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Situating Stirling - Brian Hatton

Brian Hatton delves into Stirling’s photo archive, discovering how youthful observations of Liverpool were a rich source of material for his practice

Although some among them rise without trace, many writers, artists and composers commonly recall into their work unforgotten traits and allusions from their childhood and regional origins. Think of James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, WH Auden; or Joan Miró and Marc Chagall; or the folksongs which Gustav Mahler wove into his symphonies. Moreover, Modernist techniques such as Cubism and Surrealism invited visitations from association, memory or the unconscious by their openness to metaphor and metonymy.

Architects, however, have rarely drawn from such sources; their métier being formal and impersonal to a greater degree than art or even music, they have tended to adopt the terms - classical or modern - generic to international practice. There have been a few exceptions: Le Corbusier, of course, and Aldo Rossi, but among architects whose projects evidence a personality formed from what was not only a childhood setting but a distinctly local urban and cultural character, the most outstanding case is James Stirling.

Stirling’s Liverpool origins have often been noted. Mark Girouard’s biography gave pages to the city where, son of a ship’s engineer, James played among the marine clutter of Jesse Hartley’s Albert Dock, whose warehouses he adapted for the Tate Gallery. The Liverpool buildings and other projects referred to here are richly illustrated in ‘Shifted Tideways: Liverpool’s Changing Fortunes’ (AR January 2008). Stirling’s ‘Black Notebook’ records his interest in Liverpool pioneers of iron frame building, such Peter Ellis’ Oriel Chambers, as do his photographs of the city.

Now held in the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the records span from the 1940s to those taken on a seven-year pass issued to Stirling by the Dock Board on 9 June 1961. Several writers on Stirling have mentioned his local sources; but the most comprehensive encomium of Liverpool’s role in Stirling’s larger formation has been that of Colin Rowe’s essay ‘James Stirling: A Highly Personal And Very Disjointed Memoir’ in the 1984 monograph edited by Peter Arnell and Ted Bickford.

Rowe’s memoir raises Stirling’s Liverpool to an elevated plane. After remarking on the ‘Piranesian’ docks, it extols on the ambitions of Liverpool’s culture which had ‘typically indulged itself in fantasies which were likely to involve an unmistakably local (and Enlightenment) combination of elegance, information and megalomania.’

The local culture in which Rowe situates Stirling was not the port’s industrial vernacular, but the artistic continuity of The Liverpool School, which he traces from Foster, Cockerell and Elmes’ Neoclassicism to the American Beaux-Arts style of Reilly and the Pier Head office blocks, and on, through the Modernist formalism of the Liverpool Polish School, to Rowe’s own students, whom Stirling (one of them) termed ‘Liverpool Palladians’, and whose work Reyner Banham dubbed ‘Maniera Liverpudliana’.

Since Rowe’s other student, Peter Eisenman, had submitted a design for the Catholic cathedral, Eisenman too, had he won the job, would have come to it not only as a reciprocation of Atlantic sympathies long expressed in Liverpool (notably after the publication of Hitchcock and Johnson’s The International Style in 1932), but also as a late exponent of Liverpool ‘Maniera’.

The city of Liverpool, then, displayed two traits: academic-formal and functional-vernacular. Both were illustrated in Seaport, Quentin Hughes’ 1964 architectural history. Among its plates, one summarised Liverpool’s dual face: a terrace on Canning Place, showing a tough warehouse positioned next to elegant Corinthian pilasters.

Stirling, too, conjoined both local traits in his work. Some commentaries divided these into earlier functionalist and later postmodern phases; but his photographs support critics such as Robert Maxwell (see pages 72-75), who have argued that both were always present. This is evident in his shots of baroque ruins, Soane walls, oasthouses and Martello towers. Likewise, his Liverpool images include, as well as dock subjects, selective views of the city’s substantial neoclassical edifices.

Indeed, the photographs often frame a motif that combines functional metal or glass with a Neoclassical fragment in stone. One such is of two warehouses, which foregrounds a stone corner on Eberle Street against iron gutters and cantilevered windows of lofts opposite on the corner of Tempest Hey, so as to appear as if the stone quoins, squinch and cornice conjoin metal panels into one tectonic compound. Moreover, as the windows lead up to a pointed arch, the photograph combines neoclassical, Gothic and functional forms in an ensemble of diagonals and rotation typical of Stirling’s compositions. To see this, however, one must be alert to shifts of location and scale.

