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1972 November: Florey Building by James Stirling (Oxford, UK)

[ARCHIVE] The Florey Building, completed in 1971, provides an opportunity for a detailed examination of Stirling’s geometric imagery

Leicester Engineering, Cambridge History Faculty and now Oxford Florey; three buildings of similar size in similar materials for similar patrons and based on the same approach; all three of them beacons from the start which have pulled in students in droves from Berkeley to Nagasaki; controversial beacons as well, which have germinated as much heat as light; what a gift for the thesis-writer of the future, or, for that matter, for the architectural journalist of the present.

When Stirling hit the architectural scene in the 1950s the word Brutalism was heavy in the air, and even if nobody could decide what it meant, it was a tag that was confidently applied (much against his will) to Stirling; for in so far as it was taken to mean late Corb, Maison Jaoul and beton brut, the influence of Maison Jaoul on his Ham Common flats was undeniable. But Ham Common was the product of architects leaving the Corb orbit not entering it; although beton was there in plenty it was far from brut but used with an exactness that made it seem almost as precise a material as the brick with which it was so neatly contrasted. To this extent but no more the flats anticipated the later buildings.

The explosive originality of the Leicester Engineering Building lifted Stirling immediately into the magic circle of the image-makers, and the image was so strange and captivating that the architectural periodicals set to work hopefully and hopelessly to explain how it had to come about. St’Elia, Wright, Lissitsky, ships, decks, aerodynamics, rockets, sewers, viaducts, silos, bunkers, angry young men and the Victorian working classes were among the sources, images, and associations called into service; if nothing else, everyone had a lot of fun. But without the aid of metaphor or history. one can produce a crib with which to dissect both the Engineering Building and its two successors at Cambridge and Oxford, though not, as his imitators have discovered, to produce them.

There are four main constituents for this Stirling mix:
1. A preference for design solutions involving splayed forms, both in plan and section.
2. Hard and shiny surfaces.
3. Mineral rather than vegetable colours.
4. Different types of spaces differently expressed externally; and, as a corollary to this, additive rather than sub divisive buildings.

The first constituent, which to a large extent generates the rest, needs a little expansion. A rectangular three-dimensional grid had, by and large, been the invisible skeleton on which the huge majority of modern buildings were designed. To Miesians it was an aesthetic tool, to commercial architects a way of saving time and money; the kinder hearted softened the blow by introducing a splay or curve here and there; occasionally architects went on the spree with hexagons, usually at the expense of their clients’ convenience. But to go off a rectangular grid isn’t necessarily a formalistic trick, indeed nothing could be more cramping to the possible range of design solutions than to be confined to three planes.

Stirling made no attempt to get away from geometry, by which he is clearly fascinated; his achievement was, first to develop a more sophisticated geometry, that allowed him many more options, and then to exploit its visual potentialities. The initial stimulus seems to have been provided by the circumstances of the Leicester brief. The fact that the line of north lights for the workshops was at 45 degrees to the most desirable boundary line for the workshops themselves suggested, in the plan, a combination of two superimposed grids at 45 degrees to each other, the right angle to the line of the rooflights being provided by the boundary of Victoria Park, which sliced across one edge of the site. In the section similar divergencies from the vertical and horizontal were suggested by expressing rather than concealing the slope of entrance ramps and glazed roofs, the rake of lecture theatres, and the particular glazing system adopted to ventilate the laboratories.

The three-dimensional counterpoint that resulted, once established in its main lines, could be echoed by small scale splays and batters throughout the building. The invisible grid, in short, remained, but it was much more complex, a combination or interaction of different grids, allowing for splays both in plan and section, of any length and at any point; in this it was different from a closed system, as for instance one based on hexagons, where the geometry forces the building into a particular form.

The visual potentialities that it suggested, as one geometry merged into another, the prisms, the facets, the diminishing profiles of alternate vertical and sloping lines, were exploited by Stirling with tremendous art and zest at Cambridge and Oxford as well as Leicester. Its potentialities for producing delicate and attenuated shapes were accentuated by ingenious visual tricks, as in the Cambridge building, where the projecting staircase towers, at the ends of the L of seminar rooms that wrap round the library, make the section of the building appear dramatically narrower than it is.

