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1983 March: 'Vitruvius Ludens' by John Summerson

[ARCHIVE] John Summerson sets Stirling’s achievements into the pattern of twentieth-century architecture

Of James Stirling’s originality there is no doubt; nor of his fame. His fame, at 56, is especially remarkable when we consider that not more than three or four of his executed buildings (not one of them a cathedral or a vice-regal palace) is likely to be familiar to more than a tiny section of the population. I have seen only three. There are photographs galore, published designs for unbuilt projects, many thousands of descriptive words and, more significantly, the architect’s own idiosyncratic drawings, exhibited and published. On this evidence, assessments of a sort can, I hope, be made and an answer attempted to the question: what is it Stirling has brought to architecture and released, to loud and prolonged applause, into what seems to have been an aching void?

The answer must depend on how we view the architectural history of the past 30 or 40 years. Looking through my oId lecture files I find that in 1945 or thereabouts I wrote this: ‘In 1957, one rather weary generation will be building as it would like to have built in 1927-37, but desire always rides ahead of practice and the springing thought of 1957 will be different.’ I went on to predict that a new generation would have ‘to study the overtones of architecture and the geometrical discipline of space as space; to learn not only to use space but to play with space’. The important word is ‘play’.

Before 1957 ‘Modern’ architecture had a dogged seriousness of aim inherited from the ’20s. At the back of the architectural mind was progress towards architecture rather than the making of architecture. Around 1960 that seriousness began to crumble. Brutalism was its last bastion. By 1970 it had gone to dust. Permissiveness had mined it; reaction swept up the ideological debris with haughty disgust. The Modern Movement was dead and we were left with its ghost. Or so it was said. But it was not true. The real change in the ’60s was not so much the dilapidation of the Modern but its transfiguration. If the living movement had become a bore, the movement vanishing into limbo became subtly irresistibly attractive - it was becoming historic.

Taste for vanished styles has always been the grand elixir of architecture, and, in our accelerating century, the more recent the style’s recession the more exciting the new thing to be made of it. Such is the state of affairs at the moment, and I see Stirling as the architect who, more than any other in this country, or perhaps anywhere, has identified himself with this transfiguration, turned the old seriousness back to front and re-engaged it as play. He is essentially a great player - even something of a gambler - an architect cast more distinctly than most in the role of homo ludens. Architecture as play is a familiar idea.

There have been classic Lutyens’ ‘high game’ and Le Corbusier’s ‘jeu savant, correct et magnifique’ etc but I would not compare Stirling’s game with either. A more seductive analogue is Richard Norman Shaw, the Shaw of New Zealand Chambers and Lowther Lodge, where he turned the moralising, moribund churchbound Gothic Revival inside out and shockingly recreated it as monstrously ingenious ‘Queen Anne’ play. Blomfield said of New Zealand Chambers that, 10 years after it was built, people were still wondering whether it was a freak or a work of genius. People still wonder about Stirling’s Cambridge history library, built in 1966, and for the same reasons.

My first experience of Stirling was a fleeting visit to his and Gowan’s engineering building at Leicester in 1968. I took against it because I saw it as old-style functionalism grossly overdone. The jutting Melnikov-style lecture theatres exposing their tilted bottoms, the exaggerated articulation of everything, and the vanity of trying to make positives out of things intrinsically negative. I was, however, wrong. I was judging something as exhibitionism which was really the acting-out of a deeply felt and studied thesis. Revisiting Leicester, I found the ‘play’ idea always coming uppermost. Here was an architect declaiming, fashioning a ‘one-off’ rhetoric out of material anything but rhetorical; it was brilliant, arrogant play.

The Cambridge history library, first seen in 1972, made a different impact. Here was the same rational articulation but ‘over-play’ had been censored and the energy behind it diverted into a redoubtable, daunting monument; enigmatic (which way round is it?); a crystal fort with a shiny brick rampart (a touch of Sant’ Elia here); something of a factory, something of a conservatory. The reading room, sheltered under a monster technological awning in the angle of the two wings, whose inner flanks the awning cruelly deface, I found difficult to take. I still do. But the building as a whole strikes me with something very like awe.

Much more recently I saw that disturbing object, the Florey building of Queen’s College, Oxford; different again and perhaps something of a turning point, as I shall suggest later. But before we go any further let me try to be a little more explicit about what I think is going on in those designs. I find this impossible to express without dragging back the word ‘functionalism’. Stirling is a functionalist; and let me qualify this by adding that he is a deep functionalist. ‘Functionalism’ I take to have two quite separate meanings.