Thus, for Columbia University, Stirling drew a new chemistry wing as a steel truss slamming into the stone wall of an older block, astonishingly similarly to the way in which a truss bridge of the old Liverpool Overhead Railway swerves to slam into a cliff at Dingle Tunnel. When, titanic in every sense, this project foundered, Stirling redrew it as a vast ruin, gazed on by figures like those seen in wartime photographs looking at collapsed trusses of the bombed Overhead, a railway universally missed in Liverpool after its needless demolition in 1957.

Metal and masonry feature in Stirling’s photographs of steel warehouse supports thickened round their base with masonry, which look to be sources of compound columns at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin. Another photograph of a dockers’ loo shows a monopitch shed on attenuated columns that are refined in the monopitch loggia of the Cornell University Center for the Performing Arts and of the Library at Latina.

Stirling rarely photographed objects in full, but usually framed loose mechanical items against sheer masses of masonry. In a 1961 dock view, a motorbike-sidecar is parked on a granite quay by a warehouse, from behind which emerges the derricks, bridge and funnel of a freighter, with the sandstone Anglican Cathedral rising over sheds beyond. In his thesis elevation drawings, Stirling adapted such glimpses of ships’ upperworks looming over walls, with masts counterplayed against masses. Those were fairly direct lifts; but in his later projects, he would displace and invert source elements to complex ends. St Andrews University residences, for instance, appear in a photomontage like grain silos on finger-docks; but their main corridor looks in an axo drawing like the deck of a liner. Evidently, what fascinated Stirling in the docks was not the metal mechanics of ships alone, but their engagement with the stone stereotomies of wharves and basins.

The compound of ship and dock is best seen in the exposed hulls of ships in the stepped walls of graving docks, of which Liverpool had many, several built by Hartley. At Oxford’s Florey Building, Stirling realised a ship/dock hybrid, with battered courtyard walls recalling a graving dock, while the diagonally propped outer wall resemble a ship’s hull, even to its gangway-like stairs.

Likewise, this form appears in the warehouse/barge of what he called, in a cartoon of it steaming at sea, his Venice ‘boatshop bookship’. ‘Afloat on land’ also describes the Olivetti Training Centre in an axo, where it looks as if it were a floating landing-stage like that for ferries at Liverpool Pier Head, which Stirling photographed in 1961. It is drawn in green, as the landing-stage was and appeared on a 1937 cover of Meccano magazine. Made in Liverpool, this construction toy and its magazine would have been familiar to Stirling.

However, it was in the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart that Stirling’s both-and associations amounted to a museum of Liverpool traces. They may have begun with Württemberg stone - like Liverpool’s, a pink sandstone - which he even used in grey Berlin. Behind the gallery, metal air intakes are shaped like ship’s ventilators, while the stale air outlet is a Piranesian joke of sandstones blown out from the front wall, leaving a hole like that which Stirling photographed in a wall of the Albert Dock in 1961. In a nearby basin he also photographed a slip ramp like those he would use in many projects, and which at Stuttgart guide a promenade over terraces across the building. Yet Stuttgart’s ramps evoke a larger Liverpool model, one unforgettable to any Liverpool architectural student; namely the ramps cut by John Foster into the walls of an old sandstone quarry to conduct mourners down to St. James’ graveyard, now beside the Anglican cathedral. They zig-zag like those leading up to Great Public Terraces in Colin Rowe’s Collage City (1978), and Stirling and Rowe would surely have recalled them at Stuttgart.

Yet the central event in the Neue Staatsgalerie promenade - the circular courtyard - may descend from another Piranesian Liverpool site, though one lost long ago. Stirling favoured circular interiors, but while the circular libraries that he proposed for Latina may have descended from the two circular reading rooms (one above the other) in Liverpool’s Picton Library, his Stuttgart courtyard is not quite comparable to the central rotunda of Schinkel’s Altes Museum, because it was intended to allow continuous public passage across the site. Such a condition was offered by John Foster’s Liverpool Custom House from 1827 to 1948, when, as Rowe lamented, it was ‘senselessly and expensively demolished’.

This huge building had allowed walkers day and night to cross Canning Place through its domed central rotunda. Bombed in 1941, and drawn soon after as a ruin open to sky and seagulls, the rotunda became an open circular courtyard, and the subject of a campaign to save it during Stirling’s years at Liverpool University. Some critics have read in Stuttgart’s circular void a sign of a lost centre. Perhaps. But if so, the loss was Liverpool’s and Stirling’s, because, if any architect’s work may be said to correspond to what Kenneth Frampton has meant by ‘critical regionalism’, it was James Stirling’s. The irony is that UK regional impoverishment led to its being realised elsewhere than its first place of inspiration.

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