But what gives the aesthetic of these Stirling buildings particular forcefulness is that it is not arbitrary; although there is a strong and consistent formal strategy behind them it is used to guide but not to force the shape of the buildings; because the geometry is a flexible rather than a constricting one it can be used to make possible or to underline convenient solutions to the brief.

The forms, however apparently unconventional, can almost always be defended on practical grounds. On the whole the buildings don’t cheat; occasionally, and perhaps inevitably with someone with as strong a formal sense as Stirling, they do. Occasionally, pleasure in a particular form has been used to slip it in without too close questioning of the validity of the supporting arguments; the distinctive and visually sensational laboratory windows at Leicester, for instance, are ostensibly the shape they are for practical reasons of ventilation, but they ventilate at the expense of stiff necks for the laboratory staff and impossible spaces for the cleaners.

An architecture of facets and prisms suggests precise arrises and gleaming surfaces. The second breakthrough initiated at the Engineering Building was the use of a cladding that exactly suited the forms that were clad, the by now famous red industrial bricks, red tiles, aluminium and patent glazing. These not only possessed precision and sheen, but also just the right bright, hard anti-natural colouring that went with these qualities. A prismatic architecture also suggests multiplication of parts and here again the architect used a design formula both aesthetically suitable and practically defensible, the old Pugin maxim that ‘each part of the building should speak its purpose’. And so, in the engineering building, the different type of space, workshop, laboratory, office, lecture room and circulation both vertical and horizontal, are clearly defined and differently treated.

Pugin (it could just as well have been Sullivan) brings one back to the question of pedigree. So much ingenuity has been displayed in working one out that it is tempting to leave genealogy out of it. Isn’t it enough to suggest that here is a man whom one would expect to be good at three-dimensional noughts and crosses and ingenious paper-folding - that is to say that the circumstances of a commission suggested a geometry and it was the instinctively enjoyable working out of the geometry to produce a consistent vocabulary that germinated the buildings rather than any historical sources.

No doubt once Stirling had tuned into certain forms and surfaces any thing relevant that came his way, from St’Elia to silos, was grist to the mill. Possibly, as a product of a Wittkower-Colin Rowe oriented generation he had absorbed the Renaissance concept of the additive, complete centralised church on its plinth. And it is worth mentioning one other architect, Butterfield, even if as a parallel rather than a source. St’Elia, de Stijl, Johnson Wax etc, may produce hints for elements of the Stirling style, but previous to Stirling the only group of architects I know of to work out a consistent prismatic style of hard shiny surfaces were the hard-line Gothicists of the mid-19th century, with Butterfield as their leader.

The precise edges and steely intersecting planes of the spire of All Saints Margaret Street and its numerous progeny, the beautifully intersecting prisms of the simpler Butterfield fonts, the knife-edged gables and buttresses of the Coalpit Heath vicarage, are more than a little reminiscent of Stirling buildings because they were the result of somewhat similar conditions.

These mid-19th-century Gothicists were trying to find a way out of an apparently chaotic architectural scene and were in reaction both against excessive historicism and the by then considerably run-to-seed design discipline of the picturesque. They escaped by way of geometry; and improved methods of brick-making and stone-cutting made it easy for them to get the precision from their builders that their geometry demanded. Stirling emerged from an even more exhausted architecture in reaction against the tyranny of the right-angle on the one hand and the bollards-gentlemanly brickwork-tasteful planting school on the other.

Geometry provided a way out for him, too. The buildings that resulted are unnatural and even anti-natural-they are ‘out of nature’ as in Yeats’s Byzantium, ‘of hammered gold and gold enamelling’, standing on crystalline little islands, built of hard gleaming materials that will not weather and in a colour range totally unrelated to the landscape, so that there is no possibility of their ever merging into it in the approved and, to the English, emotionally charged manner of the picturesque tradition. It is not surprising that Stirling (again like Butterfield) has been accused of ‘cultivated ugliness’.

Those who approach his buildings either with preconceptions of what buildings should be or what Stirling is going to do to them (vague memories of the tag ‘brutalism’ leading them to expect some kind of aesthetic kick in the face) may find them ugly and shocking; but the suitable adjectives are surely ones such as elegant, delicate, witty, shapely, even pretty. They are exquisite artifacts, beautifully finished toys, but toys that work; and however artificial they don’t require an artificial setting but gain from the contrast of being nuzzled up against trees of forest size.

