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December 1982: Stirling and Hollein

Peter Cook enthuses over Hans Hollein’s Mönchengladbach museum and James Stirling’s Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart while Jonathan Glancey takes a more in-depth look at Hollein’s project in this piece from the AR Archive

Post-war Germany has taken its architecture really seriously. It is as if the embers of all those stylistic and philosophical battles of the ’20s and ’30s - most of which were fiercely fought by German groups and institutions - have been carefully fanned in order to ignite the new world. It is difficult for those of us in England to realise how legitimately architecture is considered as a major cultural issue - and even used quite aggressively as a weapon in the marvellous rivalries between the states and the cities. Not just the roll-call of operatic tenors, avant·garde filmmakers, but world-class buildings as well are totted up in the dismissal of Hamburg by Munich or Stuttgart by Frankfurt. Everybody seems to be constantly on an autobahn: attending a conference in this city, a concert in that, and earning their money - simultaneously in two more.

Consequently there has been the recognition that a cultural stream, just like a breed of animal, can be strengthened by conscious siring. The admirable process of putting out the majority of public buildings to competition has been sustained, and foreign architects of note have been deliberately invited to take part. Jim Stirling fits into this world ideally. His work is at the forefront of expressionistically identifiable architecture. He builds. He is a big, no-nonsense personality. Very German in many ways-though he has hardly a word of the language. A series of competitions were possible. Stuttgart is the first that he has won. Though not yet finished, it is now very visible. The Austrian relationship is more subtle. Somehow this small country with its rich memories and cynical attitudes towards almost everything has continued to fascinate the polynucleated - but still provincial - German system.

Vienna may be at the end of the western line, but its inbred sophistication cannot be termed provincial - it is far too special. Remember the effect of the Viennese upon American West Coast architecture in the ’20s. Or ·upon the English musical scene in the ’40s. Hollein himself is very special. The image quality of everything that he turns his hands to is haunting. His talent, and his exposure to the wider world outside Vienna has enabled him to somehow distil and extend the potent sophistication of Viennese ideas and make them of a scale that can be read in New York or London. Whilst his old friends have carried on gossiping and bitching and scribbling the odd scribble in the coffee-houses, Hans has been progressively extending his range. As a result of his activities in galleries (he was once the Austrian representative in the Venice Biennale as an artist) and his involvement in the Kassel Documenta, he was directly invited by Johannes Cladders to design the Kunsthalle at Mönchengladbach.

Museum Roof

The saw-tooth rhythm of the gallery rooflights

So it is that we have these two buildings reaching their completion within a year of each other, posed at each corner of West Germany, with a brief just sufficiently similar for comparisons to be inevitable. Certain things are to be expected. The relative toughness of Big Jim’s building. The relative tautness of Hans’ Viennese detailing. For students, there is the unending issue of gestation. For until Mönchengladbach, Hollein had made quite small buildings, and for him, this has clearly been a necessary demonstration that he can keep together a major composition. The period of designing has been nearly 10 years-of fairly consistent effort. So the diagrams have become well-known several years before the built object. He has become, in that time, a professor at the Dusseldorf academy (as Stirling has also), and Hollein is able to keep the thing closely tuned: I know for a fact that the restaurant alone received a year’s attention.

Stuttgart on the other hand is the largest, but not by that much, of what is now (for a twentieth century architect) a comfortable output. ‘It’s not just that he’s picked up new tricks, but held on to the old ones.’ Nowhere better than in the details. The fluency and speed of making the building is self-evident. Moreover, Jim, by his nature, is able to see the broad picture: to know just when to stop fiddling about and let the thing emerge in its own way, warts and all. It means that there may rarely be the shiver of delight that passes down your spine as you drink in one of Hollein’s beautiful little corner pieces, but there is a strong sense of the majesty of the whole.

Both buildings sit on a hillside. Both entice you up and through. One by the caress of its winding walls and sweet playthings, until, standing on the top, you are invited into the boudoir of delights that must surely live beneath the entrance box. The other by an assault on the system-certainly of any burgher who expects commodity and firmness, but suspects delight. ‘I dare you to join the action,’ the great arena of Stuttgart seems to say. At this point, one must reflect a little on the two towns. For Mönchengladbach has the abiding impact of being the Chelmsford of West Germany (whereas Stuttgart is at least Bristol). It still tests one’s cynicism to find such a jewel in these circumstances. Hollein, realising this, may have deliberately kept the scale of even the largest elements to that which can relate to small-town backstreet formality. Similarly, the great past - and prosperous present - of Stuttgart has been correctly assessed: more than capable of absorbing a monumental complex in the heroic tradition. The old princes of Wurttemburg would not only have understood this: they’d have almost certainly given Jim the next palace on the strength of it.

