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Situating Stirling: Five viewpoints

The AR asked five of its esteemed contributors to reflect on the legacy of James Stirling for architectural historians and practitioners today

Sam Jacob

Legacy is a difficult thing. The complex contemporary internecine interests, ideologies and positions make the archives of the recent past fractious sites of conflict. We should bear this in mind as James Stirling’s legacy begins to resurface in architectural culture.

Stirling certainly provides productive ground for this kind of conflict. Pivotal in so many ways - both in his own development from Modernist to Postmodernist and as the single figure who joins up so much of post war British architectural culture: from New Towns, the Independent Group, Brutalism, Postmodernism and - through association - High Tech.

But Stirling’s own work resists easy categorisation. In the Derby Civic Centre proposal for example, we see that hoary English issue of heritage handled with an edge so sharp that ensures everyone - Modernist and conservative - would be offended. By retaining a historic facade, yet laying it an impossible angle, Stirling reconfigures context. Closer to Gordon Matta Clarke’s architectural interventions, the existing becomes the site of operation to reveal both the subtexts of culture and the potential of its transformation through a surreal gesture.

As No 1 Poultry bursts into view like a peachy rainbow as you drive up Cornhill, we see Stirling’s fully-ripe combination of the same historico-cultural condition. It’s still a strange thing to look at, almost ridiculous in its colour and verging on cartoon in its formalism, the building’s apparent dumbness bristles with interlocking denseness and determined engagement with its urban context. Its combination of stupidity and obviousness with intelligence and spatial complexity makes the architecture that surrounds it - both context and contemporaneous - seem dumber, meaner and duller.

It’s Stirling’s leaps across categories that make his work still resonant. But more than this, his complex architectural position is demonstrably acted out through architecture itself. This remains Stirling’s powerful legacy - a reminder that the substance of building itself can transcend the interests that attempt to contain and define it.

 

Sam Jacob is a founding director of the London-based practice FAT

 

Peter Davey

In the early 1960s, architectural students were ravished by images of the University of Leicester Engineering Building, then gradually being completed. Stirling’s and James Gowan’s first major project was as exciting as Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania. Both used brick in an almost Brutalist way, but in both, severe and massive masonry forms were offset by passages of glazing and transparency. Here, at last, were ways out of flimsy post-war architecture. Paradoxically, by glancing back to the severe forms of nineteenth-century industrial buildings, their towers suggested languages in which rich and diverse cities could be constructed.

Stirling was one of the first to add to the language of Modernism by obviously quoting from history, yet his appropriations were rarely, if ever, simple Postmodern copies of old motifs. They were acquisitions - stealings in T.S. Eliot’s terms - but always seen through a Modernist filter. Much was investigated in the years following Leicester: themes such as the glazed arcade, the central drum, the winding path, the giant cornice and many other compositional elements were explored in unbuilt projects.

In the end, many of the motifs were incorporated in real buildings where they did not always work, for instance in the overscaled No 1 Poultry in the City of London, one of Big Jim’s posthumous buildings. But the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart involved them all, and more, in triumphant congregation. The museum is welcoming yet monumental, interlocking with the existing city, while being part of the landscape: it contains both a series of galleries in classical enfilade and a cascade of ramps and terraces. If some of Stirling’s work is tough, brutal even, the Staatsgalerie is one of the most complex, gentle and humanly rewarding buildings of the twentieth century. Even had he built nothing else, Stuttgart would have guaranteed Stirling a place in the architectural pantheon.

 

Peter Davey was the Editor of The Architectural Review from 1982 to 2005

 

Mark Swenarton

James Stirling was the pre-eminent architectural form maker of the second half of the twentieth century. While his career comprised, as he recognised, a series of stylistic phases, the common theme was his interest in, and mastery of, the sculptural and plastic possibilities of architectural form. This was the thread connecting the ‘industrial’ phase of the ‘red buildings’ with James Gowan, the ‘Neoclassical’ phase of the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart and the final synthetic phase of the Braun AG Headquarters at Melsungen.

In historical terms, Stirling stood in that British lineage of plastic imagination and invention that began with Robert Smythson in the 16th century and extended through Nicholas Hawksmoor, John Vanbrugh, John Soane and Philip Webb to Edwin Lutyens in the 20th century. None of these architects played by the prevailing ‘rules’, be they of classical, Gothic or Modern. All were interested in the drama of three-dimensional form rather than the two-dimensional abstractions of plan or elevation. Whereas we might say that the social conception of architecture, stemming from John Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts Movement, is Britain’s main contribution to the theory of architecture, this plastic, even Mannerist, tradition is surely its main contribution to its form.

That Stirling was the outstanding form maker of his era is not to say, of course, that every design of his was a great design or even a success. This level of inventiveness carries its own risks, formal as much as technical, and these were not always avoided. Nor was Stirling an architect for all occasions. ‘Background architecture’ was definitely not his forte, but cities also need background buildings and the monumentality of his work could be out of place.

