1997.04.22

James Stirling and the promenade architecturale

1






Geoffrey Baker, "James Stirling and the promenade architecturale" in The Architectural Review, 1992, Dec., pp. 72-75.

'Stirling has always been an ultra realist who loves to turn a necessity into a symbolic form, much like the ancient Greeks.'
Charles Jencks


Although the movement route has been thoroughly assimilated in twentieth-century architecture as a strategic device, the term promenade architecturale cannot be used in describing the work of other than a handful of architects. The inevitable Corbusian associations raise the level of expectation beyond that usually associated with a movement route, suggesting an integration of circulation and form resulting in an experiential dimension of unusual richness and subtlety.

This article traces the evolution of the route in Stirling's architecture in outline, concluding with a discussion of the Staatsgalerie at Stuttgart, a work which aptly summarises his attitude towards the route during his late period.

From the beginning, circulation was an important generator in Stirling's designs; this became clear in his precocious and prophetic (in terms of his future output) project for the Sheffield University competition (1953). Within a slab-like block, a series of volumes were linked to a circulation system described as a 'spine or driving axle onto which rooms were connected, like a mechanical assembly.' As Stirling pointed out 'The planning of spaces and rooms was secondary to the creation of a circulation system.' At ground level a ramp ascends to a first floor foyer with a glazed skin that leads to twin towers containing stairs and lift leading up to the lecture theatres. Functional components receive expression through the most positive of formal devices, each of which contrasts sharply with the other, and the ramp, glazed foyer and circulation towers conjoin in an assemblage whose logic and clarity herald later designs at Leicester, Cambridge and Oxford. Above the foyer the sloping floors of the lecture theatres become a major expressive device as they are stacked on top of each other, held at their entry levels by structural columns which pierce them. A glazed membrane completes the facade.


1. There is ample evidence that Purism and Le Corbusier's painterly output played a significant role in his conceptualisation process during the twenties, and that his painterly explorations continued to be a source of inspiration throughout his life.

This fusion of structure, mass, membrane, and circulation, together with the dynamic compaction of elements, never self-indulgently sculptural but compellingly precise statements of function, was to constitute Stirling's unique personal style. It was both an affirmation and a critique of Le Corbusier's Modem Movement canons, insisting on a series of clear volumetric statements (primary volumes) expressing individual cells instead of the plan libre in which volumes and spaces intermingle within an allembracing box. And in Stirling's projects compositional inspiration did not emanate from a painterly source1 but was based on a strict rationale informed by programmatic analysis, economy and logic. As a further point of departure, Stirling exploited the experiential possibilities of vertical movement in modern buildings far more than Le Corbusier ever did. Although Stirling consistently used the Corbusian ramp in a positive way, he also used towers to great effect, their vertical thrust expressing the energy and excitement of his early period.


As a reaction against Miesian glass boxes and the kind of anodyne picturesqueness of the New Towns built during the post-war phase, it became fashionable in Britain during the 1950s to arrange volumes in vigorous combinations, a technique explored by Stirling in his Woolton House (1954), Village project (1955) and House in the Chilterns (1956). The cluster, with interlocking elements surrounding a core, became an important theme, introducing a strong sense of cellular compaction with its own inherent energy. These tendencies crystallised in the Expandable House of 1957, in which a central drum (containing services and a spiral stair) was surrounded by cubic volumes.


2. See Kenneth Frampton's analysis in Architectural Design Magazine, London, Vol.40, September 1970.

3. In Stirling's work generally, geometric properties are always fully exploited. Linearity will usually be exaggerated, this being also true of centroidality, similarly concentrated into an intensification of its inherent properties. In projects such as the Cornell Performing Arts Centre or the Latina Library, centroidal and linear conjoin to produce a subtle and potent tension as delicate loggias enhance and help signify the powerful massing behind them.

Compaction and the cluster
This functional ideology, with Stirling's inclination towards compaction and the cluster, was given an ideal programme with the Leicester Engineering Building (designed with James Gowan) between 1959-63. A series of easily identifiable components, (lecture theatres, laboratories, teaching spaces and workshops) had to be put together on a confined site and connected to each other by an efficient system of circulation.

