Positions - Anthony Vidler - Unprecedented


Anthony Vidler

WZB, exterior view. Source: James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

April 2024

In 2019, when e-flux Architecture sought to recalibrate its independent publishing initiative Positions through the lens of buildings (“Thinking Through Buildings”), we reached out to Anthony Vidler, who proposed to write an essay about James Stirling. Tony dedicated significant thought over the course of his scholarly career to Stirling, who he saw as an enigmatic figure in the history of twentieth century architecture, one whose thought and practice refused to stay still and fall neatly into the stylistic categories that historians, critics, and architects of the time so often relied on to grapple with the historical changes taking place around them. Here, Tony looks at one of Stirling’s later buildings that is perhaps less well known than others, but which perfectly represents this relentless commitment to the deepening and advancement of architectural thinking that both Tony and Stirling dedicated their lives to. Tony worked on numerous drafts of this essay, but was unable to finalize it before his passing late last year. Thanks to the invaluable assistance, insight, and care of Emily Apter and Spyros Papapetros, we have been resolve the last remaining details, and publish it in his memory.

This is an age of multi-aesthetic styles, and each problem appears to have its appropriate aesthetic, in contrast with the twenties, when much of the strength of the movement lay in the naïve conviction that all buildings could be designed in “international style.”
—James Stirling1

Sometime in the early 1970s, James Stirling’s long-held position as the “wunderkind of modern architecture”—to use Philip Johnson’s well-trodden moniker—gave way, and seemingly overnight Stirling became postmodernism’s unsuspecting and unwilling poster child. The Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart of 1977–1984 served as the nail in his proverbial and postmodern coffin.
—Amanda Reeser Lawrence2

If, as Amanda Reeser Lawrence observes in her trenchant essay, the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart was the first nail in Stirling’s “postmodern coffin,” the Wissenschaftszentrum für Sozialforschung (Social Science Center, or WZB) in Berlin (1979–1988), proved a decisive second. The Staatsgalerie, with its circular drum referencing Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altes Museum, and its both high-tech and historicist details, was immediately subjected to criticism from adherents of the modernist tradition. The WZB, conceived a year later as part of the Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA) program, seemed to breach the codes of modernism even further.3 Its pavilions, diagramming historical building types, decked out in bright pink and blue stripes, and huddled behind an ornate late-nineteenth-century entrance block, seemed to many British and European critics to be a betrayal of the ethic of the Modern Movement.

Re-reading the critical literature on Stirling’s work with James Gowan, with whom he worked from 1956–1963, and on his later work with Michael Wilford, from 1971–1992, one is struck by the initial excitement of those who first lauded his energetic displays of modernist erudition—in Leicester, Cambridge, and Oxford, even for Olivetti—contrasted with their withdrawn silence on the later works—a silence beginning with his urban projects for Derby, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Stuttgart, and the WZB. Whereas, for many British critics, the mash-up of motifs from Melnikov to British vernacular represented a renewal of the Modern Movement’s commitment to a cross between technology and historical reference, the introduction of what Nikolaus Pevsner in 1961 called “historicist” references seemed to stray too far from the fold—into the dangerous waters of post-modernism.4

In the contest between latter-day modernists and newly minted post-modernists in the late 1970s, the tradition of “modernist” abstraction that had absorbed historical precedent in spatial or formal terms was challenged by direct visual references intended to repair a loss of “meaning” in architecture. The work of Stirling was a case in point and hotly debated, since, unlike the clear historical nostalgia of Robert Venturi, his early projects had been received as deeply embedded in the modernist tradition; indeed, even as renewing that tradition in an original and fertile way.

Stirling’s early work in the so-called “red” trilogy—the Leicester Engineering Laboratories with James Gowan, the Cambridge History Faculty Library, and the Florey Building at Oxford—were seen as a direct evolution of modernist functional precedent, with its confident blend of British “glasshouse” vernacular and neo-Constructivist forms. Kenneth Frampton, writing in 1968, was still able to trace the genealogy of Stirling’s search for new typologies from Paxton to the space program, seeing it as a work that both looked back to the heroic period of the Modern Movement—the “condensation of constructivist iconography” and forward “towards the technological aspirations of a future totally transformed.”5

A year later, however, and coinciding with the entry of the young Luxembourg architect Leon Krier into his office, Stirling was to develop a series of projects—beginning with his submission for the Munich Headquarters of the Siemens Corporation (1969) and plans for the Derby Civic Centre (1970)—that demonstrated a turn towards a “rationalism” that was more attuned to eighteenth-century neo-classicism than modernism. Krier and Maurice Culot promulgated a neo-classical sensibility with their Rational Architecture exhibition of 1978, which was comprised of a polemically anti-modernist selection of projects, including these projects of Stirling’s.6 Krier and Culot’s re-envisioning of rationalism was both historicist and, as they coined it, “passéiste,” and was diametrically opposed to the progressivism of the modernist rationalists.

