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.
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.”
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.
Given Stirling’s long history in New Haven, it was fitting for the Yale Center for British Art to mount this retrospective (which travels to Montreal and the museums he designed in Stuttgart and London). On view nearby at the Yale School of Architecture is a concurrent show, “An Architect’s Legacy: James Stirling’s Students at Yale, 1959–1983,” which documents his influence on several generations of pupils, most visible in graphic representation techniques he popularized (especially the novel “worm’s-eye-view” perspective, which depicts a building as if seen from below ground).
Stirling’s posthumous reputation has languished, largely because of diminished critical regard for Postmodernism. He was arguably its most successful practitioner, as demonstrated by his and Wilford’s indisputable masterpiece, the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, the first (and, some would say, only) evidence that the Classical vocabulary could still yield the expressive force Stirling ascribed to it. His career was at a near standstill when his firm received this major commission, part of the extraordinary spree of German museum construction in the years just before reunification.
Nominally an addition to a mid-nineteenth-century art gallery, this ingenious synthesis of monumental architecture and humane city planning not only ameliorated egregious blunders of Stuttgart’s postwar urban renewal, but created, in the museum’s majestic roofless rotunda, one of the finest civic spaces in modern Europe. Although its conventional picture galleries are adequate and nothing more, the entire ensemble has aged handsomely, unlike the dated appearance and shabby condition of so many public works from that period.
The Neue Staatsgalerie is loaded with visual jests, mainly insider jokes best appreciated by architectural cognoscenti, including a Weinbrenner-esque columned portal that seems to sink into the rotunda’s pavement through a “trap door,” and sandstone walls that lack connective mortar and flaunt (to specialists who notice such things) their nonstructural nature by revealing how the steel framework behind actually does the heavy lifting. Yet this extensive composition, which covers several city blocks, is at once boldly assertive and deferentially adaptive. It meshes so smoothly with its surroundings that one can only agree with Jencks, who called it “more an articulation of urban tissue than a conventional building.”
Stirling’s most effective use of color was at the Staatsgalerie, with a palette initially controversial but in due course widely emulated. To take the curse of bourgeois stodginess off the sober sandstone cladding, he specified exaggeratedly fat metal handrails painted shocking pink and electric blue, with the metal framing of the undulating glass window-walls of the reception hall painted an even more jolting poison green, the same shade as the rubber-tile flooring the visitor encounters on entering the building.
Although Stirling fancied himself an adept colorist, the main Yale exhibition indicated that he sometimes didn’t know when to stop. On view were several much-published line drawings of his projects from the 1970s rendered by Leon Krier (who went on to design the neotraditional Dorset new town of Poundbury for Prince Charles). The bilious greens and dingy blues that Stirling superimposed on Krier’s delicate black-and-white originals—several of which include Hitchcock-cameo depictions of Stirling and his favorite possessions—led Girouard to report that
Krier was quite rightly infuriated to find that Jim had coloured many of his drawings for the Black Book and elsewhere. Among others the wonderful worm’s-eye axonometric of the Florey Building [at Oxford], and the famous drawing of Jim and his Hope furniture were, in effect, ruined in this way. There may have been an element of jealousy or mischief in what Jim did.
Unfortunately, both “Notes from the Archive” and its accompanying publication are so narrowly focused on the architect’s working process that it is hard to imagine how laymen unfamiliar with his work could gather a clear sense of Stirling from this arcane assemblage. Although the exhibition is jam-packed with intensely (and in some instances impenetrably) diagrammatic sketches, drawings, and construction plans, it lacks sufficient photographs that show how these many details were finally assembled, or to what benefit.
Dispersed throughout the Yale galleries were video screens that displayed sequential images of various projects, but it was frustrating not to be able to examine specific pictures for as long as one wished. Furthermore, there was little indication of whether these schemes were executed or not, perhaps a matter of indifference to those mainly concerned with theoretical issues, but baffling even to knowledgeable followers of design.
The causes of Stirling’s creative decline during his final decade are impossible to ascertain, but he was to some extent a casualty of the jet-age architectural circuit that he mordantly termed “the circus”—a punishing nonstop international round of pitches for competitive commissions, speaking engagements to generate publicity, and participation in conferences to validate his peer-group credentials. As with many experimental architects whose uncertain workload requires outside sources of income to help keep an office and staff afloat, Stirling’s peripatetic existence was further necessitated because he was suspect in Britain for questionable technical abilities that subverted his job prospects there.
That bum rap stemmed from functional problems that plagued his poorly maintained Cambridge University History Faculty Building of 1964–1967, the reading room of which is covered by a gigantic tent-like glass roof that leaked incessantly. (An unexpected supporter of the design was Isaiah Berlin, who liked it because it was not a pastiche of antique forms.) Not until the following decade, when Stirling was taken up by a series of sympathetic German patrons (and aided by German engineers and craftsmen far superior to their British counterparts), did he shed the stigma of slapdash execution.
His personal presentation worked against him as well. The Pavarotti of architecture, Stirling weighed more than three hundred pounds—how much is unknown, for his physician’s scale went no higher—and if not an outright alcoholic he was certainly a very heavy drinker. When, in 1984, the coveted commission for the Getty Center in Los Angeles came down to two finalists—Stirling and Richard Meier—a member of the selection committee, the great British architectural historian and Stirling admirer Reyner Banham, told me pessimistically that the decision would hang on whomever Getty officials preferred to dine with over the next several years.
