Wer weiß heute noch, wer James Stirling war? Die Studenten von Aaron Betsky jedenfalls nicht, und das nur 14 Jahre nach Stirlings Tod. Die breite Öffentlichkeit hat sowieso noch nie von ihm gehört. Nur der Stirling Prize, der kürzlich an Richard Rogers (siehe auch Seite 7) verliehen wurde, erinnert noch an den Architekturzauberer. Ein Besuch der Stuttgarter Neuen Staatsgalerie von 1984 bringt »Big Jims« Können wieder in Erinnerung. Etwas altmodisch wirkt sie mit der grünen Eingangsfassade und ihren Bonbonfarben. Das Gebäude selbst hat jedoch nichts von seiner Kraft verloren: wie es den Hang nachzeichnet, sich dann in eine großzügige Halle öffnet, durch ein Säulenmeer in perfekt proportionierte Galerien führt, angeordnet um einen runden Hof, der wiederum nicht Teil des Gebäudes ist, sondern ein öffentlicher Weg quer durch den vermeintlich massiven Kern. Die Staatsgalerie demonstriert, wie Museen gleichzeitig Denkmale und Teil unseres täglichen Lebens sein können. Erst recht im Vergleich mit dem Museum Ludwig in Köln und dem K20 in Düsseldorf, für die 1975 Stirlings Wettbewerbsbeiträge abgelehnt wurden: beide zeigen heute verworrene Unförmigkeit ohne klare Wege, eine Mischung aus aufgeblasenem Maßstab und mutloser Detaillierung. Stirlings Entwürfe dagegen zeichneten Fantasiearchäologie (Köln) beziehungsweise ein öffentlicher Weg aus, der auch genau durch das Herz des Kunsttempels führen sollte. Was Stirling zum Bau-Meister macht, sind die Anwendung traditioneller Entwurfstechniken, seine Auffassung, dass Architektur beim Durchschreiten begriffen werden muss, und seine Ansicht, dass sowohl die Technik als auch die innere Logik eines Gebäudes erforscht, ausgestellt, ja zelebriert werden soll. Heute scheint das nicht mehr zu gelten. Jüngere Generationen entwickeln Komplexität um ihrer selbst willen. Der Computer macht’s möglich, und Struktur bekommen die Bauten durch LBO und Bebauungsplan.
Big Jim’s Big Legacy
At the awarding of the Stirling Prize for Architecture to Richard Rogers for his Bajaras Terminal in Madrid (see also page 7) it struck me suddenly: nobody knows who James Stirling was anymore. The wizard of collage architecture, the master of the meeting point between classical order and modern technology, the serious jokester of 20th century architecture, is remembered only through the award that bears his name. My students have never heard of him, and the general public never had in the first place. James Stirling is today the most forgotten master of modern architecture, only 14 years after his death.
Yet a visit to Stuttgart reminds us immediately of »Big Jim’s« achievements. Yes, the 1984 Staatsgalerie looks a bit dated, with its lime-green balustrades and other candy-colored notes coursing through the slightly worn stone steps and into the even more worn interior. What remains powerful is the notion that a building can rise up out of terraces tracing the hillside, then open up into a generous glass hall that leads one through a sea of columns, up to perfectly proportioned sky lit galleries that march (with all the order proper to the treasure house that is the museum) around a circular courtyard which is actually not part of the building, but of the public circulation route that crosses right through the building’s seemingly massive core. The »mushroom columns« bring an industrial legacy into the realm of art, while the circular courtyard is like a giant rotunda without the dome, with a few stones taken out of its walls and piled haphazardly on the ground to vent out (and allow you to see into) the parking garage. Grand and practical elements the architect took from all of the built environment pile up in this three-dimensional collage. The museum is a tour de force of order and chaos controlled by the panoply of columns, ramps, curves, and contained spaces.
The Staatsgalerie is evidence of how cultural institutions can be monuments to what we have inherited in art while being open to everyday experience. They show us how to make a new order and form while fitting into the existing environment. They are reminders of the power of architecture to create a world that is familiar, filled with echoes from the past and shapes we recognize, and yet startling, open and exhilarating in its opening up of new spaces.
A trip to Cologne and Düsseldorf reinforces the power of what Stirling achieved in Stuttgart: there the two museums he did not get to design (having lost the competitions), what are now the Ludwig and K20, sit like lumpish collections of confusion with no clear circulation and a combination of pompous scale and timid detailing that never makes one aware of the fact that one is in a particular site. Stirling’s schemes for these buildings were insane collages of invented archaeology (Cologne) and a circulation route that again penetrated right through the core of the museum (Düsseldorf) to make the palace of art both present and part of the community.