For Stirling, this series of urban museum projects culminated in Stuttgart and marked, as Charles Jencks enthusiastically noted, Stirling’s entry into the newly minted canon of “Post-Modernism.”7 The published results of the competition for the WZB a year later finally confirmed what the modernists had already suspected: Stirling’s turn towards “post-modern anti-rationalism.”8 Yet Stirling himself consistently resisted stylistic labels throughout his career, from “Brutalism” to “Post-Modernism.” In this light, what seemed in the 1980s, and to some critics even now, to be a failed historicist experiment, the WZB emerges as a symptomatic but engaging example of Stirling’s attempt, in his words, to develop, rather than depart from, the languages of modern architecture.

Sketch site plan and sketch site plans and perspective for WZB. Source: James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Designing the WZB

The brief for the Berlin project was complicated enough. Three social science research organizations were to be brought together on a site formerly occupied by the Prussian Reichsversicherungsamt (the Reich Social Insurance Offices), founded by Otto von Bismarck in 1890. The original building by August Buss, in “Late Renaissance” or “Wilhelmine imperial” style, was still standing, yet in the heart of the Kulturforum, the center of then-West Berlin. It faced onto the Landwehr Canal, sandwiched between the rippling white façade of Emil Fahrekamp’s modernist Shell-Haus (1930–1931) and Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie (1968), and was in visual and walking distance from Friedrich August Stüler’s Matthäuskirche (1846) and Hans Scharoun’s Berliner Philharmonie (1956–1963). Faced with this context of individual, free-standing, and aesthetically contrasting buildings, Stirling experimented with a number of site strategies that would serve both the institutional brief—the assembly of three social science research centers and their support facilities—and refer to the larger scale-image of Berlin.

The office ran through a series of more than eleven exploratory partis before the final competition presentation in 1979.9 According to Michael Wilford, the firm strategized their design in the following way:

breaking down each building into a number of discrete parts, each expressed separately and clearly; clarity and dramatization of pedestrian circulation within and between these separate parts; an interest in the contrasting relationships between solids and voids (i.e. between “mass and membrane”); the exploration of non-rectilinear, oblique, and curvilinear geometries … and especially, the predominance of formal and spatial objectives over structural and technological systems.10

These elements would then be confronted with the site, and a range of potential organizations tested out. It was quickly decided that the two rear courtyards of the old building were to be demolished, leaving the entry building on the canal as an isolated pavilion, with its dramatic late Italian motifs, echoing Paul Wallot’s contemporary Reichstag Palace, and a touch of Art Nouveau modernity in its wrought iron porch and stair railings.

(Left) Alternative plans for WZB. Source: James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture. (Right) Plan and sketches for WZB. Source: James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

The trapezoidal site behind then became clear, and a number of compositions were assayed, from those echoing the Dusseldorf and Stuttgart competitions—with circular courtyards in the center of the block—to schemes that morphed into similar combinations of U-shaped and semi-circular courtyards. At what one must suppose was the end of the first stage of the design process, some eleven of these alternatives were diagrammed on a single sheet: some involving a single perimeter block surround a central courtyard and cut in different places for entrances; others showing combinations of two or three blocks separated by courtyards; and a final scheme with what would ultimately become the project’s long block of offices separated from the entry pavilion in the rear.