There is technological functionalism and there is social functionalism. Stirling involves himself deeply with both and has brought them together in various ways. But they are different. Technological functionalism signifies the intrusion into architecture of materials, methods and prepared artefacts more commonly associated with industrial than with architectural practice. The criterion is performance and a building wholly conceived in such terms is engineering or, if modulated with a consistent sensibility, ‘High-Tech’. Social functionalism is another thing and the one real and imperishable legacy of the Modern Movement.

Social functionalism works at various levels. At its least profound it signifies the extraction from the programme of its categorical requirements and their reinterpretation in a continuously harmonious self-expressive totality. The result may be more adequate or less, more eloquent or less, within any given typological classification. But social functionalism can have deeper implications. It can mean not only the mastery of the brief in rational terms and its sensitive projection as a structure but a fusing of those terms into a monogrammatic complex which is the unique symbol of the building’s function in its particular time and place. This is deep functionalism. It has passed the point where the image of appropriateness has crystallised in the architect’s mind: the tables are turned against the functional quest and from ‘image’ we pass to ‘imagery’. The rational test no longer holds.

‘Imagery’ is a word more often used in the discussion of works of literature than those of architecture but is a word we can hardly do without in discussing Stirling’s work from 1970 onwards. The stuff of his imagery is, in part, what one must call his ‘personal style’, of which the following are the more obvious symptoms: a predilection for slanting glass surfaces, splayed brickwork; hard-bent curves (like bending a poker) but also free undulations round rigid elements; platforms or podia. All these are explicitly exposed in Stirling’s axonometric projections of his designs (often, following Choisy, from under the building, a mole’s eye view), drawings which have something of the character of abstract graphic art, even a faintly mesmeric effect, like objets trouves. They are often taken as the quintessential Stirling and, in a limited sense, they are.

Absorbing and overriding these personal insignia are the larger images which in his most recent work carry associational and metaphoric meaning. It is impossible to generalise about these because they come different every time, which I am inclined to take as confirmation of their ‘poetic’ integrity. The Florey building at Oxford (1966-71) was, I think, the first in which imagery was concentrated in one emphatic formal statement; the glazed embrasure leaning back on its concrete trestles, a mocking but not unkind metaphor for contemplative academical enclosure. There are harsh and uncomfortable elements in Florey but it is a powerful piece of ‘deep’ functionalism.

After Florey we find Stirling’s imagery beginning to absorb Neo-Classical ideas. The Neo-Classical has been the ‘natural’ alternative to the Modern ever since Gropius stated the converse in his Werkbund building of 1914. The Modern Movement sprang from Neo-Classical soil and to that soil it is always liable to return, and return it does in Stirling’s work, though less as a recessional than an inspirational act. Some of his most striking imagery brings the Neo-Classical into play.

The housing at Runcorn has a Gandy-like primitivism; Ledoux’s industrial Utopia is invoked in the huge Siemens AG design (1969) and in 1970 comes the astonishing Derby Town Centre project, where a Burlington Arcade, more than twice natural height, wraps itself round the end of a Roman amphitheatre to create an urban symbol as dramatic as John Wood’s performances at Bath. The museum projects for Dusseldorf and Cologne marry deep functional analysis to topography and history; the designs are like relief maps of ancient sites. The Bayer AG centre at Monheim (1978) is laid out on a radial plan of defiantly Beaux-Arts provenance, but with an administrative towerblock shooting up from the U-shape for which Stirling seems to have a special preference. With the building of the Clore wing at the Tate Gallery Stirling will at last come before the British public on a conspicuous and prestigious metropolitan site.

What has he to say? The design is, once again, hard to relate to any of the others-a new gamble of Stirling the player. The play here is as much with styles as with forms: bare-bone frame versus coursed ashlar, Bauhaus versus Neo-Classical, with a trick or two from Art Deco, all tied up with a cornice borrowed from the old building and then illuminated by a blinding flash of surrealism (Look! no pediment) in the spirit of Magritte. It is exciting in a fashionable, art-conscious way-a deliberate comment, I suspect, on the function of an art gallery, and somebody is sure to say that.

Stirling is here making a concession to the New Thing. I doubt that. The deep slot of space in which the stair climbs is provocative in the true Stirling fashion and if the design as a whole seems less powerful than Leicester or Cambridge or Oxford; it promises to be a fairly devastating interpretation of the programme. Stirling is a player-an architect who takes what seem to be uncalculated risks. He has, as Norman Shaw had, a marvellous streak of comic inventiveness which has to be rigorously (and inventively) corrected. That above all is what, I suspect, makes him the magnetic figure he is in the contemporary scene.

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