From: Stirling's Inheritance To: Stirling's Legacy Re: Stirling's Muses 1.0

Stephen Lauf © 1997.10.26

Stirling's Inheritance
Stirling's Legacy
Stirling's Muses

Part I

The scholarly references regarding the influence of K. F. Schinkel's Altes Museum in Berlin on James Stirling's Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart are numerous, and, to date, the most thorough analysis of the relationship between the two museums is Anthony Vilder's "Losing Face." Beginning with a recall of Colin Rowe's observation that the Staatsgalerie is an "Altes Museum without a facade," Vidler pursues the validity of Rowe's claim by leading an eloquent investigative trail, which is brought to a climax by "extend[ing] Rowe's comment logically to read [the Staatsgalerie as Chandigarh's] Palace of Assembly without a facade," thus suggesting a specific architectural lineage emanating from Schinkel, running through Le Corbusier, and, for the time being at least, ending with Stirling.

Although Vidler's (and partialy Rowe's) proposed genealogy of the Neue Staatsgalerie is intellectually sound, questions regarding the actuality of such a precise sequence of artistic influence nonetheless remain. Both Rowe and Vidler focus almost exclusively on the "facelessness" of the Stuttgart museum, which in Rowe's case leads to the criticism that a building without a facade is "slightly crumbly," and in Vidler's case it manifests an argument peppered with generally unpleasant corporeal allusions--effacement leads to "disembowelment" and ultimately to a "decomposition of Schinkel." Yet for all the attention that is given to a "face" that both critics agree is not there, Vidler himself points out that "Schinkel's museum had itself already begun to suppress what, traditionally at least, might be termed a face." Perhaps "facelessness" and the possible meaning of "facelessness" is not the real issue, and, rather than looking at the Neue Staatsgalerie from an anthropomorphic viewpoint, a better judgment of the Stuttgart museum and its relationship to the Altes Museum might come from taking an architectonic viewpoint, that is, looking at what actually is there.

Vidler's separate analysis of the Altes Museum offers a fine example of architectural criticism that addresses a building's design on architectonic terms. Without making use of metaphor and anthropomorphic allusions, Vidler convincingly describes the Altes Museum as a composite of preexisting building types brought together in an appropriate and meaningful manner. In so doing, Schinkel set an agreeable precedent for museums as a new building type: the colonnaded facade suggests the stoa of the ancient Greek agora, and brings democratic overtones with it; the enfilade of the exhibit rooms recalls the general plan of royal palaces, many of which themselves ultimately became museums throughout Europe; and, finally, the central domed rotunda represents the Pantheon, an "emblem of historical memory." When studied in a comparable manner, the physical features of the Altes Museum and the Neue Staatsgalerie evoke architectural precedents, however, Stirling greatly expands the field of Schinkel's composite method.

Altes Museum, Berlin, 1824-30
Karl F. Schinkel

In their respective comparisons of the Altes Museum and the Neue Staatsgalerie, it is regrettable that both Rowe and Vidler did not recognize the double row of trees planted along the entire front of the Staatsgalerie as Stirling's representation of Schinkel's two rows of columns at the Altes Museum. Like the colonnade in Berlin, the trees in front of the Stuttgart museum act as a screen, yet instead of merely going back to ancient Greece for the architectural precedent, Stirling, by way of Laugier, goes back to the origin of a column itself--the shaft of a tree trunk or large branch. Moreover, the delivery of proof of such a naturalistic (rather than anthropomorphic) interpretation of Stirling's intentions may come from the steel and glass aedicule immediately behind the screen of trees, which coincides with the museum's central axis and designates the true point of arrival into the new museum precinct. Could this temple-like portal not only be a modernist shrine to Laugier's idea of the rustic hut, but, when combined with the colonnade of tress, also manifest a resolute example of Stirling's own belief in an evolutionary theory of architecture--here taking a colonnade to its extreme backward in time while simultaneously taking the rustic hut to its extreme in the future direction?

the steel and glass aedicule designating the point of arrival to the Staatsgalerie

If the row of trees in front of the Staatsgalerie does represent a colonnade in its "original" state and the aedicule is the rustic hut in an ultra-advanced state, then these two examples are not the only instances at Stuttgart where Stirling engages his "evolutionary" architectural ideas. The open-air rotunda in the center of the museum complex likewise carries meaning regarding the process of naturalistic adaptation. The gallery's central and circular space is an obvious reference to the rotunda of Schinkel's Altes Museum, and thus also a reference to the Pantheon of ancient Rome. The overall interpretation of the Staatsgalerie's rotunda has been negative, however. It has been called an "empty center" and a "heart exposed and dead." Yet, when looked at objectively, Stirling's rotunda is more alive than even the Pantheon. Instead of utilizing a coffered dome with star rosettes and a central oculus or skylight, which only symbolize the sky, the stars, and the sun, the rotunda of Stuttgart is crowned with the real celestial entities themselves. Rather than representing a dead ruin, the new museum rotunda, like its colonnade of tress and rustic hut in steel and glass, signifies a growth and change in architectural execution and meaning that oscillates deftly bewteen the ancient and the modern.

To ultimately resolve the issue of the Neue Staatsgalerie's "facelessness," it is necessary to examine one final connection between Stirling's and Schinkel's museums, which relates to the porch wall behind the colonnade of the Altes Museum that originally held two long murals depicting the narrative history of culture. The murals, destroyed at the end of World War II, no longer exist, yet Vidler refers to this wall as "the true face of Schinkel's building." Moreover, it is a "true face" behind a "screen." The row of trees in front of Stirling's museum also creates a screen that veils its true face, and, like the porch wall in Berlin, the Stuttgart "wall" also displays a narrative history, though not of culture, but of architecture. The historical "quotations and allusions" of the Staatsgalerie's front are plentiful: Egyptian cornice, Romanesque window, Constructivist canopy, proto-Deconstructionist window, Roman rotunda, Corbusian ramps, High-tech guardrails, Loosian facade, traditional masonry throughout, and, with the eventual overgrowth of vegetation, Piranesian ruin. As a whole, the composite references, similar in scope to those that Stirling himself recognized in Hawkmoor's Church at Spitalfields, deliver a real and 3-dimensional panorama of architectural history, and it is perhaps this shared notion of historical narrative that, above all else, patently locks the connection between Stirling's Staatsgalerie and Schinkel's Altes Museum.

detail of one of the two murals originally on the porch wall of the Altes Museum

Although the evidence strongly suggests an intentional patrimony on Stirling's part between Schinkel's Altes Museum and his own museum design in Stuttgart, some may still doubt whether Stirling's intentions were the same as those outlined above. Further proof of Stirling's deliberate reenactment of Schinkel's design, however, comes with looking at Stirling's first museum design for a German city, the Museum for Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf.

partial elevation of the Staatsgalerie's front facade



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