Stirling’s basic aim, as he expressed in the competition submission, was to avoid at all costs the anonymity of contemporary office buildings, those single glass boxes so characteristic of the late International Style. “[W]ith this concept of several buildings of differing forms, informally related to gardens and to existing buildings, we hope to make a friendly, unbureaucratic place—the opposite of an institutional environment, even accepting that the building program is for a multitude of offices and the design of a single complex.”11

Each of the research centers were then diagrammed, together with the library, canteen, and meeting spaces, as separate, individual pavilions. This decision led to the exploration of diagrammatic shapes for each one, and it was at this moment that the idea to represent “history” through reference to the typological forms of architectural precedent emerged. The design process then settled into an exploration of the “play” of these shapes as they took up varying positions on the site behind the central pavilion. Cruciform, semicircular, square, circular, and pentagonal shapes jostled around in different adjacencies, as if Le Corbusier’s diagrams of Rome as an assemblage of primary forms had returned with new life.12

A crucial “analysis” drawing categorized the various historical plan-forms and “shapes” considered for each. Together they display a diagrammatic panorama of the history of architecture, from the early Egyptian (“tomb, pyramid”), through the late Egyptian (“temple”), Greek (“temple”), Roman (“theater/basilica”), medieval (“castle keep”), picturesque (“manoir”), early modern (“silo”), and modern (“office block”). The precedents selected were arranged to the right of these diagrams: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, a cruciform basilica, a square keep, a circular light tower, a semicircular theater, a square courtyard palazzo, and Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall. In her analysis of this drawing, Lawrence cites an employee at the time quoting Stirling jauntily saying, “We’ll have one of each.”13

What followed was a series of literal exercises in precedent use, with the “palazzo,” the “Larkin Building,” the “basilica,” the “theater,” and the “silo” taking up their places on the site. In one iteration, a diagrammatic plan of Mies’s Crown Hall takes the corner, and the basilica, the theater, and the palazzo are arranged across the rear of the site. In another, as if playing a game of historical chess, the castle keep took the corner, with the theater, basilica, and silo controlled by a long, narrow, Greek stoa-like block across the rear of the site, as if it were holding the various building types of the agora together. The final plan for the site clustered together the hexagonal library, the “theater,” “basilica,” and “castle keep” behind the entry pavilion and in front of a long office block, or “stoa,” running the length of the rear of the site.14 The entire composition registers as a small internal “city” in an urban context, the Kulturforum, marked by its galaxy of separate and attention-seeking monuments.

Site plan for WZB. Source: James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

The WZB stands now in almost the same condition as when it was built, albeit with its colored striping slightly faded. Entered through the deliberately unrestored Buss pavilion with its shrapnel holes—Stirling’s testimony to the history of twentieth century Berlin—the visitor passes through an unmistakably Stirling-designed doorway with acid green accents to the interior grassed courtyard. To the left is the “theater,” a semi-circular curved block with a canopy, and, just behind this, the library “tower.” To the right is the apse of the “basilica,” and uniting the whole composition as a backdrop is the long “stoa” office building. (The “castle keep” was omitted for financial reasons, yet remains as a ghostly memory, with its plan traced in hedges; the “basilica” is only now receiving its second story.)

Blue and pink striations run horizontally along the complex’s exterior walls, blending with the striped brown and red brick courses of the old building, while all the windows are equalized by projecting “eyebrows” that act as sunshades, tying together the disparate pavilions and flooding the inside corridors with diffused light. A sense of peace and interiority, appropriate to a research center, pervades the whole. All in all, the WZB has gracefully and modestly taken its place in a Berlin ravaged by the monstrous scale of the post-post-modern glass facades of Potsdamerplatz.

Yet the debate around Stirling’s postmodernity from the 1970s seems to still be alive. Sarah Goldhagen, writing in 2010, claimed that “Stirling was an uneven practitioner, who produced many more bad buildings than good ones,” and included the WZB as “one of his painfully bad misfires.”15 Raphael Moneo by contrast admits that, like many previous critics, he hadn’t quite grasped the seriousness of the project on first sight and categorized it “as yet another example of Stirling’s irony,” but he now concludes that the attempt to produce a set of plan-types—all unified by their architectural language of uniform and framed windows—“is anything but a joke.”16

WZB, exterior view. Source: James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Reassessing the WZB

In this context, a reappraisal of the aesthetic roots of Stirling’s “styles” might lead to a greater sense of both the unity of his approach throughout his career, and its continuous linguistic development. Here, Geoffrey Baker, in his appreciation of the WZB, offers a potential starting point, noting the

blend of sophistication and levity that allows Stirling to mischievously deflate the seriousness of modernism, the closeness of the WZB to Mies van der Rohe’s Art Gallery in Berlin making this point with typical candor. In contrast to this irreverence, the analytical precision, organizational logic, and hierarchical lucidity that first appeared with full conviction at Leicester remain in place, surprisingly so, in that Stirling, in his late period, is using the genre of elementary composition we associate with the Beaux-Arts.17

This recalls two former assessments of Stirling, the first of which refers to his continuing recourse to architectural “wit.” John Summerson noted this in his review of the equally contentious addition to Tate Britain, where he characterized Stirling as a kind of “Vitruvius Ludens.” “He is essentially a great player—even something of a gambler—an architect cast more distinctly than most in the role of homo ludens.”18 Colin Rowe agreed, seeing the WZB as one of his “most delicious projects,” appreciating it for its relief from “earnestness” and engagement in “play.”