I am even a fan of Stirling’s later work, such as his tribute to both Louis Kahn (in plan) and K. F. Schinkel (in elevation) in Berlin’s Wissenschaftszentrum. The striped shapes and abstracted cornices remind one that classicism can be a lively and malleable style, not just the reactionary cloak thrown over modern spaces and technologies that Herr Stimmann has decreed in that city for the last decade. And the Turner Galleries at the Tate Britain, though somewhat lost without the remainder of the expansion of which they were to have been the first part, show Stirling as a master of making perfectly scaled and proportioned gallery spaces that connect to the past and yet accept the ancil-lary functions and modes of circulation that are now essential parts of any cultural institution.
Behind such formal solutions lay Stirling’s ability to be a master architect – perhaps the last of his kind. By this I mean that he relied on the traditional elements of shaping and expressing the act of building, including plan, elevation and section. He gave coherence to these representational tools in three dimensions by proposing buildings as ordered systems one could understand only by moving through them. He saw that one could and should explore, expose and celebrate both the technology that held buildings together and the inherent ordering systems that placed each of the functions in a logical order. His buildings existed at the intersection of narrative – or the expression of meaning-laden ordering systems in a sequential manner – and systems as the abstract organization of elements into a complex whole.
This is something we no longer seem to be able or willing to do. Rogers’ Stirling Prize-winning terminal celebrates technology and even shares the off-kilter colors of which Stirling was so fond, but it has none of the contrary power of defined space Stirling added to his compositions. By contrast, the current British king of German museums, David Chipperfield, is all formal order that hides what actually makes it work. Beyond such older masters, newer generations design buildings that are all about complexity for its own sake. New computer technologies allow us to make anything we can imagine, but we cannot seem to tether that imagination to the anchor of memory and cultural meaning that lets us make structures that are part of both our physical and our mental landscapes. Instead, order is established from outside by the regulations that mandate everything from contextual façades to accessible circulation routes.
The startlingly new has its place, in Stuttgart just a few miles away from the Staatsgalerie in the new Mercedes-Benz Museum by UN Studio. There the continually interlocking paths of which Stirling was so fond are free to echo the highways, storage tanks, stadium and factories they abut and celebrate the fluid forms and functions of the automobile. Similarly, the new Kunstmuseum by Hascher + Jehle shows how one can create static, formal shapes in open and transparent materials that bring out the inherent order of this ducal city. Neither building, however, has the ability to make art part of everyday life while making clear that it is something bigger, older and more valuable than our quotidian concerns.
When Stirling was at the height of his influence, the wars between the revivers of high modernism and those looking towards a vernacular, type- based past was at its most intense. Stirling managed to weave his way through these polarized positions to posit a place for architecture as drawing on the past and building the future. What allowed him to do so was his sheer skill at organizing all the elements that make up buildings. He was a master in the old-fashioned mode at a time when that notion was already difficult to maintain. Certainly his stance was elitist, and he was a master at making the kind of isolated objects of high culture that perhaps have no more place in a more fluid cultural field. It is therefore not right to wish for a new Stirling, or to be merely nostalgic about his architecture. Instead, we should ask ourselves whether it is not possible to position architecture as he did: between past and present, context and object, open and grounded, coherently ordered and joyfully confused.
I remember dragging my parents to see one of his earliest masterpieces, the Leicester Engineering Laboratories of 1959. We walked up the ramp, past the ship’s vents that were really ventilating stacks, through the streamlined version of a factory hall turned into a laboratory, past the red-tiled auditorium hovering over the entrance and into the glass tower that anchored the composition. We found our way past steel and glass structures and brick and tile walls, getting lost and finding ourselves again in the fragments of geometry that organized all these elements. As we left this modernist enchanted castle, my father said to me: »Now I understand why you want to be an architect.« I hope that others will continue to have that same experience in the architecture of James Stirling.
Aaron Betsky ist Direktor des Cincinnati Art Museum. Davor leitete er das NAI und war Kurator für Architektur, Design und Digital Projects am San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Als ausgebildeter Architekt hat er rund ein Dutzend Bücher über Architektur und Design verfasst, zuletzt »False Flats: Why Dutch Design Is So Good« (2004).