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‘The most beautiful, expensive and iconic buildings of the ’70s were presented as functional necessities’

A new monograph on the late works of James Stirling and Michael Wilford prompts some reflections on the role of style and meaning in architecture

Jim Stirling, like many of his generation, was reluctant to speak of style, finding it could be superficial and feminine − nothing more than a feather in a woman’s hat, as Le Corbusier dismissed the category − and lose the architect jobs. For the same reason, in a pragmatic culture driven by cost-cutting, he also recommended architects not speak of meaning. Instead, talk about function, technology, organisation − the manly, measurable things that appeared to be objective, and then slip in meaning and style behind the back of the philistine client, when he was asleep. This covert method of appeal was shared by High-Tech architects of the ’60s and ’70s with whom Big Jim often competed. It had the odd consequence that the most interesting, sometimes arbitrary, beautiful and expensive iconic buildings of the time were presented as functional necessities. Many, including Richard MacCormac, lamented the fact that style and meaning, the two essential freedoms of architecture, were taboo.

Style from representation technique

Those happy few in the know, however, the elite designers published in a book of 1965, British Buildings 1960-1964, well understood the underlying message, and it was evident in the presentation drawings they used to convey their architecture. They drew axonometrics, as Stirling and Wilford asked of all their draughtsmen when they were struggling to solve a problem. There were three main reasons to adopt ‘the axo’.

The first was functional: because all three dimensions could be displayed and worked on at once − in ‘true dimensions’ (those that perspective would distort). The second was stylistic: because this graphic message like the axonometric of scientific illustrators had a crisp minimalist beauty that united volume, constructional detail and geometry into a single image. And the third was cerebral: because it gave in one synoptic view, seen usually from above, a conceptual clarity to the whole, especially the complex projects Stirling loved to knit together. The axo thus made them appear factual, beautiful, comprehensible − beyond challenge.


Up-axonometric showing the Lyric Theatre in Salford’s Lowry Centre (2000), in the characteristic Stirling-Wilford style

Call this the Platonic view, or the Leonardo analytique, appealing to the mind’s eye just as does a tiny sketch (which Jim often used at an early stage). It is a building seen from a cerebral helicopter, or today the wire-frame model animated in a fly-through mode. Thin black lines projected at 45 degrees discipline everything and, like Auguste Choisy’s history of architecture, which adopts the method, it makes all buildings look like they came from the same stable, in one style; that is the ‘no-style’ of Le Corbusier. Stirling developed this method further with the worm’s-eye or up-axonometric, and combined it with Le Corbusier’s notion of the promenade architecturale to figure out how the dramatic sequence of space and function might work. Such representational modes turned directly into S-W style: the building conceived as a theatrical procession of spaces and geometrical incidents. I hyphenate the S-W style purposely because its two protagonists each made an identifiable contribution. Nevertheless, there was evolutionary continuity in the mode, and it would inevitably include ramps and primary solids, and figural shapes along the route − such as the flared cone turned inside-out to become the cylindrical void. An exemplary sequence of such shapes and spaces was perfected at the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart over time, first designed by Stirling in 1977 to be completed as a set piece with the History Museum and Music School by Wilford in 2002. Twenty-five years of urban complexity structured to a set of related themes.

Stirling connoisseurs loved the juxtapositions in this new high game of architecture, and they followed it closely. Colin Rowe (his teacher), Robert Maxwell (friend and Stirling expert), Anthony Vidler, Sam Stevens, Alan Colquhoun, Ed Jones, Alvin Boyarsky, most students at the AA during the ’70s, and commentators all over the world. The S-W style became famous for 15 minutes, twice. First, in 1963 when Leicester was published from Italy to Japan to America; and second in 1984 when the Staatsgalerie went viral, as the best Postmodern building anywhere. As far as the first period of that movement goes, it remains the most vigorous and creative example of contextual wit, with its relevant eclecticism. Each of the five styles (or languages) plays a contextual and semantic role, with the vernacular relating to the hillside houses, the classicism to the public function, the ghosted steel and high-tech railing to the movement through the site, the Modernist white architecture to the ’20s Stuttgart functionalism, and the De Stijl canopies to entryways. It made other contextual infill look laughably lame.