For all this, Stirling remains an inspiration to anyone who believes in architecture’s creative potential. As we approach the 20th anniversary of his untimely death, it is right that we celebrate him as the greatest British architect since Lutyens and the greatest architect of his day.

 

Mark Swenarton is James Stirling Professor of Architecture at Liverpool University and was formerly editor/co-founder of Architecture Today

 

Christophe Grafe

Almost twenty years after his untimely death James Stirling’s work has become a historic legacy and material for architectural historians. The recent renewed attention to the projects from the architect’s early collaboration with James Gowan - the red brick buildings in Leicester, Cambridge and Oxford - is informed by the desire to recuperate Stirling for the history of post-war Modern architecture. By contrast, Stirling’s work of the 1970s and 80s - the exercises in pink and baby-blue rendering, his deployment of classical cornices or rustica, the fragments of Schinkel, Ledoux or Hawksmoor (and, at the same time, Le Corbusier) - cannot easily be appropriated as revisions of Modern architecture and its larger ideological projects or projections.

However, the use of historic references, which irritated critics defending the legacy of the Modern movement in the 1980s, has largely lost its explosive character as ‘Postmodernism’ itself has become a faint memory or, depending on one’s point of view, an aberration. The rhetorically charged borrowings from the pre-war avant-garde and international post-war Modernism, as proposed by OMA, or variations on the theme of a ‘new simplicity’ in the Swiss manner - and the more recent merger of both approaches in work of Herzog and de Meuron - have eclipsed the preoccupation of architects of Stirling’s generation with European urban forms.

Many of the ‘urban renewal’ operations in London and other British cities, meanwhile, are marked by the reappearance of a-contextual planning of the crudest sort dressed in variations of hi-tech or, worse, reflect the effect of unprecedented overdevelopment. The cramped open spaces in projects such as St Giles in the West End, the wind-swept piazzas formed by the buildings of the GLA or the non-descript squares surrounding the new buildings of Spitalfield’s Market, demonstrate a notable absence of ideas of how buildings might relate to their surroundings in other ways than merely occupying their sites.

It is against this background that the exercises in urban form in the work of James Stirling acquire new significance as at times highly ideosyncratic or overdetermined, yet often extremely precise and inventive urban compositions. The treatment of figures and ground, and of memorable images and objects, in the Stuttgart Neue Staatsgalerie or the Berlin Wissenschaftszentrum constitute a poignant, and physically present critique of contemporary urban development. This, beyond the historiographic re-assessement of Postmodernism and Stirling’s role in it, represents the most important legacy of Stirling’s approach to cities and buildings for current practice.

 

Christoph Grafe is Director of the Flemish Architecture Institute in Antwerp and Associate Professor of Architectural Design / Interior at TU Delft, The Netherlands. He co-edited the 2009 OASE special issue on Stirling

 

Owen Hatherley

While admiring the sheer futuristic industrial exuberance of the Red Trilogy, I’m a little wary of the Stirling cult. Partly this is because he is often set up as a counter-figure to the well-meaning social architecture of the Welfare State. I recently argued with someone who considered Denys Lasdun and the Smithsons to be provincial hacks, but Stirling, oh Stirling, he was different - part of the pantheon. World class. And with world-class architecture go world-class functions. Nothing so prosaic as schools, old people’s homes or council housing. Proper stuff, for the ages. University buildings, museums, spec offices in the City of London.

Except, of course, Stirling did design schools, old people’s homes and council housing. We all know that the Red Trilogy has been shabbily treated (and we might or might not blame that on their functional deficiencies), but at least they are in one piece. On the South London arterial road where I live stands Corvette Square, a scheme by Stirling and Gowan, designed largely by the latter but in the same spirit as the pair’s earlier housing.

This small, De Stijl-influenced, dark red brick council estate close to the Royal Naval College is almost impossible to appreciate as a coherent work of architecture, because of a galumphing series of pitched roofs plonked atop it during the 1980s. A sister scheme in nearby Deptford is similarly disfigured.

But at least it’s still there. Estates such as Stirling and Wilford’s extravagant Runcorn, and Stirling and Gowan’s more rigorous Preston have been obliterated. And Stirling and Gowan’s school in Camberwell is expected to follow suit. It’s remarkable, given the size of Stirling’s posthumous cult, how little we care for these more prosaic buildings.

 

Owen Hatherley is the author of Militant Modernism and A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, and a regular contributor to Building Design Magazine

Christoph Grafe has co-organised the conference ‘Re-thinking James Stirling’, which will take place at Tate Britain on Saturday 11 June.

James Stirling: Notes from the Archive is at Tate Britain, London, from 5 April to 21 August. The exhibition has been co-created with the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven. For full visitor information, please visit tate.org.uk

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