The Engineering Building has been discussed at some length because both the History Faculty and Florey building, although different functions and briefs have produced very different buildings, are based on exactly the same design strategy. In all three buildings this is applied with complete consistency, which is one reason for their cohesion as a group and their potency as images.

At Cambridge a basic counterpoint of rectangle and triangle is produced by the fan-shaped library (enabling visual supervision of the room by one person) and the L of seminar rooms, offices and common rooms wrapped round it. In section, steps, ramps and glazed roof provide sloping lines as at Leicester; there are no sloped lecture rooms and therefore no functional justification for the sloping undersides prominent at Leicester and this particular element of the Leicester vocabulary is missing. It re-appears, with practical justification of a quite different sort, in the Florey building. Here sun and view are the determining factors used to produce an entirely and typically Stirling plan. The view (trees, water, and slices of Oxford skyline when the leaves are down) is to the north; to the south is a municipal car park and a good deal of rather squalid, if temporary, clutter.

The combination of a hollow, amphitheatric, plan with a sloping section and a transparent upper floor means that all the sets of rooms get the view, only a short section faces due north and the maximum sun gets into the north-facing courtyard; at the apex of this is a platform raised above the breakfast room which catches the sun when the rest of the court is in shadow. The sloping section and angled plan has other practical pay offs; each visible section of the corridor is modest in length and the services and storage zone is discontinued at the angles so that they widen out into spaces originally intended to be fitted up with seats, sinks, and cooking facilities. This conceptually simple plan could have been carried out with complete symmetry in the form of a regular half-octagon amphitheatre with the entrance and breakfast room to north and south on the central axis.

As executed by Stirling it is complex, contrapuntal and sophisticated. The patterning of the courtyard tiles (see ground floor plan on page 262) gives the principal planning grid, and another grid at 45 degrees to it makes up the basic form. But a twist of 22½ degrees, provided by the lines bisecting the courtyard angles, gives a secondary set of grids, expressed internally by the partition walls at the angles and externally by the breakfast room podium and the flights of steps that cut up from the cloister into the courtyard. The breakfast room (basically a square with two cut away corners) has its diagonal on one of these two angles, and two of its outer edges on two others.

These boundary lines push it over asymmetrically to one side of the courtyard (making corridor access into the main body of the building shorter). Symmetry is replaced by balance because, in the opposite half of the courtyard, one of the sides is approximately twice as long as the other. The principal entrance feeds into this extended side. As a result the basic shape is a distorted half octagon with the east side pushing further to the north than the west. A little of the extra ground space gained in this way on the west is taken up by the slow twist of the river, the rest gives room for a mooring bay for punts which bites in next to the breakfast room.

The sectional counterpoint is equally sophisticated. But though the geometry may be complicated the visual impact isn’t. Like the Engineering and History Faculty buildings, the Florey is immediately and convincingly there, a single coherent, glistening, precise and totally convincing object. The main image - the scooped out shape, the glazed front and tiled back, the slope of the supports running against the slope of the tiles - is simple and memorable, but subordinate to this are all sorts of visual pay-offs as one geometry runs into and overlaps another: the court steps cutting into the courtyard, the side staircases dropping out of the sloping tiled walls, the different sections of front and back playing against each other in the flat tiled cut-outs at the ends of the building.

Inside, as well, the shape of the building provides continual pleasurable surprises: the flights of the side staircases, for instance, instead of being concealed one above the other are all laid out to instantaneous view, layer after layer; as in all Stirling buildings, moving through the circulation spaces is a constant source of variety and pleasure.

As with its two predecessors nature is kept out. There is no place for grass, let alone a tree, in the court; instead there is a highly enjoyable conceit, a kind of machine-made tree in the form of the ventilating shaft to the breakfast room kitchen, fitted out with a wind vane and cowl. But the relationship of the building to the natural objects is not aggressive, only separate, like a submarine which has landed on the sea bed, allowing its crew to gaze at the underwater vegetation through a glass screen.