Few architects lead architecture twice in their careers, but the curious fact is that today the famous can disappear from consciousness as fast as they arrive on the world stage. I remember in the mid-’90s, even when the Stirling Prize was created, that much of the public thought it was about £££: young architects actually spelt his name Sterling. And American acolytes and students bemoaned the fact that no one had heard of him. Indeed it wasn’t until Yale University created the symposium and mini-exhibition in May 2009, one amplified by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (where his drawings are held), and Anthony Vidler’s research, before he could be re-imported to these shores via Tate Britain, in 2011. Such lack of respect for architects here sometimes makes you scream. But then I remember hearing Anthony Blunt give a lecture at the RIBA, and asking the audience to stand in silence to atone for Colen Campbell, and Vitruvius Britannicus, and British conformity, all for playing a role in the suicide of the world’s greatest architect, Francesco Borromini: dumbstruck, were we all guilty?


Michael Wilford’s British Embassy in Berlin: platonic forms burst out of the austere neo-Prussian facade dictated by Berlin’s building code

Now with the second coming of Stirling, and the arrival of the third monograph in the series (called Michael Wilford because it considers buildings after Jim’s death in 1992), the reputation and position ‘seem’ more secure. In Britain, Stirling seems to me easily the most important architect since Edwin Lutyens (who also was a non-person for many years) though critics like Gavin Stamp abhor Stirling’s work and personality; and movements like Eco-Tech and Postmodernism create some turbulence.

Wilford, in the second monograph, explains much of  the positive drawing methods I have emphasised, and how loyal architects in the office adopted them to create a consistent corpus. Like Palladio and Le Corbusier’s drawings, those of the École des Beaux-Arts and Peter Eisenman, a method of representation is transformed into what appears to be a universal language. The third monograph, again in the horizontal format of Corb’s Oeuvre complète, shows a high percentage of conceptual drawings and white on black abstractions − graphic emblems of organisation, in the manner of the Constructivists. This high proportion presents the didactic side of the message. That is, how to do it, Stirling Demonstrazioni as Alvin Boyarsky termed it, or complex function made manifest through geometrical forms, and their violation.


Character, composition and mannerism

Anthony Vidler mentions in his introduction the centrality of ‘character and composition’. The first is a muscular character, the forms are robust, jutting and definitely those of a man (curves are invariably geometric not flowing and voluptuous). The male forms are defined further by strong oranges, reds, blues and the omnipresent accent of ‘Wilford purple’ (Jim wore dark blue shirts, Michael wears dark violet, or is it mauve?). These coloured accents are often on the window reveals, eye shadow as it were. Or they define volumes that break out of the box, body-parts that demand expression.

Robert Maxwell, in his epilogue, summarises the difference between Stirling’s mannerism of doubt and Wilford’s baroque exuberance of hope. If you look for differences in the S-W style, and character, indeed they can be found. The former architect was the more ambitious and could see himself in the bloodline of Hawksmoor and Corb, Thomas Hope and the engineering tradition. Stirling had a somewhat contradictory personality, often expressed in his buildings which were at the same time gentle and tough. If wit is defined as the unlikely copulation of ideas and forms together, then he was the most sparkling intelligence of his generation. He was a kind of no-nonsense Dadaist who could violently punctuate buildings with industrial elements used out of context. For instance, when you are beavering away in his Cambridge History Faculty building you may look up to find three extract units crucified overhead.


Axonometric of the British Embassy

Wilford, by contrast, is the more affable Modernist who collages his rational elements with intelligent sobriety. He also wins through optimism, as Maxwell argues, but if his manner is exuberant it is also controlled; if baroque, it almost never flows in voluptuous curves. Le style c’est l’homme même. If, as Comte de Buffon epitomised, ‘the style is the man himself’ and buildings are self-portraits, then Wilford is a complex-coloured-up-axon.

