in concrete, and the Sackler on the left also in concrete - two modern concrete pavilions either side of a Georgian brick Fogg. Corbusier was able to make a pavilion of Carpenter Center but that was never likely with the Sackler due to programme requirements and site limitations. Furthermore, Gund Hall is in concrete, and if we had also built in concrete, it might have overwhelmed the character of the street, changing Quincy Street from a brick promenade into a concrete alley. My greatest respect is for Sever Hall and I would have preferred the horizontal bands of the Sackler to have the hard metallic resonance of Sever, but we just couldn’t get those bricks or have them made within the budget constraints.

MD: What about the stripes going around the corner, not the stripes themselves, but the actual corner? Why did you leave the building as a continuous facade, not articulating the two sides?

JS: Well, the speedy corner is meant as a deference in passing to Memorial Hall. With a small building you can’t play all the stops out at the same time. Instead of trying to be everywhere original, it’s necessary to have neutral areas offsetting the unique and particular, to have both high pitches and low notes.

MD: We know that the programme required the building to fill the site envelope. Is this why the steps go down into the entrance rather than up?

JS: Maybe it’s like stepping into an archaeological dig; here the up flight of steps associated with a monumental building is reversed. Lately I have begun to feel it’s equally monumental to go down as to go up. But the functional answer is that we wanted the bridge overhead to connect the Sackler and Fogg galleries at the same floor level, but then when the required programme was fitted underneath, the entrance level was more into the ground than out of it.

MD: We didn’t talk earlier about what the façade represents.

JS: Well, there’s a big cleft or opening, an entrance; or there’s a head with a face, a visage overlooking the campus. Maybe it has a slightly - I hate to say it - 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 interview was first published in ‘The Arthur M. Sackler Museum’ (Harvard University Art Museums 1985).

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