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Unlucky Jim

Notes from the Archive: James Frazer Stirling, Architect and Teacher

an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, October 14, 2010–January 2, 2011; Tate Britain, London, spring/summer 2011; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, October 2011–January 2012; and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal,
May–October 2012.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Anthony Vidler
Canadian Centre for Architecture/Yale Center for British Art/ Yale University Press, 303 pp., $70.00

An Architect’s Legacy: James Stirling’s Students at Yale, 1959–1983

an exhibition at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery, New Haven, October 13, 2010–January 28, 2011
filler_1-021011.jpg
Quintin Lake
The University of Leicester’s Engineering Building, which Martin Filler identifies as one of the ‘uncontested peaks’ of the architect James Stirling’s career; from Alan Berman’s Jim Stirling and the Red Trilogy

1.

Few young aficionados of the building art now realize how large James Stirling loomed on the international architecture scene during the two decades before he died, in 1992, at the age of sixty-eight. Apart from the eager embrace of his avant-garde colleagues, who saw in him the harbinger of thrilling new design directions, Stirling in his white-hot heyday was as celebrated by youthful fans as Rem Koolhaas is today—a veritable rock star of the profession who lectured to capacity audiences, was lionized by critics, and attracted architecture students from all over the world to study with him at Yale, where he was a visiting professor for nearly a quarter of a century.

Now Stirling is best remembered for his dramatic mid-career stylistic shift from mechanistic forms associated with the early “heroic period” of the Modern Movement—the post–World War I concatenation exemplified by the revolutionary schemes of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Russian Constructivists, and Holland’s De Stijl group—and his move to Postmodernism. That eclectic architectural style, popular from around 1975 to 1990, borrowed motifs from earlier periods in implicit sympathy with the alleged communicative power of the building art’s age-old signs and symbols.

Stirling’s Postmodern designs derived in part from the English Baroque (particularly Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh) and German Neoclassicism (including Friedrich Weinbrenner and Karl Friedrich Schinkel). But he mixed ideas explored by those architects with early Modernist engineering concepts and vernacular industrial construction techniques, which gave his work a hybrid character that made him difficult to categorize among his peers. His nearest contemporary analogue was the Milanese architect Aldo Rossi (1931–1997), who likewise mined the Classical tradition to impressive effect on occasion.

Stirling, whom I got to know somewhat when my wife and I worked on a documentary film about him commissioned by the BBC and German and Swedish television, objected vehemently to my having written that his body of work divides quite evenly into distinct phases marked by his volte-face of the mid-1970s, when he combined Modern and Classical styles. Instead, he insisted that all his designs share an inner consistency despite superficial disparities. But even a cursory examination of his life story reveals equally sharp divergences that in hindsight seem of a piece with the contradictions that define his architecture.

James Frazer Stirling was born in Glasgow in 1924 and grew up in Liverpool. He habitually claimed to have been two years younger than he really was, just as Frank Lloyd Wright had done, no doubt to make himself seem more impressively precocious, a discrepancy revealed only after Stirling’s death by his designated biographer, the architectural historian Mark Girouard, in the invaluable Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling (1998).

The architect’s father, a naval engineer often absent on sea voyages, was a harsh character, the one person whom his only son, rather a bully himself, said he had been afraid of. Stirling’s dour upbringing seems to have left him emotionally stunted, as one of his lovers, the African-American novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud, told Girouard: “He built a psychological wall around his inner self, which was difficult for others to penetrate.” As a boy he found an emotional outlet in his love of birdwatching, and became so proficient an amateur ornithologist that while still a teenager he earned an acknowledgment in Eric Hardy’s classic The Birds of the Liverpool Area (1941).

Conscripted into the British army in 1942, Stirling found military life an ordeal, but after the war quickly got his footing during the ascendancy of the postwar Labourite welfare state. That he harbored far grander aspirations than his background promised is clear from his so-called “Black Notebook,” in which he recorded exceptionally acute perceptions about architecture. Its text forms the centerpiece of James Stirling: Early Unpublished Writings on Architecture, scrupulously edited by Mark Crinson and an indispensable addition to the literature.

Stirling’s early works in England—especially his university commissions of the 1950s and 1960s at Oxford, Cambridge, and Leicester universities, celebrated in Jim Stirling and the Red Trilogy: Three Radical Buildings, an anthology of appreciations by twenty-eight British architects—would alone justify his long-overdue reassessment. First of the two uncontested peaks of Stirling’s career was his and James Gowan’s Engineering Building of 1959–1963 at the University of Leicester, which reiterated readily identifiable early Modernist details in a way that had been unthinkable in a profession that had only lately abjured the direct copying of Greek, Roman, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and other historical prototypes. But now it is easy to see Stirling’s borrowings from early Modernist antecedents in the 1960s as a forerunner of his Classical appropriations during the 1980s, a kind of Postmodernism avant l’heure.

For Leicester, Stirling and Gowan (who split soon after that job was finished) designed two wedge-shaped lecture theaters that thrust outward from the base of the slender office tower like giant diving platforms. These were modeled after Konstantin Melnikov’s Rusakov Workers’ Club of 1927–1929 in Moscow. A cylindrical glass-enclosed spiral staircase repeats a similar configuration in Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer’s model factory at the Deutsche Werkbund Exhibition of 1914 in Cologne, while Leicester’s wraparound strip-windows bring to mind Frank Lloyd Wright’s S.C. Johnson Research Tower of 1944–1951 in Racine, Wisconsin. The “red trilogy”—which takes its name from the three buildings’ cladding of redbrick and red-tiled paneling—also owes an immense debt to Alvar Aalto’s University of Jyväskylä in Finland, begun in 1951.