But the continuities between the two men are the more striking. They worked together for 30 years and, when visiting Jim, I often found them shoulder to shoulder bent over tables in the same small room. One can use various words to describe the shared method: the multiple-coding of Postmodernism; eclectic collage making use of modern and traditional formulae. There is the discordant harmony − or free-style classicism − as I have described the conjunctions of classicism and constructivism. The Vesnin brothers combined these related compositional modes in the 1920s, and latterly in a minimalist way so did John Hejduk (whose grammar is recalled in a German house-plan by Wilford, but not in the pitched-roof elevation). Eclectic references to Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh are straightforwardly quoted. Thus many keys work on the S-W lock; as the architects said, they seek to be both popular and professional.

Ideas of composition were what classical and modern architecture proposed, and if there is one obvious lacuna in the Venice Biennale of Rem Koolhaas, his recent lesson on the Elements of Architecture, it is this commitment to grammar. What Koolhaas missed is the architectural obligation to putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, or ‘the difficult whole’ as Robert Venturi called it. So, in an exemplary way, the S-W style fills a big hole in contemporary practice. No architect today does this kind of compositional drama better than Stirling and Wilford, and we need more of it for cities and complex buildings.


A few doubts about representation

At the same time, there is nothing said in this volume about competing methods, for instance fractal composition, or an organic and flowing architecture. Or the iconic and musical strategies that are also current today. Moreover, I find a few of the larger greenfield projects inflated in scale, spread a bit thin over the landscape and without the positive tensions of the more compacted schemes. This laxity is partly the result of over-concentration in the economy, the way the size of late-capitalist commissions can lead to bloated architectural objects. Sometimes they are further objectified in representation, especially when presented in ads or architectural photographs, the staple of publishing and exhibitions today, the reigning convention of international competitions. In spite of countless protests (in these pages of AR as well), architects have a propensity towards objectification (as the previous generation did to eyewash renderings done by hired specialists). Michael Wilford & Partners have once or twice given in to this temptation, especially in projects for Braun AG and Sto AG and other corporate work.

This is surprising, given the high percentage of beautiful and instructive drawings, and may result from the belief that a lot of coloured photographs of empty rooms and architecture recorded on a sunny day, just after completion, will do for eternity. Certainly the photographer Lucien Hervé supplied definitive interpretations of Le Corbusier’s work in this mode. But the black and white contrasts served to underscore Corb’s definition of architecture as ‘the masterly, correct and magnificent play of forms seen in sunlight’. In Southern California, Julius Shulman did an equivalent service for Richard Neutra, and Ezra Stoller followed suit with SOM and Richard Meier, and then … And then suddenly by 1985, as it became the norm, every architect had to have his work recorded on a perfect day by Kodak-25 blue-sky-where-are-the-clouds-and-people-over-25? Archigram, with its collages of nubile dolly-birds lolling about architecture on high, led to the next convention of Photoshopped airheads having an everlasting nice day standing around buildings, as if this would humanise an otherwise fumigated cityscape.


Coloured photographs of empty rooms are an ineffective means of presenting the promenade - we seek more interprative representation explored by David Hockney and Enric Miralles


A collage by Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue

Wilford’s photos do not suffer such complacent good cheer, but we seek more interpretative representation through two-dimensional media. For instance, another way of perceiving the strengths of the 3-D promenade architecturale on the flat page is either by a tight sequence of continuous overlapping images (as did Enric Miralles); or by their superimposition in one collage. David Hockney has shown the latter way with his montage of multiple photos taken as he walks through a space. First he focuses one detail seen from several sides; then zooms back to take in the next sequence; then circles around in a multi-perspective seen from many angles, and so on. Yet his montage still has the ‘obligation towards the difficult whole’: he composes the overlays so the space and tone cohere. This means that Hockney’s fragmented images come together, as they do in experience, in the mind’s eye.

High-definition, super-saturated colour is too sexy to be used again and again to record yet another perfect pose. The objectification of the unclothed body in magazines makes the same error. All nudes end up looking like one anonymous character out of central casting, flesh desperately in search of personal identity.


A great promenade - leading to what?