Museumext

The museum crowns the hill on which it stands, the garden terraces following its contours. The tower floor plans emulate the flowing curves of these brick walls

There is another level, however, at which these buildings can be read. For we live in a century of mass communication and mass travel: we are always being reminded of it. A private byproduct has been the way in which special architects, particularly those who remain somewhat avant-garde figures whilst also beginning to build extensively, become known to each other. The academies, the exhibitions and the showbusiness end of it has meant that Stirling and Hollein have become occasional cronies. Two more of their friends are Richard Meier and Arata lsozaki. Any combination of these four might be sighted in a hunting lodge on Kyushu Island, an Art Nouveau house in Belsize Park, Elaine’s restaurant on Second Avenue-or a boat in the Baltic.

Stirling has very good things to say of Hollein. It is probable that he will study the Mönchengladbach building very carefully (as Hollein may have studied Leicester’s diagonal rooflights). lsozaki brought his American clients over to both buildings in order to convince them about good museum architecture: he nearly blew it, because they then went back to LA fussing about the architecture ‘taking over’. For us, however, these two buildings are comprehensible together. Acting inwards to an architectural milieu that probably could never bring itself to design either, they represent a study in comparable virtuosity that may not happen again for 30 years.

There may be a building, from the hand of a spotty, neurotic young architect that will combine their strengths-heroism with finesse-but I fear there will be few clients. Moreover, these buildings were not arrived at without 20 or 30 years graft by both architects. The clues for both can be found in the two early triumphs: Leicester and the Retti shop. The gradual emergence can be traced in St Andrews and the (unbuilt) Hollein project for a terraced bank. The mastery of imagery (how foolishly do we surpress the importance of this factor, in all our puritanism), was confirmed at Florey and the travel agencies in Vienna. So get into your Renaults mates. Get the ferry. Draw a deep breath. And take a good look.   

 

MUSEUM, MONCHENGLADBACH, WEST GERMANY

Criticism by Jonathan Glancey

The artist Joseph Beuys silently slots red roses into a battered upright piano in the main gallery of Mönchengladbach’s Stiidtisches Museum. Oblivious, to his surroundings or artfully only seemingly so, Beuys, slovenly gardener’s hat pulled down over his head, sets about his inscrutable task. When all the roses are in position-and how carefully he places them-a glass case is placed over the floriated piano.

And then in the evening there is a celebration meal in an unlikely Italian nightclub called ‘Memphis’. Hans Hollein holds knife and fork and court. Ettore Sottsass to his right sits with bloodhound eyes in front of a mountainous bowl of radishes, the only thing he will eat tonight - fit subject for a painting. But once captured for posterity - the red-rose artist and the radish-consuming architect - where should the frozen images of such bafflingly alive events be kept? In a museum, naturally. Contemporary art is museum art, hot house exotica, kept preciously removed from the hurly-burly, sticky fingers and clumsy hands of the workaday world. The public must see the art it pays for but in antiseptic conditions where it is not allowed to touch, to come too close. The artist and the architect who, restlessly alive, were so subjectively enjoyable to be near, to be entertained by, become untouchable, ungettable - at once they become art-objects.

night

Anthropomorphic lighting beckons the night-time visitor towards the entrance. Many of the special lighting effects were achieved in collaboration with the inventive lighitng designer Hans von Malotki

The house of the muses is a place where we must whisper, as in a church, where we must not tread too leadenly, breathe too warmly, and where we reach with curious hands at our peril. This is a grim enough prospect, but in recent years museum buildings themselves have become dull warehouses. A bastardised interpretation of the modern museum would seem to be a whitewashed, spotlit, antiseptic and virtually empty shell which, acting neutrally, takes none of our attention away from the sacred art-object attached to the wall or, if the object is three-dimensional, placed conspicuously and silently in the centre of a bare room like the sacred relics of some saint in a Spanish chapel. There is no resonance between building and canvas, architecture and art.

