It has been described as “complex” and “difficult”, but also “hugely influential” (ask Norman Foster, for one). The architecture of the late James Stirling tends to provoke both admiration and disdain, most commonly in the same breath. To understand how the seemingly contradictory claims which surround the man and his work can coexist, we must dive into his process.
Born in Glasgow in 1924 and graduated from the University of Liverpool School of Architecture in 1950, James Stirling designed several significant projects of the past century, including Leicester University Engineering Building, Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart and No. 1 Poultry in London. In 1992, he was given a knighthood a few days before he died, at the age of 68.
Credited with freeing our urban landscapes from the rigidity and greyness of Modernism, Stirling took a playful approach to form and function. He borrowed here and there from an infinite supply of stylistic influences, zigzagging his way through the history of architecture. In this way, many refer to him as a Postmodernism pioneer, a label he staunchly rejected. Postmodernist or not, his approach to the finished piece was closer to that of an artist than an architect, which explains why he has been described as architecture’s very own Picasso. They even share certain similarity.
He was fascinated by Le Corbusier and openly acknowledged his influence on his choice of material finishes and textures. His first major project, the flats at Ham Common (1955), completed in collaboration with his first partner, James Gowan, uses brick and concrete in a way that is reminiscent of the Maisons Jaoul in an upmarket suburb of Paris (1951). But under Stirling’s eye, it meets certain elements of the Dutch legacy, especially the way in which the De Stijl school articulated plan organisation, as well as a touch of the 19th century in its scale and texture of contrasts.
In order to create without constraints, Stirling relied heavily on drawing. For him, it was an essential part of the creative process, acting as a tool for experimentation that allowed him to develop a deep understanding of the design problem at hand. Putting pen to paper and sketching out the lines helped him to compare and analyse a design from different viewpoints, thus allowing new possibilities to unfold.
These drawings were created on the smallest sheets of paper possible. Stirling felt strongly that it was important for the eye to take in the entire image without the need to scan and search across the page. This painstaking method meant that any unnecessary information was eliminated, leaving behind a correct and factual architectural understanding of the building – the opposite of what he saw as a “confusing and subjective artists impression”. For Stirling, what was most important at this stage of the process was clarity and synthesis.
It’s therefore not surprising that axonometric drawings were his favourite. Offering a simultaneous birds-eye and worms-eye view of a site within the same image, they served to verify a project and investigate the details of its construction. Depicting vertical and horizontal planes at the same scale, the technique gives an accurate reading of a building through its spaces, surfaces and volumetrics without distortion. It was his key working tool for bringing to light the consequences of his early decisions.
His axonometric projection of No. 1 Poultry, as reproduced in James Stirling: Inspiration and Process in Architecture, helps to deconstruct the complexity of this City of London icon. With its distinctive stripy limestone facade and jumble of geometric shapes (cylindrical courtyard, triangular lightwell and layers of angular and curved forms on its exterior, as well as the icing on the cake; the clock tower), the mixed-use development continues to court controversy twenty years after its completion. The drawing helps us piece together the puzzle; if not succeeding in converting us with its beguiling character, then at the very least, helping us get to know it a bit better.
Stirling may have been a difficult man, producing difficult architecture. But his playful approach left an indelible mark on the next generation of architects and engineers, helping them to dream up forms and functions in ways that were previously deemed off limits, or even impossible. Put simply, he taught us to have fun with the buildings we inhabit. Humour was for him so much more than a way to shrug off the persistent harsh criticism he encountered throughout his career; “I now know, that if we do another building in this country, it should be colourless, perhaps grey or brown – preferably the latter – or better still, maybe invisible.” It was the very vehicle he used for self-expression.
As summed up by Marco Iuliano, his legacy is that of “timeless images that are fashioned and fixed in the world of ideas as much as they form the material presence of a building.”
By Zosia Swidlicka
The book ‘Inspiration and Process in Architecture – James Stirling’ is available here.