Especially submarine are the views at the bottom of each flight of the small stairs - triangles of glass through which appear disconnected slices of reeds, water or leaves. The rooms have as much exposure as they want, but ventilation is by louvres and there is no possibility of flinging open windows to let in summer smells and breezes or talk to a friend. If this barrier is integral with the patent glazing system one suspects that its existence doesn’t especially worry Stirling; to him inside is inside and outside is outside, just as a building is a building and a tree is a tree.

This separation is a built-in part of the Stirling aesthetic and it is arguable that what is acceptable in an office or teaching building is less so in a domestic one; in spite of its difference of function there is little difference in tone between the Florey and its two predecessors. It is least domestic where perhaps it should be most so, in the porter’s flat; admittedly this has a view of the river, but its image is a chilly one, a curved cage of glass in an asphalt court overlook able from the entrance approach and the adjacent public car park.

The student rooms have qualities which deserve to be stressed, in view of the criticisms that have been made of them. The split level rooms on the top floors, spatially delightful and with superb (and quite different) views in both directions are supremely desirable. On the lower floors, though the columns are obtrusive where they occur in the smallest rooms, elsewhere the combination of sloping glazing and the occasional sloping column delicately relieves the rooms from cellular anonymity. But in the rooms where they live people, like snails, need the option of retiring into their shells, and the option of sticking their heads out.

If the glazing at the Florey impedes the latter, the former is catered for by giving each section of the floor-to-ceiling glazing its own adjustable blind. The aim here was to equip the occupants with a tool to play with which would give them every option from complete privacy to complete exposure. But for technical and financial reasons the system works less well in practice; the blinds pull down instead of, as originally planned, up from the floor, they are sometimes awkward and, in the larger rooms, time-consuming to handle.

As a social unit the building doesn’t encourage communal activities largely due to the client’s insistence that it shouldn’t provide an alternative attraction to the main college building in the High Street. This was one reason for suppressing the sitting and cooking facilities originally planned for the angles of the corridors. The only large communal room is the breakfast room, which is a somewhat claustrophobic space due to the fact that there is no low-level window looking over the water.

The ostensible reason for this is that it would have opened the room to view from the intended public footpath along the river. One suspects that in this particular room most students would have preferred view to privacy, and that a somewhat specious practical argument has been used to bolster up Stirling’s desire to preserve the integrity of his brick podium. (At Leicester, Stirling solved the problem of a necessary door in the similar podium by giving it a brick skin.) The decision to keep the room partitions from butting against the glazing was a less defensible sacrifice of user comfort to visual preferences, for the sound insulation between the rooms has suffered in consequence.

Other minor irritations, troubles which can reasonably be described as teething, problems arising out of the contract, and the reactions of first-year students arriving with preconceptions of what an Oxford collegiate building should look like, have given the building a tricky passage. There is little that can’t be remedied, and in five years time the fuss will probably have been forgotten. But in the meantime the critics are provided with fuel, which is a pity, for in a situation where even the best buildings tend to be divided between the over-clever and the worthily pedestrian Stirling is an asset which English architecture can’t afford to waste.

The buildings already built or designed by Stirling since the Florey make it clear that this particular series is now complete. There are suggestions even in the Florey that he was beginning to find its particular formal discipline constrictive. In the free space under the raised main body of the building the porter’s flat and the anteroom to the breakfast room follow a free flow of lines and curves altogether unrelated to the remaining geometry. His preliminary sketches show that at one time he thought of making these curved elements much more prominent.

The competition entry for Derby Civic Centre, produced in 1970 three years after the Florey design, was based on a similar motif of an amphitheatre turning its back on an unsympathetic environment, but it was a synthesis of curved and angled geometries. It was based on a radial plan, with a covered arcade curved in both plan and section, but the 45 degree section survived prominently in the rake of the amphitheatre and delightfully in the 45 degree tilt given to the re-erected facade of the old assembly hall.

An increasing fascination with the juxtaposition of curved and angled forms on the one hand and with the advantages of repetitive units and the aesthetic of assemblage buildings on the other have led naturally to experiment with glass reinforced plastic. The Olivetti building at Haslemere provides the first instalment of a whole new range of techniques and forms from which architects the world over can crib.

Architect James Stirling
Structural engineers Felix J. Samuely & Partners
Quantity surveyors Monk & Dunstone
Services engineers H. Bressloff & Associates
Interior furnishings and fittings Mary Shand

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