RIBA Tells a Tale of Two Londons: Why Mies Failed and Stirling Prevailed

Circling the Square at the RIBA deals closely with the work of two of the 20th century’s most formidable architects: Mies van der Rohe and James Stirling.
A curator of Circling the Square with the Square's model. Courtesy Royal Institute of British Architects

The City of London is a labyrinthine square mile, an urban system as complex as the financial systems that run through it. The oldest section of the contemporary (lowercase) city, the district is characterized by a perpetual tension between tradition and progress. This is a place populated by aldermen, freemen, and sheriffs; a place that continues a 12th-century custom of gathering the swans of the Thames to take an annual swan census; a place of Wrens, Hawksmoors, and Soanes. And yet it is also a place of realtime trading of billions of pounds—sums that set the course of regional and global economic growth—and home to the architectural icons of neoliberalism: Rogers’s Lloyd’s Building, Foster’s Gherkin, Viñoly’s Walkie-Talkie.

This tension is at the heart of Mies van der Rohe and James Stirling: Circling the Square, the exhibition currently on display at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). As the title suggests, the show deals closely with the work of two of the 20th century’s most formidable architects. More than this, however, Circling the Square reflects on the extraordinary story of a six-acre site close to the City’s geographic center, a yarn that spanned three decades and drew in the discipline’s biggest names, as well as notables from the political establishment, in particular an aristocrat with an eye for architecture and the future king of England.

This triangular site is today occupied by No. 1 Poultry, an office and retail building designed by Sir James Stirling in the late 1980s but completed only in 1997, five years after his death. It is a complex massing of interlocking geometric forms, whose buff- and red-striped sandstone draws the eye to a chamfered point in the direction of George Dance’s Mansion House (the official residence of the lord mayor of London) and John Soane’s Bank of England (or what’s left of it). These neoclassical stalwarts partly provided the formal references that Stirling deployed at No. 1 Poultry—colonnaded bases at each level, a terra-cotta frieze, and a cylindrical tower at the building’s point that reads as a Postmodern interpretation of a Roman rostral column. At once inventive and surprising, yet rigorously sensitive to its unique surroundings, the building endeared itself to critics and the public, at least at the time of its opening. It has since been subjected to mockery in the press but was nevertheless listed in 2016, making it the youngest listed building in the U.K.

Number One Poultry, City of London: the ‘prow’ seen from Bank

By most accounts, No. 1 Poultry was a success. Yet a specter haunts this extravagant structure, or the patch of land it stands on, in the form of a Mies van der Rohe tower block and public plaza, known together as Mansion House Square. Mies was originally commissioned in 1962 to design an office building on the site by Lord Peter Palumbo, the intriguing aristocratic protagonist of this little drama. A property developer and an architecture fanatic, Palumbo tapped his inherited wealth to amass a small collection of Modernist masterpieces, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob, Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul (since sold), and Mies’s Farnsworth House (where he kept a portrait of Winston Churchill on his desk). Mies’s work for Mansion House Square makes up the bulk of Circling the Square. His meticulous plans, sections, models, and photo collages for the building have been kept under wraps by Lord Palumbo for over 40 years and are only now seeing the light of day thanks to RIBA and a Kickstarter-funded publication to be produced by Jack Self and the REAL Foundation.

The scheme itself is typical of Mies—a rectilinear tower block with a welded-steel skeleton frame, raised on stilts, and with a fully glazed lobby and bronze-tinted glass facade. In front of the proposed tower lay a generous public plaza, a rarity in the City and not unlike the square Mies installed on Park Avenue in front of the Seagram Building. There are no surprises here from an architect who was resolutely consistent in style and approach.

This adherence to his strict principles was, in part, the reason for its downfall. The more nuanced arguments made at the time—and revisited in Circling the Square via original letters and publications—pointed out that the building was unoriginal and outdated. Seagram had been completed nearly 30 years before Mansion House Square was finally rejected by the U.K. secretary of state for the environment in 1985. As Philip Johnson put it, “The continent of America is over-represented by these later ‘sons of Seagrams’ and London surely deserves an original and significant work such as exists today in Berlin [Mies’s Neue Nationalgalerie].”

The true death blow, however, came from Prince Charles. In May 1984 the heir to the British throne delivered his now-notorious diatribe against Modern architecture in which he labeled a proposed extension to London’s National Gallery by ABK “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” (In tribute, Building Design magazine annually awards the Carbuncle Cup to the ugliest building in the U.K.—previous winners include the aforementioned Walkie-Talkie by Rafael Viñoly.) In the same speech, the prince described Mies’s proposal for Mansion House as a “giant glass stump.” The following year, the project was dead.

That Stirling’s No. 1 Poultry was eventually completed can surely be ascribed to its deference to its illustrious surroundings. While an undoubtedly groundbreaking project upon construction, it wears the history of its context on its undulating facade. But the larger question remains: How did Lord Palumbo, the connoisseur and patron at the heart of the debacle, feel about the loss of Mies’s project? The curators of Circling the Square are ambiguous, at best, in their response, even while the organization of the show itself suggests that the outcome still stings. Where the Miesian half of the exhibition overflows with detail and opinions from Parliament to City workers at the pub, the latter half on Stirling features just drawings and plans. While these are stunning in their execution, the lack of critical perspective at the juncture of the exhibit gives the project a certain resigned inevitability, as if to say and the rest was history.

The final word is, however, given to Piers Gough of CZWG and his Channel 4 program on British architecture, which aired in 2000. No. 1 Poultry “celebrates the death of ideology and is enormously liberating!” he proclaimed. “Architects are finally free to build whatever they want!”— that is, as long as the prince approves.

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Categories: Architecture, Arts + Culture

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