But Baker’s reference to the Beaux-Arts leads us back to Stirling’s early formation in the Beaux-Arts/Modern school of architecture at Liverpool, where in his first year he was constrained to draw the orders and historical details, casting their shadows in fine wash. But it was his history and design teacher—Rowe—who recognized the Beaux-Arts’ compositional practices in the work of Le Corbusier, and who encouraged Stirling and many others of his generation to interpret modernism through an academic lens; to understand that Beaux-Arts design processes and formal moves were, if not styles, in fact part and parcel of an already established Modern tradition.

Two essays by Rowe under the title “Character and Composition” outlined the historical relations between the organization of spatial units and their contribution to the characterization of different building-types as displayed in the rulebooks of the classical and picturesque traditions.19 Rowe was especially interested in the way these principles of design were transmitted from the French tradition, as delineated in Julien Guadet’s course at the Beaux-Arts, Éléments et théorie de l’architecture (1901–1904), to Britain in the 1900s through textbooks on composition. He wrote: “the shelves of any representative architectural library in the United States or Great Britain might suggest that between 1900 and 1930 the major critical interest of the architectural profession throughout the English-speaking world lay in the elucidation of the principles of architectural composition.”20 For Rowe, however, these compositional practices were of more than historical interest; indeed his sense that modernism had never really let go of academicism (a sense shared by Reyner Banham, albeit with less enthusiasm)—reflecting his own education at the Liverpool school—led to his crafting a pedagogical method that blithely married academic practice, historical precedent, and contemporary design.21 Treated in this way, as Jacques Lucan writes, “composition is antecedent to ‘styles,’ or, to put it another way … a given composition can be dressed in several different ‘styles’; a question of ‘syntax’ rather than ‘vocabulary.’”22

Rowe, as an architect-trained architectural historian, was ever delightfully oblivious to questions of overt style in favor of an analytical penetration of the underlying forces that shaped buildings and urban spaces, whether it was the “mathematics” of a plan, the parti of the work, or the collage effect of its juxtapositioning in the city. For Rowe, the belated traces of Beaux-Arts pedagogy at Liverpool were there to be activated as instruments of an enquiry that excavated family relationships among works as diverse as Palladian and Corbusian villas, Mannerist façades and Miesian plans, and even Butterfield’s Gothic eclecticism. Stirling eagerly absorbed this sense of eclectic play with history, beginning with the variety of “modernism” collected and fused in his bachelors thesis project, where Rowe detected the influence of Tecton, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and even Charles and Ray Eames.

WZB, exterior views. Source: James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

History is also present in one of the earliest projects Stirling worked on with James Gowan, the competition submission for Churchill College in Cambridge from 1959. As Lawrence writes:

Churchill embodies a set of formal and conceptual strategies for reconfiguring history. At Churchill, Stirling and Gowan reference a range of architectural projects, spanning from the medieval era through to the 1950s; each is folded into the dominant figure of the courtyard type, generating a solution which is both historically embedded and resolutely modern.23

Beginning with the figure-ground plan of his arcade project for Derby Town Center (1970), continuing with the Arts Center project for the University of St. Andrews, and culminating in the complex proposals for Dusseldorf, Cologne, and ultimately Stuttgart, Stirling registered the power of Rowe’s argument against the over-simplified geometries of modernism. In each case, however, the tactic was less “collage” than it was of “interweaving” interior and exterior volumes into the existing fabric.