In his organisation of elements, Stirling honours his earlier commitment to circulation as 'the dynamic and motivating element of the building', and it is the exploitation of a logic of movement, compacted within a very sophisticated geometry, that gives the building its drama and authority. The conceptual tour de force occurs at the heart of Leicester's tall block, where circulation towers are linked to platforms that diminish in size and change in shape as users rise through the building. A glass membrane cascades over these layers, providing fine views over the adjacent park and a myriad of planar layers internally. The poetic effect of this kaleidoscope of prisms evokes the simultaneity of viewpoint that we associate with Cubism, being all the more remarkable in that it emanated from rigorous and minute analysis.

A variation on this theme had similar dramatic consequences in Stirling's next major work. In the Cambridge History Faculty building, circulation routes form galleries that overlook the reading room. But as at Leicester, entry to the building becomes sophisticated as users slide in on two levels, the dual entry points being recognised externally by interlocking canopies. And, like those at Leicester, twin circulation towers dramatise vertical movement as do the glazed stairs at the two planar extremities, and the steep stairs forming the secondary entrance. This dynamic interplay of solids, planes and oblique forms creates an unusual sense of rigour and tension.

Movement routes confirm the geometry, verticality heightening the dramatic effect, so that on rising higher in the building, horizontal galleries extend from aside the reading room to outside, in the process .iving views of inner and outer glazed skin as well as the space in between. As at Leicester, compaction pays a huge dividend, with Stirling easing the observer through a Futurist world of shiny red and cream planes, space, structure, transparency and opacity. In this history laboratory, horizontal, vertical and inclined planes meet at one central point in a climax of astonishing theatricality. That an obviously thorough methodology should somehow result in this kind of high drama, highlights Stirling's special skill in combining the experiential with the functional. It is a fusion achieved by a rare facility in the manipulation of three dimensional geometry, with an assemblage of elements conceived in plan and section imultaneously, as well as in relation to movement. In his scenario, the promenade architecturale becomes he conduit for a dynamic visual experience that everses the traditional serenity associated with tudious contemplation.

Cambridge confirms the way circulation, use and formal geometry conjoin in Stirling's oeuvre, and the same is true of the residential expansion at St. Andrews University (1971, p53), where the route again becomes the organizing armature, a promenade sandwich midway in slab blocks so that the inherent linearity of the concept is reinforced by references to the deck of a ship.2 Volumes and spaces flow along these decks to form a ribbon that knits the configuration together, whilst accommodating the two fingers of the complex into the morphology of the landscape. Although St. Andrews is a variation on the ribbon theme explored earlier at Selwyn College, Cambridge (1959, p5l), this time, in a harsher climate and more open landscape, the rooms are given insulation and privacy by being enclosed within precast concrete slabs. The glazed promenade provides a welcome contrast both visually and experientially, carrying through the marine analogy with a high degree of consistency.

In the Dorman Long project (1965) the route forms a spine that confirms the aggressively strident linearity of the parti.3 The Florey building for Queens College, Oxford (1966-71) follows the same principle when adapted to a centroidal configuration. The route or cloister is a furtherance of the geometry, this time enabling the podium to form a central court. Circulation participates in the sculpting, with the solidity of the court a necessary foil to the staggered glazed membranes that enclose it. Leicester, Cambridge History Faculty and Queens all exploit contrasts between horizontal, vertical and oblique, and between mass and membrane. It is for this reason that the hard surface of a podium/plateau become a necessary starting point, a mass that establishes the horizontal absolute in the form of a base or platform.


The critique of modernism
For Stirling, Queens College marks the end of the beginning. During the 1970s, a more fundamental critique of modernism becomes apparent as his work reflects a greater acknowledgement of context. With the Olivetti Training School at Haslemere (1971), the juxtaposition of an Edwardian country house and a sophisticated corporate body known for its streamlined user-friendly products, elicits a solution that demonstrates Stirling's confidence and versatility. As usual, movement is the generator, this time taking the user through an elegant conservatory, with Edwardian overtones, that employs ramps in a manner reminiscent of the Villa Savoye. As in the villa, the ramps act as a contemplative device, their gentle ascent under a glazed 'vault' giving access to space, sunlight and greenery, symbolising that liberation of the spirit epitomised by Le Corbusier's work of the 1920s. As in the villa, the promenade architecturale gradually unfolds to reveal a visual sequence containing enclosure and exposure, with spaces and volumes compacted into a geometrical composite reminiscent of Leicester and Cambridge.

