Coincidentia Oppositorum

17 min read
It’s well known that my initial reaction to Franco Stella’s building design was one of scepticism.

The past and the present are communicating conduits: just as the present manifests itself as a dynamic product of history, so our image of history is shaped by processes resulting from reflection in our own respective present times.

You do not need to be a prophet to foresee that the Humboldt Forum will be a catalyst for a decisive reformulation of history, and in particular the history of Berlin. It’s well known that my initial reaction to Franco Stella’s building design was one of scepticism – my general reaction was that the postmodern free play of formative forces was too radical for me: too much geometry, too much cartesian mathematics, the surface too smooth and hard. Looking at it today, I must confess that when considering the overall picture, I also missed the specifics of Stella’s design.


My epiphany occurred at that moment when I understood that Stella had a deep understanding of the historicity not only of architectural order, but also and especially of the Berlin Palace and its architectural setting. His edifice will in no way be a palace, but rather a part of our city presenting each of its portals not as a border to be crossed, but far more as architecture opening onto spaces on either side.

The same applies all the more to the Passage and the resultant visual axis from the south through the Schlüter Courtyard to the façade of the Alte Nationalgalerie. The passages also have a transitory function, taking them far beyond their intrinsic purpose to the bounds of what the eye can see. For Stella, architecture is a form of enablement bound closely together with people, their sightlines, and their movements. It represents the opposite of the modus operandi he has at times been accused of: following cold rationality.

To use a word that has fallen out of fashion but which, to my mind, perfectly captures the mental framework in which Stella develops his architecture: he is a dialectician. His work L’Architettura e la Costruzione, published a good ten years ago in the style of a manifesto, aims at a justification, derived from history, of an architecture that should be comprehended as coincidentia oppositorum, a juxtaposition of opposites. In this text, Stella proves himself a structuralist intent on reconciling two principles, one focused solely on the function of bearing a load, that is, the wall, and the other on its self-symbolisation in a particularly evocative architectural motif, the trilithon. I have never spoken with him about this, but I suspect that he was inspired by the slim but immensely influential volume written by Guido von Kaschnitz-Weinberg: The Mediterranean Foundations of Ancient Art. I have taken my examples from this text.

The foundation lies in the trilithon as a double support over which, like at Stonehenge, a crossbeam is placed. This releases it from the wall to be an architectural element which, although it is load-bearing, initially bears no weight but its own. It can therefore be detached from the actual load-bearing wall as an autonomous structure. Most importantly, the shape of its supports can be altered, perhaps to a pillar, as at the Temple of Poseidon in Paestum.

In this form, as a static, upright towering structure, the architecture develops a connection to the human form as a self-supporting, upright figure, such as in the Erechtheion. Herein lies, to use a grand word, the humanity of an architecture that takes up not only the function of the support, but also its autonomous decorum as a symbolisation of its own self. According to Stella, the entire history of architecture navigates the course of combining this element, accessible to human proportions, with the pure function of a smooth, load-bearing wall.

Herein lies that interplay of opposites, as used in ancient times on the lower floor of the Tabularium of Rome, today’s Senatorial Palace. The Vicenza Palace of Justice, begun in the mid-sixteenth century and created by Andrea Palladio, draws this principle over both storeys. The columnar nature of the wall openings is one of the trademarks of an architect to whom Stella feels particularly indebted.

It must have been a source of fascination to Stella to recognise the way in which Andreas Schlüter went about uniting wall and symbol of proportion in the architecture of the Berlin Palace.

To this day, we continue to be inspired by Schlüter’s setting of the columns into the wall on the lower floor of the east wing in a way that is functionally counter-intuitive – an allusion to Michelangelo’s Senatorial Palace on Rome’s Capitol and reminiscent of the vestibule of the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence, which is still considered an incunabulum of postmodernism – and his placing of the colossal columns in front of the central wing, purposefully granting them no function other than solely that of supporting the round of larger-than-life sculptures. Architecture is being played with here, to turn it into a sculptural allegory of itself.

The second factor that moved me from scepticism to undisguised appreciation of, if not enthusiasm for, Stella’s architecture, is his unromantic collision of the reconstruction of Schlüter’s forms with his own proportionally-bound rationality.

The decisive moment lies in the transition from his east wing to the reconstruction of Schlüter’s architecture. At no point has Stella blurred the transition to create a ‘kissing architecture’ (Sylvia Lavin); rather, he has inserted a recess at precisely that borderline where the two stylistic forms collide – a recess which appears alternately darker or lighter in the changing light, as if the architecture is emphasising: we are autonomous. It is possible to imagine we are looking at a visualisation of Niklas Luhmann’s method of drawing a sharp demarcation line in order to relate the resultant diverse fields all the more strongly to one another.

Just as this sociological system theory is in itself profoundly dialectical, so is this architecture, seeking a connection after it has performed a separation. In the Schlüter Courtyard, Stella has achieved this by using the west wall to execute a first incursion into the radically historic courtyard space, taking with it the cornice heights and thereby creating a connecting thread.

In the passage leading to the Eosander Courtyard, the two east and west façades are defined by Stella’s style, so that here the historic and the modern sides now face each other in equal number. In this passage, Stella has played out his connection of opposites by placing – in the spirit of Schlüter’s colossal columns – an entire forest of pillars against the long side walls, showcasing the principle of trilithon in symbolic form. There is no arbitrariness at work here, but the conscious principle of rejecting purely functional rationality, which bears no relation to the human physical schema.

Finally, in the Eosander Courtyard, the architecture’s trilithic symbolic function, now transformed into an arch, becomes the theatre of its own self. Here, in opposition to the Schlüter Courtyard, the relationship between history and modernity is reversed: facing the three side walls and galleries bearing Stella’s hallmark stands the Eosander Portal, placed like a theatrical actor on the stage, with its huge triumphal arch redolent of the Arch of Constantine and the Arch of Septimus Severus at the Forum Romanum in Rome.

Walls and trilithons, the supporting functionality and the humanising ornamentation, portal and gateway to an open space, directed and expanded sightlines, securement of the structural element and transition into its opposite: these are the very dialectical principles developed in highly individualistic fashion by Franco Stella, in the company of his colleagues in Venice, above all Aldo Rossi and the unforgettable Manfredo Tafuri, whom I had the privilege of meeting. It is a pleasure to witness its realisation. With the Humboldt Forum – and this is perhaps the greatest gift to Berlin and to the Federal Republic – a profoundly Mediterranean matter (as Adolf Loos expressed with his saying that every architect must have an indispensable knowledge of Latin), once again has a presence in Berlin, since Andreas Schlüter offered the Prussian king a building that in no single detail of its form drew from Central European tradition, but rather wholly constituted a transferral of Roman forms to Brandenburg.

Franco Stella’s Humboldt Forum is a triumph of italianità that will transform the urban fabric from the first day that the finished building opens – not only in its form, but also in its intellectual aspirations. By enabling the palace to become a framework of Italian piazze, it will not only be a school of vision, movement and form, but also an exercise in thinking. Thus, it transcends our present, a time which increasingly substitutes linear perspectives for complex processes that bring contradictions into harmony.

Photo by Horst Bredekamp
Horst Bredekamp

Horst Bredekamp is Professor at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and member of the founding directorship of the Humboldt Forum.