Stirling referred to this compositional approach as “contextual-associational,” one that immersed the new elements of building into the fabric of the old city, as well as embodying them with associational—i.e. historical-mimetic—signs that would tie them to the memory of the city in history. This was, he claimed, “somehow akin to the historic process, albeit instant, whereby built form is directly influenced by the visual context and is a confirmation of, and a complement to, that which exists.”24 Stirling was acutely aware of the dangers of such an approach. In a mock history lecture on his own work, with side-by-side slides proposing amusing and outlandish “sources” for his designs, he admitted: “I realize that an interpretation between the design for a new building with associations of the past is a dangerous tightrope to walk, with compromise and sentimentality on either side.”25

Moneo’s acceptance of Stirling’s later projects is the exception among critics rather than the rule. His critical understating of the role of the plan in the design of the WZB, as opposed to the representational elevation more common among postmodernists, opens toward a deeper interpretation of the building than it has hitherto received. As Moneo realizes, the question for Stirling, who repeatedly stressed his allegiance to modernism but with the desire to enrich and extend its “language,” was first and foremost one of generating newly formed “typical” plans.

As opposed to previous projects, such as the Red Trilogy, where the plan was intimately tied to a composition assembled from three-dimensional volumes echoing historical precedents (often many at the same time), the plan of the WZB is in every way the generator of the overall design, so much so that the pavilions that cluster to form this little city within a city are vertical, almost “cookie-cutter” extrusions of their plans. This is perhaps why Stirling himself, from the outset, refused to fall into the trap of identifying the historical sources of these pavilion plans. Asked about the obvious references to the Greek stoa, Roman basilica, Norman castle, and Italian campanile, he shrugged: “For me its unimportant that these abstract forms resemble the past,” denying that he, for one, had ever thought of such references himself.26

Yet, an inspection of the plan strategy of the WZB points not only to a series of admitted type-precedents, but also to the plans of two of Stirling’s contemporaries: Louis I. Kahn’s project for the Dominican Motherhouse in Media, Pennsylvania (1965–1968), where five roughly cubic blocks are arranged in a fan from left to right within a U-shaped frame of dormitory cells27; and O.M. Ungers’s project for a Student Dormitory in Enschede, Holland (1964), where classical typological elements are fragmented and set off-axis from each other.28

Even beyond the historical plan-types, what offended many critics at the time was the WZB’s bold use of color: the pink and blue stripes that made the building stand out against the white travertine of the Shell-Haus and the black steel of the Mies gallery. Michael W. Farr, in his doctoral thesis of 2013, however, held that in the context of the nature and use of color in Stirling’s oeuvre, the use of color at WZB, while at first shocking, has precise relationships with both the overall design and the surrounding urban environment.29 For Farr, the WZB is an exercise in “a comprehensible and contextual architecture of dramatic appearance” that allows Stirling to contribute “a commentary on the broader history of Berlin as a city, and the fragmented collage it had become after the war.”30 Farr is not the only contemporary scholar who sees the WZB not as a dramatic break in Stirling’s corpus, but as consistent with his experimental attempts to address the problem of history in the general current of modernism. From the beginning, for Lawrence, the WZB represented Stirling’s ability to “think through history.”31

Neither strictly neo-classical nor overtly historicist, Stirling’s projects after 1975 were both contextual and modernist, compositionally stemming from classical precedents, formally construed in assemblages of geometrically abstract volumes, and with details that harked back to—but didn’t emulate—historical architectures, from the Renaissance to the Modern Movement. Lawrence concludes:

Stirling’s typological study is not the solution to the WZB puzzle. While the final project is undoubtedly an extension of its discoveries, the choice of the five specific buildings is revealed to be inconsequential. They could have been the building types depicted in the sketch but not ultimately “chosen,” or they could have been any other building type within architectural history. A basilica is no more appropriate for a social science office building than a medieval keep or a palazzo. All of history is made available to the architect, but that history is rendered ahistorical.32

WZB, exterior view. Source: James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture.

Modernism/Postmodernism: Ethic or Aesthetic?

Three years before the competition submission for the WZB, Reyner Banham published his celebrated apologia for his invention of the “New Brutalism” in The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?33 The title seemed self-explanatory, yet the contrast obscured what Banham made very clear in his introduction: that the debate between an “ethical” and a purely “aesthetic” style was, in its postwar British context, fundamentally political. Partly a result of the long tradition of social conscience in architecture that went back to Ruskin and Morris, it was also a quarrel embedded in the architecture department of the London County Council, where, for an older generation, “social conscience” had, in Banham’s words, “hardened into an acceptance of Communist doctrine.”34 The “violent and sustained polemic on style, such as England had not seen since the nineteenth century” that Banham described was in this sense not simply a debate, but a taking of position between hardline Marxism and the more liberal, social-democratic socialism of the Labour Party.

