ARCHITECTURE. A Stirling mix of the maverick and the mundane at Harvard's Sackler Museum
JAMES Stirling, an impresario at merging yesterday and tomorrow in some of the major works of modern architecture, has created a strange street player for his latest building in America. The Sackler Museum at Harvard, which opened here last month, is a pin-striped building putting on a bold or brazen face above a fairly ordinary outfit. That ``face'' -- specifically, a faade with columns, truncated pyramid entry, rusticated frame, and color highlights -- has startled, affronted, and intrigued the community. The figurative presence of this entry with its green-eyed cylinders has caused so much controversy that it has obscured the reality that it is, in truth, nothing more than a frontispiece, a mask on a workaday building doing the job for which it was ordered.Skip to next paragraph
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The job, sternly outlined by Harvard and severely conditioned by the site, was a complex affair. The Fogg Art Museum, repository for more treasures than any other university in America, needed more space. It needed offices, an auditorium, and a library. It needed them to fit within 60,000 sq. ft., and it needed to secure them on a modest budget.
At 59, the world-famous architect was a natural choice for a university that ``collects'' architects the way some collect art -- randomly but by name. Just beyond its neo-Georgian Fogg neighbor, for instance, sits Le Corbusier's only building in North America, the concrete Carpenter Center spiraling on pilotis above Quincy Street. On various sides of the Sackler site one sees a plain folks apartment and a routine neo-Georgian fire station, but also the industrial-tech expression of the Graduate School o f Design. Within eyeshot also pose such modern momentos as Josep Luis Sert's science building, and such 19th-century legacies as Ware and Van Brunt's Memorial Hall and H. H. Richardson's Sever.
Clearly, Stirling has a reputation to match this entourage of architects. Internationally renowned since his engineering lab for Leicester University in 1959, the British native may have an ``iffy'' place at home (``I'm much more known here than in England,'' he told an American audience at Harvard a few years ago), but his mature assignments now include a building for Mansion House Square in the City of London and an addition to the Tate Gallery.
Stirling's American work, done during teaching stints at Yale, mounts, and will peak in a project for Cornell, according to reports. Meanwhile, outstanding designs for West Germany -- a winning entry for the competition at Dusseldorf, and a remarkable museum at Stuttgart -- have won acclaim.
Finally, the innovative architect's work has mellowed. For better or worse, it has lost its unflinching and jarring modernism, softened its industrial hard edge. Even in the late 1950s, Stirling's English housing was deferring to the village tradition; now his modern classic idiom speaks still more outspokenly of good fit. ``We're always considered architects of one-off buildings,'' he told that same Harvard audience, ``but in fact I'm concerned for the context.'' Thus, Stirling, vintage 1980, seemed ap t to integrate Cambridge environs that seemed more strewn than planned.
In the end, this concern for context and the squeeze for space, as much as the architect's artistry or the art to be housed, is written in the appearance of the Sackler. Perhaps Stirling's choice to band accounts for the working segments of the structure in bland brick stripes for gray and buff on two sides and in pale gray on the service side.