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Stirling's Sackler: Worth Weight in Gold?

Getting Attention, Good and Bad

By Victoria G. T. bassetti

When Harvard began its search for a design for the Fogg Art Museum extension, it began the quest acutely conscious of the context in which the museum would sit.

If Harvard architecture is a mish-mash of styles, then finding the perfect architect for the Fogg extension was like finding the missing piece to a jigsaw puzzle.

It was not exactly that the building would have to fit into the hodgepodge of architectural styles that surrounds it. That was an issue that the architect would have to deal with.

It was a question of who had created that hodgepodge.

The committee choosing the museum had to deal with the ghosts of the renowned architects who had designed for Harvard--H.H. Richardson, Josep Lluis Sert, Charles Bulfinch, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, John Andrews, and the firm McKim, Mead and White.

Harvard is a gem in the eye of an architectural historian, and that could not be ignored by choosing just another architect. The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, as the Fogg extension came to be named, was to be a building to house art, yet it also had to sparkle as an architectural work of art.

"We were very conscious [of Harvard's tradition of choosing great pieces of architecture]," said Gleason Professor of Fine Arts Seymour Slive, who led the committee searching for the perfect Sackler. "We wanted to make a great work of architecture. We looked at the work of 70 architects, boiled it down to eight and chose the best one," he said.

"The feeling was that they wanted an important architect, and they searched for one in a much more detailed, way than any other group might have," said Peter C. Walsh, director of public relations for the Harvard University Art Museums. "It was a very sophisticated group of people in aesthetics and architecture."

The committee chose a James Stirling Sackler and drew a fire.

Since the exterior of the Sackler was revealed it has drawn the breath of architecture critics -- firey dislike and exuberent praise.

A critic sampler: "low budget...mediocre brick answer to our dreams...aggressive...raw...full of creative virtuosity...ugly...worldly."

Perhaps, simply by drawing analysis and criticism the search committee achieved its goal. The Sackler was being studied; it was not just another building.

And Harvard is not just another college campus.

"Harvard architecture is very special in comparison to most university campuses," said Tufts University professor Margaret H. Floyd who just completed a collaborative work on Harvard architecture. "Harvard is not a formal environment, but rather is a wonderful blend of the old with the new."

So the Sackler would sit on a piece of land once occupied by what was an example of the mid-fifties International style, next to a beautiful adaptation of the International style into the brutalist Gund Hall, next to Memorial Hall - the epitome of Victorian Gothic; next to the Fogg Art Museum - a graceful Georgian revival. And in circles radiating out from the Sackler--Sever Hall and Austin Hall at the Law School designed by Richardson, the man who reshaped 19th century architecture; University Hall designed by Bulfinch the man who set the standards for early American architecture; Massachusetts Hall, one of the finest examples of early Georgian buildings in America; and the Graduate Center north of the Law School designed by Walter Gropius, the man who reshaped 20th century architecture.

But where does Stirling fit into it all?

"My crystal ball is as cloudy as the rest of us, but I think Stirling is going to be considered one of the great architects of the 20th-century," said Slive.

Perhaps Stirling will be remembered as a great architect, but if all the criticism tells its toll, the Sackler likely will not be viewed as one of his masterpieces.

"You don't tell Mr. Stirling how to design a building any more than you tell Picasso how to paint a painting," said President Derek C. Bok. But even Picasso had some bad days.

The first historical problem with the Sackler--a problem forced on Stirling--is its location, according to Floyd.

"The fundamentally sad thing is that the site would have better been where the Carpenter Center is. That is the initial tragedy," Floyd said.

"The second tragedy is that the Allston Burr Lecture Hall [which was torn down to make room for the Sackler] was an enormously important building. They demolished a fine piece of architecture," she said.

"In terms of campus planning it was a great tragedy," said Floyd. For at Harvard more than anywhere, campus planning means finding a great architect, giving him a proper site, giving him enough money, and hoping he comes up with something brilliant that also fits in.

The scene in which Stirling was to work was painted for him. And he was limited by not enough space and not enough money, said Philip Johnson, a noted American architect. So he dealt brilliantly with the interior of the building and poorly with the exterior, said Floyd.

"The spacial developments are brilliant. It's very beautiful on the interior," said Floyd.

Indeed by every account--positive or negative on other aspects--the Sackler's interior is a jewel.

The building serves as a museum and an office building. However, Stirling was asked to keep the two functions separate, so that the galleries could be climate controlled and the offices self controlled for economic reasons.

And in dealing with those two functions he created a Disneyland of rooms and galleries--constant surprises, wonderful colors, lovely offices--a magical mystery tour of an Indian, Chinese, Japanese and modern art collection.

And on the exterior?

"The exterior is a disaster, an absolute disaster. It's a very egocentric building," said Floyd. "The slick hard finished brick is purposefully a color that doesn't go well with Memorial Hall or the Fogg. Its machine made quality is the antithesis of the touchy, textural quality of Harvard buildings," said Floyd.

Floyd said the original pink and moss green brick colors Stirling wanted would have been a vast improvement.

Walsh said the University couldn't find pink and green bricks that would withstand the harsh Cambridge winters.

Stirling has drawn similar criticism for designing an excitingly vibrant entrance and a tremendously dull side and back.

"This slick finish, the bright green2

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