Academic journal article Change Over Time

"CERTAIN OLD AND LOVELY THINGS, WHOSE SIGNIFIED IS ABSTRACT, OUT OF DATE": James Stirling and Nostalgia

Academic journal article Change Over Time

"CERTAIN OLD AND LOVELY THINGS, WHOSE SIGNIFIED IS ABSTRACT, OUT OF DATE": James Stirling and Nostalgia

Article excerpt

We are looking at the back wall of a large building that we come across from a minor street on a slope (Fig. 1). There is a wide pavement and a small parking bay in front of the wall. Two bulging air vents, of nautical or industrial form, appear to ventilate some fetid or gaseous engine room below us. Mismatched in blue and green, and standing on their own base like jolly totems, they are the louvered orifices of this massive building. And that it is massive is surely the case. We see what can only be the topmost section of a structure that must extend well below our feet, rammed into the slope or, perhaps, mostly buried by some later disaster. But it is the wall itself that most draws our attention. The autumnal warmth of its stone seems exaggerated by contrast with the jaunty vents; there is a complicity in the contradiction between them. The wall is articulated by an enigmatic projecting course about two-thirds of the way up: the upper portion is too low to be another floor level and too high to be a parapet. Alternating bands of travertine marble and local sandstone, in gentle polychromy, make up the wall above and below this projection. The two stones are related in color but the travertine courses are wider and more richly patterned, some chalkier in coloring, some in a canary yellow, while the narrow sandstone courses are mostly in midbrown tones of raw umber and beige.

As we approach nearer, however, the contrast of playfully brazen industrial modernity and reassuring masonry is lost because the masonry itself is not quite what was promised. Instead of stone blocks these are evidently thin sheets pretending, if not very hard, to be blocks. The sheets of stone neither abut each other nor are there mortar joints between them. We do not see what is structure here, and we know this. Nor do we see some tight skin sealing or screening off that structure from us. The stone holds nothing up; it is a screen for the wall we cannot see behind it, and it is to that wall that the sheets are attached.

So what is this wall? Perhaps we should think about another eloquent back wall, by the same architect, to help us answer this (Fig. 2). The wall here is white and high, almost unfathomably so as there is no indication of floor levels within. Joint-lines are inscribed into the surface of this wall, marking out the shapes of cyclopean blocks arranged in simple courses. At its top edge the wall simply ends; there is no cornice, hardly even a vestigial coping. And similarly there is little to acknowledge the ground or the corners, except that the blocks are clearly measured to meet the corners in full or half-blocks. Again, as in the other wall, if this is not a fragment it makes clear that it is an incomplete part of something larger, a complex. It is less a simulation of stone than a parody of the simulation of stone. In London's Regency buildings, for example, cheap stucco was a facing material that substituted for expensive stone. Stucco was incised with lines to imitate the patterns of mortar courses, and from some distance the effect could be convincingly stone-like. But in this wall the "stones" are hugely overscaled and the inscribed coursing is so perfunctory it could never convince us that this is stone. It is, the wall seems to assert, a big sign for stone, several times removed from any actual masonry. There is not the same surprise at getting nearer to the first wall; it has a starker beauty, assuring us that what is seen from a distance is still there in proximity. But it has the same disorientating effects of scale, the same sense that stones and walls have been reconstructed as if from a faulty memory or from a longing that accepted it could only partially evoke its lost object.

These walls form part of the buildings that James Stirling designed in the 1980s for the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, and the Center for the Performing Arts at Cornell University. Both walls make us think about what we take stone to be, how it reminds us of historic structures and at the same time how we are not in a line of continuity with those structures. …

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