In contrast Robert Smirke’s magnificent Neo-Greek British Museum housed and reflected the Greek antiquities it sheltered; Woodward’s Ruskinian Gothic University Museum at Oxford blended the fossilised skeletons of dinosaurs- the most gothic of beasts-with cast-iron piers, vaults and tracery that seemed but a continuation of prehistoric bones. But the modern museum has been either too neutralfor example the wholly neutral extension to London’s Tate Gallery (AR August 1979) -or has allowed the architecture to steal the show completely-such as Piano & Rogers’ Centre Pompidou or even, as in the case of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, to make gallery going a positively uncomfortable experience. The swirling ramps of the Guggenheim make great architecture but absurd museum spaces. The gallery-goer has to stand at muscle-pulling angles to view them.

 

ART AND ARCHITECTURE EXCITE ONE ANOTHER

At Monchengladbach Hollein was lucky to have a client, Johannes Cladders (museum curator), who believes that architecture is an art and not a functional necessity. Hollein has responded by giving the people of a heavily industrialised German town a building that blends the art on display with the architecture. It might sound hackneyed, but in this building art and architecture really do complement, or more positively excite one another. Placed in a neutral architectural shell these exhibits might not seem as dramatic nor as charged with meaning as they do here. ‘Art,’ Cladders has said, ‘always has its place.’ The art of Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein, Wesselmann, Warhol, Oldenburg, of Christo, Beuys and Klein has its place here in Hollein’s Gesamtkunstwerk.

The museum, Hollein’s first large building, has been 10 years in the making. Cladders first came across Hollein in the latter’s ‘Everything is Architecture’ exhibition of 1970. Cladders appointed Holle in as architect in 1972 on the strength of that exhibition and the two have worked closely ever since. The close relationship between paintings and fabric inevitably means that the building’s greatest strength is in its interior spaces, the success of which depends on variety of light, level, height, shape, materials. But that same variety applied to the exterior of the building creates a complex, uneven structure that at first sight appears a series of contradictions. Hollein has deployed a vast army of building materials-brick, stone, concrete, marble, lead, aluminium, brass, bronze, steel-shaping them into a medley of building types. So the museum-both from a distance and from close-up- appears to be a small city compounded of many different elements.

Interior1

Inside the entrance tower a highly stylised spotlight floods the ceiling with white light

This museum is (to use a fashionable, but necessary term) collagist. Hollein has juxtaposed a church, an office block, a mortuary chapel, a factory shed and a cascading public garden. He has created a lively landscape of curving, snaking forms with crystalcut hard-edged cuboid forms, has mixed low with high, urban walkways sentried by militaristic spotlights with soft twisting garden paths. Holle in’s city can be entered prosaically on a level from the main shopping street of Monchengladbach, across a walkway above a sunken service access road. More poetically than this, it can be approached from the gardens below, where the buildings have some of the Monte Cassino air of a great religious institution.

The spire of the lofty medieval church is a foil to Hollein’s cuboid forms and adds to this monastic illusion (the museum stands appropriately on the site of a Benedictine settlement). In strict planning terms the museum has been well-integrated with the existing fabric and circulation of the town. There is no problem in finding it; it leads quite naturally off from the shops. This proximity and the inviting terraces and gardens should guarantee the museum’s popularity in the life of Monchengladbach.

 

DESCENDING TO THE TEMPLE OF THE MUSES

A glazed marble pavilion set in the centre of Hollein’s collage city is the museum’s entrance.  Unusually the visitor is led down into the temple of . the muses. Most architects past and pr esent would have us step up into a temple of arts. Hollein, characteristically for one so obsessed with the imagery of death, has us step down into a sepulchre. But these sepulchral spaces are flooded with light, a triumphal mix of natural and artificial light that changes in character and intensity throughout the complex interior.

Once inside, the clarity of Cladders and Hollein’s vision becomes apparentalthough not immediately. True, the entrance gallery-a harsh, fluorescent-lit warehouse strewed with Joseph Beuy’s unsettling blocks of fat - gives the impression of an unfinished space and unfinished display. It takes a while to adjust. The space seems a hostile and barren territory and the first-time visitor might well scuttle away in search of more reassuring sights, perhaps returning later with an understanding of how well the harsh, unblinking light and warehouse feel of this gallery so aptly complement the pieces on display.

Exterior

Variegated building forms dressed in zinc coating

An excursion around the building is an extraordinarily liberating experience in many ways. This is the architecture of freedom-and uncertainty. Hollein offers any number of paths through the complex of galleries. Crossroads are frequently met where the visitor must decide which way to turn, but each way seems as tantalising as the rest. The galleries seem something of a maze at first but a glimpse at the plans and familiarity with the building gradually reassures and helps the visitor locate himself. Yet the variety is breathtaking, in much the same way as that of John Soane’s museum in London. One gallery is entered down a quadrant stair, another down a rectangular stairwell; now we emerge above a staircase on a curved balcony, now on a rectilinear gallery.