The aesthetic side of the question was equally hardened between the “Swedish Modern” style adopted by the Marxists, and the apparently more Modernist position taken by the “New Brutalists” (namely, Alison and Peter Smithson) and their contemporaries, among whom Stirling and Gowan—who were neither Marxists, nor, in their minds, Brutalists—emerged as principal rivals. Stirling, with his celebrated phrase “William Morris was a Swede” was equally opposed to any William Morris revival as he was to Banham’s inclusion of him in the Brutalist canon, or the doctrinal “Gropius” Modernism of Nikolaus Pevsner, or the Architectural Review’s adoption of picturesque “Townscape” aesthetics. In between, as Banham noted, was Colin Rowe, a product of “some form of rundown Beaux-Arts training,” with his belief in a “direct architectural relevance between the classical past and the work of twentieth-century masters.”35

As Peter Cook observed, this debate was highly personalized in the rivalry between Stirling and the Smithsons. Stirling’s and Gowans’s written repudiation of the Brutalist label, countered by the Smithsons’s refusal to invite Stirling to CIAM X in 1958, pointed to a fundamental divide over the ethics of aesthetics.36 As Cook tells it, “You needed to select: Smithsons for statements, truths, a certain kind of abstracted Romanticism … Or Stirling’s work, which was more fascinating to the manipulator of objects.”37 Cook concluded, in response to the exhibition of the Stirling/Wilford archive at the Yale Center for British Art in 2010, that “Today these same partisan lines are still being fought out. The work of the Smithsons is celebrated by the moral ethos of Without Rhetoric,” while Stirling’s work, by contrast, is still seen as “too formalist, too fruity, too clunky, too enamored of classical motifs and candy colors. Too hedonistic by far.”38

Stirling, as we have seen, worked energetically to overcome these lines drawn in the ethical sand. He was happy to enter the anti-aesthetic world of the “Functional Tradition,” supported by the social findings of Mass Observation (Preston Housing), while drawing on the resources of avant-garde languages (the “Red Trilogy”) and high-tech experiments (Olivetti Headquarters), as well as the collage theories of Rowe and the neo-classical allusions of Krier. But, and this is both the problem and the solution to the Stirling “style and ethics” question, he refused to enter the Socialist “camp,” he was never a card carrying “Neo-Constructivist” or vernacular revivalist, nor was he a figure-ground collage artist, or, finally, a neo-classical passéiste. Yes, he had a great sense of humor, but his “play” as a latter-day “Vitruvius Ludens” was never gratuitous in the form of historicist pastiche, nor was it ironic in the sense of Rem Koolhaas’s “paranoid critique.” Rather, it was seriously engaged with each context and each program, while seeking to both draw from and expand the Modern Movement’s aesthetic rigidity. If “post-modern” is taken simply as a temporal indication of a period following “modern,” then Stirling’s work would fall under this neutral, but hardly revealing, art-historical tag. But it has to be said that almost all of his architectural work after 1945, if not his work before that, would equally fit in a category of “after modernism.” If “post-modern” is seen through the eyes of Charles Jencks and his critics, then we are in the realm, once more of style wars.

For a present generation of architects, however, it would seem that such distinctions have paled in the face of social, environmental, and economic issues. Historical and typological reference has been largely supplanted in favor of a more comprehensive application of ethical and economic evaluation, industrially impelled by various sustainability certifications and the automatic responses of BIM, as well as practices that scrutinize a building’s sources, resources, and impact from ecological and social criteria. This is a good thing. On the one hand, it enlarges the aesthetic debate into realms imagined but not implemented by modernism’s utopias, and on the other, it frees historical assessment from the bounds of historical context. Claire Zimmerman situates the problem in its contemporary context:

Paradoxically, 1970s architectural postmodernism may turn out to hold the last Oedipal thread of a continuous modernist dialectic in its radically reactionary grasp—utopian or not. For postmodernism, at its best, was no sort of revivalism at all, but rather an attempt to go on inventing with whatever lay still to hand: among other things, the materials of textual reference and representation themselves. If the rhetoric was rebellious, its goals were fully in line with the avant-garde project framed many years before—in contrast to many recent neo-modernisms, which have elected to throw out the baby, but hold onto the tepid bathwater.39

In the case of Stirling, however, we might even go further and defend him from assimilation within the blanket appellation “1970s architectural postmodernism.” For if we were to lift both the art-historical periodization and Jencks’s polemical popularization from Stirling’s work of the 1970s, it becomes clear that a much finer analytical and historical grill is needed to situate aesthetics in context—personal, political, and social. At the same time, there is a certain sense of delight in re-living a moment when such issues were the object of such fierce debate, and produced such extraordinary buildings. As a testimony to this moment, the WZB serves its purposes and continues to provide an object of reflection for architecture and the city amidst the noise of a Berlin that is still haunted by its past and busy obliterating its memories.40


James Stirling, “A Personal View of the Present Situation,” Architectural Design (June 1958), reprinted in James Stirling: Writings on Architecture, ed. Robert Maxwell (New York: Rizzoli, 1998), 61.