The central route in the Siemens AG competition of 1969 furthers the idea of circulation as armature introduced at Dorman Long. Siemens advances the Dorman Long concept by forming a majestic central spine that acts as a boulevard, with colonnades, travelators and a procession of cylindrical towers on either side. This time the route suspends the user in a setting whose grandeur reminds us of Le Corbusier's promenade between cruciform glass towers in the central business district of the Ville Contemporaine. It is the first hint of the powerful cylinders to appear in future projects culminating in the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie, representing a shift towards symmetry and serene monumentality that replaces the vigorous compaction of earlier projects.

At St. Andrews University Arts Centre (1971), the route, as usual, links compositional elements, doing so in a manner that has the usual Stirling clarity. This time, however, the circulation is low key in acknowledgement of the importance of the older masonry buildings. Until this point in his development Stirling's contextual skills had not been fully extended, but here (as with the Clore Wing of the Tate, the extension of the Rice School of Architecture and the urban complexes in Germany) he demonstrates a rare sensitivity by interventions that transform and enhance the existing. As at Haslemere, Stirling provides a freshness of contrast between new and old that demonstrates his total confidence in the capacity of modern architecture to participate in an effective dialogue with the past.

In the trio of German Museums, Nordrhine Westphalia, Wallraf-Richartz and Staatsgalerie Stirling's inventiveness is informed by a fresh set of criteria as he confronts the contextual challenge posed by the city. In all three, the promenade architecturale emanates from an analysis of the complex texture of the city, resonances of which are evoked by metaphor and allusion and by a juxtaposition of forms that combine visual surprises with vitality and grandeur. The later work shifts away from brittle planer explorations of the earlier machine language into a more romantic idiom of powerful massing and delicate appendages, with the route changing into a pleasurable meander through spaces and volumes in buildings that represent the city in microcosm.


4. Stirling was fond of opera, with Verdi one of his favourite composers.

Post-modernism
The pluralism of post-modemity liberated Stirling's hitherto repressed emotional palette as he absorbed and reflected the architectural movement that emerged world-wide in an acknowledgement of the importance of meaning. In his own work the most convincing demonstrations of this new tendency emerge in additions to existing buildings, where many levels of meaning are already in place. In these projects emerge (as with late Corbu) a hitherto unrealised lyricism and sensuality in the use of curved forms. Instead of a predilection towards linearity and a sometimes frenetic formal juxtaposition of separate elements, the centroid now emerges, with its compositional opportunity for the concentration of effects and its ability to summon up primeval emotions that respond to enclosure, harmony and serenity. With the introduction of representation (as well as abstraction) the realm of memory is incorporated into the architectural schemata. Wit and parody become possible, so that although Stirling (like late Corbu) loses none of the earlier discipline and control, this work displays a more mellow patina, represented by a change in the presentational drawing technique.

It is no surprise to discover that this mellowness has a Verdi-like majesty and power that places these later works on the emotional plane of Grand Opera,4 recognising that we live, as Susan Langer has suggested, lives of feeling primarily. This sensuality and dramatic content--as in the first trio of works--is expressed through the combined media of form, surface and colour, with a psychological component that is now fully capable of realising Stirling's desire to produce a humane architecture.

The Staatsgalerie culminates this trend, with its massive cylindrical drum acting as a focus that reverberates throughout the complex, transforming the art gallery into a nostalgic combination of garden and plaza. Routes weave in and out of the central volume, bombarding us with a visual imagery that resonates with memories of the heritage of western civilisation. In this building James Stirling's promenade architecturale reaches its joyous and most profound fulfilment, transcending his earlier logic in an affirmation of the role of architecture as being to provide man with an experiential foothold in the world.

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