Here is a bridge that leads nowhere but which offers spectacular internal views both ways along a glazed, barrel-vaulted gallery, here is a circular gallery with a domed roof where bright light blisters down on George Segal’s colourless statuary. Here the lighting is concealed, there it is by conspicuous spotlight. A ramp leads us up to this gallery, a narrow passage takes us to another, a circular stair to this one, a winding one to that. But none of the devices used freely throughout is wholly gratuitous. Each gallery and most particularly the entrance to each has been thought out in context with the objects on display. Each artist, each display receives the architectural setting it deserves. The collection will have to be a permanent one otherwise this precise and precious relationship between art and architecture will be destroyed.

Because the lighting of the individual galleries has been of such critical importance Hollein has given the upper level of vision a remarkable degree of attention. Nowhere does the eye rise up to meet a uniform and featureless ceiling. Each gallery has some special feature - low ceilings criss-crossed or circled with fluorescent or neon tubes, barrel vaults and domes, circular skylights, slits and chutes, some plain, some elaborately moulded. 

 

PARTICULAR, PECULIAR SPACES

The museum offices stand apart from the galleries, housed in the concertina-like tower block that dominates the museum site. There is nothing obvious about the offices. These too have the same degree of attention lavished on them as the galleries below. The plan of each floor is quite different. Each office worker has a particular , peculiar space. Ninety-degree angles seem hardly to exist in this elevated administrative world. Gaudi would have been comfortable here. Step out of the lift and each floor is virgin territory and has to be learnt afresh. The third, fourth and fifth floors lead out on to snaking balconies. Below that, space is at a premium to house the museum’s archives , library, store and workrooms.

Not only are the museum’s offices interesting spaces in themselves but they contain colourful and variegated furniture designed by the architect. Back downstairs, the cafeteria provides a welcome rest for the feet if not for the mind. Even this small, immaculately furnished space is restlessly handled. At one end of the cafe one can sit on plush chintzy settees (as if in a genteel drawing room) overlooking the gardens; at the other end one sits in a glazed circular booth protruding into a dramatically top-lit and galleried double-height space. Whimsical Hollein pieces furnish the room contrasting with practical but decidedly elegant cafeteria fittings. Because the paintings and sculptures provide their own colour, the walls, floor and roof surfaces are treated in the most neutral finishes.

Lectire

Audio-visual lecture theatre; a concentrated ring of circular forms

But Hollein without colour would be unthinkable. And once away from the artworks, there is colour enough to satisfy a High Victorian. The lecture hall, cinema and classrooms-included in the museum are facilities for both adults and children to learn to paint and sculpt-are richly coloured. Strong reds and greens predominate, cossetting colours that make these otherwise theatrically designed rooms comfortable to stay awhile in. The rhythms of these ancillary rooms are decidedly different.

The lecture hall is gridded-floor and ceiling-like a giant chessboard-the seats laid out in stern rows (they can turn to face a screen which emerges from one sliding wall or a stage concealed behind another), the downlights marching like motorway lamps the length of the deep green ceiling. But in the classrooms, there are recesses and alcoves, curves and mouldings, decorated doors and cabinets, lowkeyed and variegated lighting.

 

COMPLEX HOMOGENEITY

Outside and inside one would have to look very hard to find some unfinished detail, some unresolved corner. A decade might seem a long time in which to build a smallish art museum, but the craftsmanship and finesse of the final product should convince anyone that it has been worth waiting-and paying - for. Hollein explains the building in terms of ‘complex homogeneity’, which seems apt. And yet despite the undeniable brilliance of its interior spaces, the magnificent fusion of the artists’ and the architect’s imagination, despite the attention to detail, the museum as a whole (especially when seen from outside) remains a collection of diverse buildings, diverse forms and materials.

Ultimately its strength stems from an inside outwards philosophy. The interior is one of the most exciting for many years. There is nothing superficial or whimsical about it. Instead there is a Soanian sorcery in the play of light and surprising articulation of space that make the Stiidtisches Museum a true temple of the muses. Warhol, Paolini, Ruckrei, Nauman, Beuys, roses , Sottsass, Hollein, collage-art has its places. Monchengladbach is one of them.   

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