Amanda Reese Lawrence, “Revisioning History: Modern Strategies in Stirling’s Early Work,” OASE No.79 (November 2009), 86. See also her excellent monograph on Stirling’s work through to Stuttgart, James Stirling: Revisionary Modernist (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), especially Chapter 6, “The Remains of Modernism,” 187–211.


Stirling’s design had been selected in 1979 in a limited competition under the auspices of the IBA over three other architects: the Berlin firm of Bangert, Jansen, Scholz, Schuhes; Mario Botta; and Hans Hollein (who ultimately opted out of the competition).


Nikolaus Pevsner, “Modern Architecture and the Historian or the Return of Historicism,” RIBA Journal (April 1961), 236.


Kenneth Frampton, “Stirling’s Building,” Architectural Forum (November 1968), 45.


Projects were all dedicated to the reconstruction and repair of cities damaged by the ravages of “urban renewal” and indiscriminate development. Leon Krier and Maurice Culot’s Rational Architecture, which was exhibited in Brussels and at the Architectural Association, was a re-edit of Aldo Rossi’s “Rationalist” exhibition at the Milan Triennale (1973), Architettura Razionale, XV Triennale di Milano, Sezione Internazionale di Architettura; see, Aldo Rossi, Architettura Razionale (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1973).


Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 3rd edition (New York: Rizzoli, 1981), where despite Stirling’s fervent protest, Jencks welcomed the final “conversion” of James Stirling from “one time modernist” to post-modernism. At the time, the Staatsgalerie bore the brunt of the critique. As Jencks himself had it, “for the PM movement the battles, the Staatsgalerie itself, became a test-case.” Günter Benisch, who had gained second place in the competition, even accused Stirling of fascism, seeing the central drum as a direct reference to the false neo-classicism of Albert Speer.


Pevsner, “Modern Architecture and the Historian,” 236.


From the evidence of more than one hundred preparatory drawings in the Stirling/Wilford fonds at the CCA.


Michael Wilford, “Introduction” to James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates: Buildings and Projects, 1975-1992 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 5.


James Stirling, “Competition Report,” as excerpted in James Stirling: Buildings and Projects, eds. Peter Arnell and Ted Bickford (New York: Rizzoli, 1984), 283.


See sketch of ancient Rome in Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture, 2nd edition (Paris: Les éditions G. Crès, 1924), 128. For a reproduction online, see .


Amanda Reeser Lawrence, “We Have One of Each,” in A History of References, Article 5, CCA Blog, March 16, 2018, analyzing drawing “Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, CCA. AP140.S2.SS1.D57.P6.15.” See a full roster of reproductions from the CCA Stirling/Wilford fonds collection of drawings for the WZB in my James Frazer Stirling: Notes from the Archive (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010), 246-257.


The historical precedents for these pavilions were to be interpreted loosely enough: Gerd Neumann, for instance, saw the whole composition as a micro-Acropolis, with the nineteenth-century entry pavilion as the Parthenon, the octagonal library as the Tower of the Winds, the semi-circular amphitheater as the Odeon of Herod, and the long rear building as the Stoa of Attalos. See Neumann, “James Stirlings „Spree-Athen“ Eklektizismus!-?” Bauwelt 71, 14 (April 11, 1980): 575–577. But other reviews were less favorable. Manfred Sack, in an article entitled “Alles Bluff,” spoke derisively of this “historical assemblage of building types, containers apparently without meaning,” concluding that it was one of Stirling’s worst buildings: Sack, “Alles Bluff,” Die Zeit, May 6, 1988, see .


Sarah Williams Goldhagen, “Tarnished Stirling,” The New Republic, December 17, 2010. See .


Raphael Moneo, Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 2004), 44.


Geoffrey Howard Baker, The Architecture of James Stirling and His Partners James Gowan and Michael Wilford: A Study of Architectural Creativity in the Twentieth Century (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 232.


