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

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 …

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Letters

Unlucky Jim’ April 7, 2011