Such neutral, single-images miss the strength of the S-W style, which is to dramatise architectural change and space at a very high level. I have experienced this in three convincing buildings shown in the recent monograph. First, the ensemble at the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie where the intensity of drama was sustained over a big site and a long building period: here public space weaves through the museum area in an extraordinary way.
Then the Lowry Centre in Salford, also conceived when Stirling was alive, where public space now circles around volumes rather than penetrates through them. Yet the whole complex is brought together as a shimmering symphony in glistening solids and metal accents. Finally, I joined Wilford as he took a group of architects and planners through his British Embassy in Berlin, in September 2008. The unfolding of spaces from the public street to the internal piazza, through a series of courtyards and shifts in mood, is as powerful as any sequence Le Corbusier designed.

Several problems are raised, however, more by our times than the building. After 9/11, security ruled out any promenade architecturale for the general public. Furthermore, the building task is merely a national embassy, not Ronchamp, nor the General Assembly at Chandigarh, so the greater meaning is publicly limited. Nor is it the dramatic ascent of the Acropolis; nor does it culminate in a shared symbolism or outcome. Still, the sequence takes in some wonderful moments of British art, and the requisite Henry Moore, Tony Cragg and Anish Kapoor. These are well-placed at key junctions, and they punctuate the ascent with humour and curious meaning.

The promenade starts on the street with a blue volume and magenta curve jutting gently into the background of a rusticated facade. For those in the know these recall the shirts of Jim and Michael; for the public they suggest the presence of two civic and important functions, the promise of a culmination. Above them are similar punched windows, the Prussian grammar then mandated by Berlin building codes. Here the language holds the streetscape, yet is violated just enough to set the mind on a journey.


Wilford colour-coded with his embassy: ‘dark violet, or is it mauve?’

Past the portcullis on wheels, you move through a high-security undercroft, and attack the first transformation of themes in the courtyard. In this grows a very British oak: like the Union Jack hanging at the entrance, this leaves no question that we are in for something national. Turn again and then go from a low to a very high space, dramatised with a blood-red ceiling. Here you are elevated in stature like a visiting ambassador or head of state, and you positively levitate up le grand escalier lifted by the qualities of architectural form at its most rhetorical. Near the top, you turn twice more, past two Tony Craggs (a male and female abstraction screwing away in their Craggy twirls − the British humour is as veiled as it is present). Finally you arrive at the first culmination, the elevated winter garden, suffused with light and articulated by bold circles of structure. So far, so cosmic and abstract; but doubt enters too.

The enigmatic forms that stood out on the street in magenta and blue now reveal themselves as a mere conference room and information centre, not quite the honorific functions that Wilford contemplated at the start of design. Nearby is a small, ovoid, ultra-polished Kapoor. This distorts as it reflects the architecture and sky all around, like his famous Bean in Chicago. It’s the perfect photo-attractor in the Age of the Selfie, holding the mirror up to society and possibly to what is missing today.

All this is stretching a point, but then the architectural promenade demands some culmination and greater meaning. The rhetoric of hieratic space − first used in Egyptian temples and then in countless cathedrals, and today in so many iconic buildings − is inevitably invoked. I once asked Stirling why, at Stuttgart, the culmination of his scheme and circular piazza was marked with a central square figure accentuated by three circles, inside of which there were three further black figures. Surely these double threes, if not a Trinitarian symbol or their opposite, had some meaning? He replied laconically that the sign was the cross-section of an electric cable − and the drain.

Wilford ends his promenade with similar necessities, also clustered in geometrical sets like important jewels. They turn out to be floodlights for a party in the winter garden, a bit of an anti-climax. But then the architect was not asked to provide symbolism or meaning, and the ambassador or Foreign Office might have been hard pressed to imagine anything worth expressing themselves. And this nullity brings me back to the start. In the age of the iconic building, when clients ask for rhetorical architecture with style, the designer should bring up those taboos that Stirling warned about when he started practice for, like it or not, that is where the money goes and what calls the tune. Architects and designers drawn into this game can of course influence the music, and give a greater symbolic programme when the client is not looking: something more. In any case, they are fated to do so with style and in a style, that troublesome category which will not go away.

Style is the man as Buffon wrote, and the woman too, a word that summarises a particular mixture of composition, character, feeling and value. True, it may also signify superficiality, and the tribal style wars, but there is no other term that sums up that compound of quality and personality that the public feel when they enjoy a good building and say it has style.


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