John Summerson, “Vitruvius Ludens,” Architectural Review 163, no. 1033 (March 1983): 19.


Written in 1953-54, and first published as Colin Rowe, “Character and Composition,” Oppositions 2 (1974).


Colin Rowe, “Character and Composition; or Some Vicissitudes of Architectural Vocabulary in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Boston: MIT Press, 1976), 60.


Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (New York: Praeger, 1961).


Jacques Lucan, Composition-Non-Composition: Architecture and Theory in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London and Lausanne: Routledge and EPFL Press, 2012).


Lawrence, “Revisioning History,” 86.


James Stirling, “Nolli, Sector VI: Revisions to the Nolli Plan of Rome,” Architectural Design 49, nos. 3-4 (1979), 42.


James Stirling, “Connexions,” Architectural Review 157 (May 1975), 273-276.


Sack, “Alles Bluff.”


See Michael Merrill, Louis Kahn on the Thoughtful Making of Spaces: The Dominican Motherhouse and the Modern Culture of Space (Zurich: Lars Müller, 2010).


Mathias Ungers, G. Geist, J. Sawade, “Student Housing Project, Enschede, The Netherlands, Isometric,” 1964, Museum of Modern Art Collection. See .


Michael W. Farr, “Colour and Contextualism in the Post-Modern Era: Stirling’s Work from the Late 1970s,” in James Stirling and Architectural Colour (PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 2013).


Farr, “Colour and Contextualism in the Post-Modern Era,” 143-144, 149.


Lawrence, “We Have One of Each.”


Lawrence, “We Have One of Each.”


Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (London: The Architectural Press, 1966).


Banham, The New Brutalism, 11. Banham added a note, evidently on U.S. Cold War politics, stressing that, “For the purposes of this discussion, ‘Communist’ I take to mean an acceptance of Marxist doctrine on aesthetics, without necessarily implying membership of the Communist Party.”


Banham, The New Brutalism, 15.


James Stirling and James Gowan, “Afterthoughts on the Flats at Ham Common,” Architecture and Building (May 1959), 167. In response to Banham’s characterization of Ham Common as “Brutalist,” they wrote, “The ‘new Brutalism,’ (is) a term which we used to regard on the one hand as a narrow interpretation of one aspect of architecture … and on the other hand, as a well-intentioned but over patriotic attempt to elevate English architecture to an international status,” a sly dig at the Smithsons’s role in the formation of Team X.


Peter Cook, “Lucky Jim,” Architects Newspaper 20 (December 8, 2010), 18.


Cook, “Lucky Jim,” 18.


Claire Zimmerman, “James Stirling Reassembled,” AA Files 56 (2007), 37.


As a guest editor of a 1980 special issue of Architectural Design, Charles Jencks, citing Gerd Neumann’s aforementioned Bauwelt article on the “Athenian classicism” of Sterling’s WZB, summed up: “The building thus becomes, like 19th-century Berlin, something of an enigmatic conjecture on the past, powerful because it characterizes different institutes in different ways, disturbig for its nightmarish recollections, interesting for its urban spaces and perplexing for its classical distortions.” Architectural Design 5/6 (1980): 76. Cited in Arnell and Bickford, James Stirling, 284.

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Anthony Vidler (1941-2023) was an architectural scholar, historian, critic, and academic. A faculty member of Princeton University’s School of Architecture from 1965 to 1993, Vidler served as the first director of the School’s History and Theory Ph.D. program. From 1993 to 1997, Vidler was Professor and Chair of Art History at UCLA, and then Dean of the College of Art, Architecture and Planning at Cornell University from 1997 to 1998. In 2002, he became Dean of The Cooper Union Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, a position he held until 2013. His publications include The Writing of the Walls: Architectural Theory in the Late Enlightenment; Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: Architecture and Social Reform at the End of the Ancien Regime; The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely; Warped Space: Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture; Histories of the Immediate Present: The Invention of Architectural Modernism; James Frazer Stirling: Notes from the Archive; and The Scenes of the Street and other Essays. In addition to teaching and writing, Vidler was a respected curator, with several significant exhibitions including the permanent exhibition of the work of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in the Royal Salt Works of Arc-et-Senans in Franche-Comté, France, and “James Stirling, Architect and Teacher,” at the Tate, the Staatsgalerie, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Canadian Center for Architecture.


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