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James Frazer Stirling: Notes from the Archive, Yale, USA

For James Stirling, the axonometric perspective became a defining tool

There are some things English that don’t translate to America, at least not easily. We are, as the cliché would have it, two nations divided by a common language. The novelist Howard Jacobson’s recent stateside breakthrough, for instance, has been affirming for his minyan of colonial followers, but it surely would not have come without the vast publicity attendant with his recent Booker Prize.

In the field of architecture, James Stirling has been, likewise, a victim of America’s insular geographic prejudice. His Pritzker came way back in 1981, before the prize was well established. That he died nearly 20 years ago, and that his most recognisable works — the university buildings at Leicester and Cambridge, the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart — are elsewhere certainly don’t help. And so he remains a central figure at home, while in America he is a master misunderstood when not altogether forgotten.

Can two new exhibitions at Yale University rectify this injustice? It will be a challenge, given the resilience of preconceived ideas, but it would be nice. The headliner of the pair, James Frazer Stirling: Notes from the Archive, is at the Yale Center for British Art, and is drawn from the architect’s enormous archive — nearly 40,000 drawings in addition to countless documents, photographs, models, and other ephemera — acquired by the Canadian Centre of Architecture in 2000. The second, smaller show, devoted to Stirling’s career as an educator, appears at Yale School of Architecture, where Stirling was a teacher and visiting critic from 1959 to 1983. If nothing else, Notes from the Archive asserts Stirling’s place in the pantheon of architectural draughtsmen. His precise compositions, of which he produced countless iterations, make you nostalgic for a time not so long ago, before the computer displaced this craft that was so central to the design process.

For Stirling, the axonometric perspective became a defining tool: ‘a whole aesthetic and way of life comes from the logic and articulation possible with such a method,’ Charles Jencks once wrote.

Was Stirling’s aesthetic - and that’s too restrictive a term - the product of that technique? Was axonometric drawing simply a tool that allowed him to pursue his vision more readily? This, perhaps, is a chicken-egg argument, best left to the academy. The result, in any case, was a kind of architecture of assemblage, expressive of function and structure at once, with volumes broken into constituent parts, based on programme. Whereas Le Corbusier talked conceptually about ‘machines for living’, Stirling’s buildings seem more like actual machines.

As Anthony Vidler writes in the handsome catalogue to the archival show, it is this way of thinking about building that gives Stirling’s work, despite his gradual stylistic drift toward postmodernism, a ‘fundamental continuity’. The object, from his earliest years as a practitioner, was to navigate some new path that would circumvent both an increasingly hidebound modern movement and the sort of expressive abstraction to which Le Corbusier increasingly turned in his later years.

Stirling’s studios at Yale offered him both an opportunity to experiment with his own ideas — a ‘laboratory to test alternative combinatory strategies’, according to curator Emmanuel Petit — and inculcate his ideas in several younger generations of America’s best and brightest. If their master is no longer the presence he once was, at least they remain to carry his mantle. Perhaps, now, it will be an easier burden.

James Frazer Stirling: Notes from the Archive

Where: Centre for British Art and School of Architecture, Yale, New Haven, USA

When: Until 2 January 2011

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