Stirling's Muses Part II

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From: Stirling's Inheritance To: Stirling's Legacy Re: Stirling's Muses 2.0

Stephen Lauf © 1998.02.13

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

Part II

Designed in 1975, the Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia in Düsseldorf predates the Neue Staatsgalerie by two years, and, like the museum in Stuttgart, was the submission to an invited competition whose brief required specific site interventions including a public footpath crossing the site along with the more usual museum requirements. Unlike Stuttgart, however, Stirling did not win the Düsseldorf commission and the museum design remains unbuilt. Nevertheless, the Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia represents a significant plateau in Stirling's architectural evolution where new interests in context, symmetry, and historical allusions, as well as his formative architectural ideas, all reach a certain maturity. Had the museum been built, its received critical attention would no doubt have equaled that of the Neue Staatsgalerie, and, moreover, better recognition of the connection between the Düsseldorf design and Schinkel's Altes Museum would have occurred as well.

As at the Staatsgalerie, the most obvious link between the Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia and the Altes Museum is thier central rotunda space and enfilade of gallery rooms; both of Stirling's museum designs faithfully follow the Berlin prototype with regard to a museum's basic functionality. The other ways that Stirling reenacts the Altes Museum with the museum design for Düsseldorf are not so obvious, however. For example, the Düsseldorf design, like the museum in Stuttgart, "plays" with the "facade" of the Altes Museum, yet in a way unique to itself. Moreover, Stirling demonstrates the metabolic nature of his design capabilities by manipulating and "deconstructing" the Altes Museum's promenade architecturale.

Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia
Düsseldorf, 1975
Stirling, Wilford & Associates

The notion of promenade architecturale at the Altes Museum refers to the seemingly intentional choreographed sequence of architectonics and spatial zones encountered by visitors as they enter the museum. Far from being a single threshold, the "entrance" of the Altes Museum is more like a capsulized journey through "space and time" whereby the visitor experiences a remarkable series of alternating transitions -- moving from outside to inside, inside to outside, and from below to above--all in pursuit of the ultimate destination of the museum's central rotunda and its surrounding galleries.

For an illustrated rendition of the entry sequence into the Altes Museum, see the current display of the Altes Museum at Quondam.

This entry route, which essentially amounts to a "procession" that is both literally and figuratively uplifting, begins with a broad set of centrally situated stairs leading up to the long colonnade and the equally long portico behind it. On either side of the portico's back wall the visitor could view murals depicting the narrative history of civilization. Furthermore, the back wall, divided by an axially disposed second set of four columns, opens to a two-story gallery housing the museum's open dual staircase. Although access to the museum's first floor rooms exists within the left and right corners of the stair gallery, it is more the central doorway puncturing the stair's pyramidal trabeation that draws the visitor deeper into the museum.

composite wireframe and opaque rendered axonometric of the Altes Museum's main stairs viewed from the front

Once "inside" the staircase, the visitor has the option of entering the museum's central rotunda straight on axis, or of taking either of the heretofore undisclosed dual staircases. (Throughout the museum's history there was not always direct access to the rotunda, however, because the door to the rotunda sometimes functioned as an exit only.) By choosing to ascend either stair, the visitor proceeds on the preferred route, thereby experiencing fully the spatial inside-outside drama of the Altes Museum's porch and stair gallery, and ultimately entering the rotunda on its peripheral upper balcony.

composite wireframe and opaque rendered axonometric of the Altes Museum's main stairs viewed from the rear

It is precisely to the transitional sequence of spatial events along the Altes Museum's path of entry that Stirling addresses the "preferred route" of the Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia. Firstly, Stirling concentrates all access to the new museum within a single area under a detached pavilion--the porch. From here, the visitor can choose to proceed on to the museum's "rotunda" via the mandatory public footpath crossing the site, or he or she can choose to enter the museum's unique inside-outside foyer. The glass canopied foyer and the adjacent museum lobby provide the visitor with a number of access options into the museum's specific areas such as the special exhibits gallery and the lecture hall. Ultimately, access to the main galleries on the upper story is by either a ramp or an elevator.

For an illustrated rendition of the entry sequence into the Museum for Nordrhine-Westfalen, see the current display of the Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia at Quondam.

Both Stirling's path to the rotunda and the path to the main galleries relate directly to the entry sequence of the Altes Museum. The Düsseldorf pavilion is the portico of the Altes Museum literally pulled away from the building proper, and the 20th century steel and glass foyer shares the same inside-outside ambiguity with the 19th century staircase gallery. Above all, however, it is the dual and "symmetrical" placement of vertical circulation over an access route to a rotunda that inextricably bonds Stirling's modern ramp and elevator to Schinkel's classical double staircase.

a hypothetical transformation of the Altes Museum made to match the morphology of the Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia

The Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia is no doubt a prime example of Stirling's acute and discerning sense of architectural play, which at Düsseldorf reaches well beyond just historical "transfiguration." In the entrance pavilion alone there are many instances of analogue and allusion. Besides subtly referring to the Altes Museum porch, the pavilion on the plaza more specifically alludes to the similarly proportioned gallery pavilion that once stood on the same site, and thus represents the historical genesis of the Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia itself. On a purely abstract level, the square solid of the pavilion inversely complements the circular void of the rotunda, and the juxtaposition of solid versus void and square versus circle may also be a reference to the rectilinear attic with which Schinkel tops the Altes Museum's internal dome.

A further example of Stirling's extended play is the pairing of elevator and ramp. This combination of vertical circulation, while clearly relating to the dual staircase of the Altes Museum, also relates to Stirling's own previous work, specifically the conference room of the unexecuted Olivetti Headquarters for Milton Keynes (1971). This is more than a self-reference, however, because the conference room is already a transfigurational play on Le Corbusier's Maison Dom-ino paradigm. As noted with regard to the "genealogy" of the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Le Corbusier holds a special role in Stirling's game, and the elevator and ramp at Düsseldorf substantially reinforce Stirling's connection to both Le Corbusier and Schinkel. In fact, the whole contemporary notion of promenade architecturale stems from Le Corbusier's nurturing of the promenade idea in the 1920s, and Stirling, in the 1970s, not only further develops the "preferred route" theme, but, as if reversing history, brings Schinkel into the architecture promenade narrative as well.

superimposition of the Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia and Altes Museum elevations

conference room of the Olivetti Headquarters for Milton Keynes

See also the display of the Maison Dom-ino's legacy at Quondam.

Stirling likes to play, and his game is highly sophisticated. Although the metaphors sometimes seem mixed and the historical allusions often appear more like historical non sequiturs, in the end, the performance is unquestionably a master-piece. The designation of masterpiece certainly applies to the Museum for Northrhine-Westphalia, yet it also applies to the other museum Stirling designed in 1975, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum for Cologne.



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