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.

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.

The architect explains that the seemingly banal exterior suits the place and the people within; that the green-eyed columns register where a bridge is intended to connect to the parent Fogg Art Museum if community opposition allows. Such rationales help understand why the building doesn't look like it holds art or bears the signature of this master architect. But only somewhat.

Inside one needs no such rationales in behalf of banality or incoherence. Here, the split-personality structure meshes. The needs and the expressive ones meld. The grand staircase ordering the interior works. It is the architectural showman's godsend -- functional yet amenable to theatrics.

Stirling's bluestone steps, flanked on one side by the balconied wall of offices and on the other by the galleries, lend monumentality, clarity, and artistry. The sawed-off pyramid doorway at their summit parallels the entry and works well as a finale. The muted tones of lavender and yellow banding the stairs and punctuated by an illuminated brass rail and orange column give the processional an air of grandeur and mystery.

People add to that presence. Somehow, crowds make the staircase still more picturesque. Yet even on deserted days, the skylight above with its herringbone pattern reflected in the window, animates the space. This integration of purpose and pleasure are what Stirling, and architecture, are all about: perform the work of the world, but don't forget to sniff the daisies.

Moving from this public space, the viewer enters galleries that provide, by contrast, a private place. Intimate and pleasant, the second and third floor galleries cloister the art within. Relieved by skylights, stepped ceilings, and architectural detail, they make an agreeable environment for the art. Oak baseboards, patterned floor passages, and cylinders framing doorways enrich or furnish many rooms.

Stirling's omnipresent porthole is a bit more problematic. Critics have traced this form to the architect's Liverpool origins, so much so that Stirling has jokingly denied the fact that he was ``conceived on a ship in a bunk in the Mersey River.'' Whatever the anchors-away source of the imagery, the circles distract. Even their constructive use to hold a surveillance device atop an arch or as ventilation of the floor, can overwhelm. Too often such staples of Stirling wit become ponderous elements here.

The first floor temporary rooms, now holding ``Modern Art at Harvard,'' are the prime example. This space for changing exhibitions simply upstages contemporary art. Combined with mechanical elements of architectural touches of textured walls, the portholes take away the clean-sweep environment needed by art of this generation.

Here, too, one has the feeling that the tight program compressed the architect's urge for poetry and released it in such excesses.

One is continually brought to ruminate on these issues in the search to find the source of the Sackler's, and Stirling's, flaws: Why does a major architect create a very minor building? Is it the squeeze for price and place that made him create this odd melange, this mix of the maverick and the mundane?

Whatever the answer, one fact appears: for all the hooplah and internal amenities, the Sackler Museum is an uneasy and uneven piece of architecture. And its architect, the man who someone once said ``rescued architecture from the ashes of the machine age,'' has not pulled Harvard's aesthetic chestnuts from the fire.

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