Architecture of Analogy

Notes on Andrew Melville Hall as a transitional work in the architecture of James Stirling.

Posted in Discourse by Cameron McEwan on December 22, 2014

Standing in the shadow of Modern masters such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, the generation that graduated from architecture schools in the extended decade after World War II – Robert Venturi, Oswald Mathias Ungers, Aldo Rossi, James Stirling to name a few – were critical of the social and urban effects of Modern architecture. Yet they were reluctant to abandon Modernism altogether. Instead, they put forward a critique of Modern architecture and in doing so searched for an architectural language that might extend, overcome or break free of Modernism.
On one hand there was a tendency to extend the technological and functionalist approach of Modernism as is evident in projects such as Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Bay proposal (1959) or the buildings of Paul Rudolph in America. On the other hand there was an approach that rejected Modernism and put forward a stylistic mimesis of historical architectural form exemplified in BBPRs Torre Velasca tower in Milan (1956-58) or the “Townscape” aesthetic in Britain.
James Stirling questioned both of these tendencies as can be seen in his University projects such as the competition proposal for Churchill College for the University of Cambridge (1959), the “canonical” Engineering Building for Leicester University (1959-63), the History Faculty at Cambridge University (1964-67), the Florey Building at Queen’s College, Oxford (1966-71) and Andrew Melville Hall for St Andrews University (1964-68). While the Engineering Building, the History Faculty and the Florey Building are broadly similar in their formal and material language – using faceted glass walls, brick and tile units in horizontal bands, building mass articulated as distinct volumes composed centripetally implying spatial force is directed from edge to centre – and remembering that Churchill is a square plan court within a court principle, Andrew Melville Hall departs from this language.

 

James Stirling, Andrew Melville Hall (1964-68), Redrawn by Cameron McEwan

James Stirling, Andrew Melville Hall (1964-68), Drawing by Cameron McEwan

Andrew Melville Hall is a student residences in St Andrews on the East Coast of Scotland around 80 km north of Edinburgh. It is a picturesque town, and rather conservative in appearance and ethos. Stirling intended two pairs of identical buildings for the edge of town site, however only one single building was completed.
The building itself is composed of two slab-wings of unequal length – one rotated off the primary axis – extending from a central block, which creates a large outside court. An enclosed stair is adjacent to the central block. These distinct parts are connected by a glazed promenade gallery.
Andrew Melville Hall reads as composed centrifugally with implied spatial force stretching outward. We see this in the slab-wings which extend out in one direction, in the enclosed stair which extends in the opposite direction, and in the glazed promenade gallery which cuts through the building.
Furthermore, Andrew Melville Hall is not a unified mass but an assemblage of distinct volumes – slab-wings, central block, enclosed stair and promenade gallery – in formal and spatial dialogue with each other through shifting axes, rotations in plan and interpenetrations of opposing elements. The building departs from the language of Stirling’s prior University buildings and should be viewed as a transitional work that points obliquely toward the spatial complexity of his museum and gallery projects of the coming years in particular for its centrifugal composition.

It is interesting to remember that Andrew Melville Hall was completed in 1968 at the end of a pivotal decade in which seminal architectural texts were published including Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Aldo Rossi’s L’architettura della città (1966), and Manfredo Tafuri’s Teorie e storia dell’ architettura (1968).
This period and the years into the 1970s were a greatly productive period for architecture when architects engaged with the history of the discipline and viewed their role as a crucial contribution to architectural and intellectual thought more broadly. It was for sure the last major period in architectural culture when architecture was recognised as a significant intellectual pursuit.
Studying the era has a dual effect. It brings into relief the present condition of architectural production, which often seems weak, diffuse and committed merely to general consensus; yet simultaneously the projects of that period – theories, books, architectural designs – provide critical reference points from which we might project beyond the current architectural impasse.

This post condenses ideas from a longer essay entitled “An Archaeology of Fragments” commissioned for Scotland + Venice 2014 under the direction of Neil Gillespie of Reiach and Hall Architects, and published in the paper “Outsiders” at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

See here for full details: Outsiders

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