Some critics have maintained that Stirling’s career-making Leicester Engineering Building (subsequent work by Gowan supports his erstwhile partner’s primary authorship here) in effect puts quotation marks around some of the best-known motifs of early-twentieth-century architecture and thus treats the Modern Movement as a swipe-file rather than a set of philosophical principles. But as Stirling would later do in very different ways in his and Michael Wilford’s Neue Staatsgalerie of 1977–1983 in Stuttgart, he united these potentially discordant elements with consummate assurance and complete coherence.

2.

Like many working-class strivers in postwar Britain, Stirling tried to camouflage his desire to rise socially and professionally by setting himself apart from the class system in ways both big and small. He married above himself when, in 1966, he wed the furniture designer Mary Shand, a daughter of P. Morton Shand, the socially connected wine connoisseur and early champion of Modernist architecture in Britain. (One of his granddaughters is Prince Charles’s second wife, Camilla, née Shand.)

Mary Shand followed an age-old propensity by taking a husband exactly like her cantankerous and self-destructive father. As she recalled to Girouard, “My mother…thought [Shand] was a genius, you see, and geniuses had to be looked after,” so even though Stirling was “a handful, and I realised that,… I thought that with my background I could cope.”

Once Stirling’s practice started to prosper with corporate commissions from Olivetti and Siemens in the late 1960s, he assembled an important collection—which he installed in his house in London’s Belsize Park—of vigorously scaled Regency furniture by such then-undervalued figures as George Bullock and Thomas Hope. These museum-quality pieces he mixed among 1930s bent-plywood chairs and tables by Aalto, contemporary Italian stereo equipment, and potted avocado trees. Such lively juxtapositions were recently evoked at Yale in “Notes from the Archive: James Frazer Stirling, Architect and Teacher”—a survey of drawings and related materials from the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, which acquired his papers in 2000—by the pairing of one of his Regency chairs (now owned by the Art Institute of Chicago) vis-à-vis a Le Corbusier Grand Confort chair lent by his widow.

The ways that win, the arts that please play a crucial role in successful architectural practice, as proven par excellence by Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei, two born charmers and diplomats whose relative lack of native talent was far outweighed by their ability to court, land, and keep clients. Nikolaus Pevsner, the enormously influential doyen of British architectural historians, let his judgment stray from the professional to the personal when he bitterly remarked that “Stirling is a rude man, and the buildings he designs are rude as well.”

However, one cannot but conclude that Stirling’s abundant architectural gifts were subverted by his deep-seated character flaws. Problems were evident early on. The property developer who commissioned Stirling and Gowan’s Ham Common Flats of 1955–1958—a skillful tripartite grouping of thirty low-rise apartment units inserted behind a landmark Georgian mansion in the London suburb of Richmond, a scheme heavily influenced by Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul of 1954–1958 in the Paris banlieue of Neuilly—found the young Stirling to be

a terrible prima donna…. He has a very feminine side to him. He’s rather like a dressmaker producing a dress, and there are terrible scenes if I want the windows to be two inches lower or higher, because I don’t think that the people buying them would like them.

Certainly, the frustrations of keeping an avant-garde architectural practice solvent in postwar Britain were enormous, and took their toll on Stirling, whose office on more than one occasion was without any work whatever. During the 1970s, a recessionary decade when the worldwide dearth of construction prompted architects to produce hypothetical schemes or publish dossiers of their earlier designs, Stirling magnified his status with the instant cult classic James Stirling: Buildings & Projects, 1950–1974, a precursor of Koolhaas’s best-selling S,M,L,XL (1995). Apart from a turgid introduction by the architecture critic John Jacobus, Stirling’s strikingly laid-out automonograph was a self-promotional picture book, and its close resemblance to Le Corbusier’s Œuvre complète was hardly coincidental.

Stirling’s biographer struggled to show a kinder, gentler side of his rumbustious subject, but there is no denying that the architect was self- defeatingly off-putting to would-be supporters and potential clients alike. For example, his most strenuous advocate was the critic Charles Jencks, who saw in the Staatsgalerie perfect justification for his belief in Postmodernism as the wave of the architectural future. However, Jencks had one cavil about the new museum: he disliked an off-the-rack industrial storm drain that Stirling placed at the center of the rotunda pavement, and suggested instead a representational sculpture to glorify the building’s symbolic omphalos. Stirling repaid his thankless exponent by referring to him in public lectures thereafter as “Charlie Junk.”

3.

The organizer of “Notes from the Archive,” Anthony Vidler—dean of Cooper Union’s architecture school and an astute historian of French Enlightenment architecture and theory—plausibly interprets Stirling’s recourse to Classical motifs as a natural byproduct of his architectural training at the University of Liverpool during that postwar interregnum in English design education when the Beaux-Arts Classical tradition still lingered on but Modernism had not yet fully taken root. Even if one accepts Stirling at his word that he made his big stylistic shift not for opportunistic reasons, when Postmodernism became the latest architectural fashion, but to find greater expressive range than the restrictive Modernist vocabulary allowed, there is little in “Notes from the Archive” to change one’s view of a markedly bifurcated oeuvre.

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