Quite possibly the prospect of endless boozy, gluttonous evenings with Stirling pushed them into the arms of Meier, though as the loser sourly but accurately predicted, “They’ll get another washing-machine.” However, by the time this thirteen-year project was completed, the unlucky Stirling had been dead for half a decade. He succumbed to complications from abdominal surgery twelve days after the Queen knighted him.
Nothing Stirling and Wilford did after Stuttgart rose to that level of excellence. As often happens in an underappreciated architect’s homeland once he is acclaimed for work built abroad, Stirling was rediscovered by the British after his German coup d’estime, and his office again began to receive important commissions in England after nearly a decade. Among those jobs was Number One Poultry of 1985–1998, a mid-rise mixed-use commercial building for a prestigious triangular site in the City of London facing Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence.
This Postmodern project was backed by the property developer Peter Palumbo, whose two-decade struggle to erect Mies’s International Style bronze-and-glass Mansion House Tower of 1967—a nineteen-story mini-Seagram Building—ran aground thanks to the outspoken opposition of Prince Charles. No doubt Palumbo calculated that in the afterglow of his Stuttgart museum, Stirling was the man of the hour who could propel the long-stalled effort to completion.
Palumbo thought his intuition was confirmed when Charles told him, “You can rest assured that this is one scheme I shan’t be saying anything about.” However, the fickle prince later denounced it on TV as an old “1930s wireless set.” In fact, Number One Poultry—clad in alternatingly toned horizontal sandstone stripes, much like Stuttgart—more closely resembles a decapitated Sphinx, its subliminally Egyptoid aura reinforced by a bloated scale that overwhelms its decorous surroundings far more than Mies’s Minimalist tower would have done.
In 1986, Stirling and Wilford were also passed over in favor of the Americans Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for an extension to London’s National Gallery. The following year the British partners completed their Clore Gallery, a substantial wing at the city’s Tate Gallery for the work of J.M.W. Turner. The Clore was conceived by Stirling as a metaphorical garden pavilion, which he clad in a superscale gridwork pattern that gives the inverted L-shaped pairing of two shoebox-like volumes a repetitive, rectilinear, mock-Elizabethan air.
But any Tudor revivalism was countered by the incorporation of a massive limestone entry surround with Myceanean overtones. It says a great deal that the Clore looks best late at night, dimly lit. The upper-story interiors, however, were meant to be viewed in the full natural light of day, and some of the colors Stirling selected for those display spaces were hideous, especially a cloying raspberry-mousse hue that has fortunately been replaced with neutral tones more hospitable to the Turners hung there.
Emboldened by his way with color at Stuttgart, Stirling went to greater extremes in his and Wilford’s pink-and-blue-banded Wissenschaftszentrum of 1979–1987 in Berlin, their expansion of a social sciences think tank adjacent to the city’s Kulturforum, a jumble of dissonant high-style architecture that includes Mies’s Neue Nationalgalerie of 1959–1965 and Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie of 1959–1963. It was the most idiosyncratic work Stirling ever brought to fruition.
Stirling always professed to detest picturesque design—buildings in which a preconceived arrangement of exterior forms takes precedence over internal organization and mimics painterly or theatrical effects to create an eye-catching image. But this agglomeration of Tuscan-inspired components is by any definition picturesque. He asserted that ideas for the grouping of four office structures, cranked around at various angles, stemmed from his rejection of a typical Modernist superblock solution. The complex includes a barracks-like street-front block two stories high; an octagonal flat-topped tower of eight stories; a semicircular wing (dubbed the amphitheater) and a cruciform volume with one apsidal end, termed the basilica, of five stories each.
The Wissenschaftszentrum’s overall affect of carnivalesque excess and manic gaiety—the result of its loud exterior treatment in alternating layers of baby blue and Pepto-Bismol pink—prompted one Berlin wag to spray-paint a curving wall of the complex with the word Geburtstagstorte (birthday cake). Stirling, with characteristic perversity, wanted to leave that epithet in place, but his academic client demurred. The architect’s apparent need to upstage the adjacent competition of Mies and Scharoun was not unlike a propensity remarked upon by Girouard, who relates that if his subject felt he was not the cynosure of attention at social gatherings he would sometimes childishly resort to making funny faces and antic gestures.
An artist of sporadic genius, a thoroughly inspiring educator, and a critic of uncommon insight, Stirling remains a figure of continuing interest at the very least because his highly uneven output so strongly illuminates a significant transitional moment in architecture. Even though he produced only two buildings that can be deemed true masterworks—in Leicester and Stuttgart—those are enough to assure his place in the modern canon, if not in the top tier of all-time master builders.
Faute de mieux, perhaps, but Stirling was the preeminent British architect of the third quarter of the twentieth century (and a bit beyond). One can only honor his deeply abiding passion for architecture and his desire to impart that enthusiasm through his own buildings. In one of the most telling passages of “The Black Notebook,” Stirling records his reaction to Anthony Mann’s biopic The Glenn Miller Story (1954), which he terms “a poor film enlivened by 5 minutes of Louis Armstrong”:
[Armstrong’s] whole personality and more directly his music expresses “the joy of living.” Obviously he is no longer innovating, he is not producing with the same deliberate intention or innovation of the early days—yet his now non-progressive music is still greater than any other living jazzman. He can’t help it—so easy—like Corb who has said “I shit architecture.” Again the combination of man and instrument and music producing something which has the grace of inevitability.
That fundamentally joyous and inevitable quality suffuses his architecture at its best—one might even say that Postmodernism was a poor style enlivened by five minutes of Jim Stirling. The narrative of modern architecture would be far less lively without this formidable and unruly figure, whom the journalist Colin Amery once described, a bit maliciously but nonetheless aptly, as “a great rogue elephant.”
February 10, 2011