Mark Crinson, author of Stirling and Gowan, takes a look at the dynamic partnership between architects James Stirling and James Gowan, a partnership which resulted in building commissions that brought international attention to postwar British architecture.
Article by Mark Crinson
In architectural circles, the death of James Stirling from complications following a routine operation in 1992 is still regarded as a tragedy, even twenty years later. To die at 68, by the norms of a profession in which a fifty year-old is youthful – and certainly by the long-lived standards of octogenarians like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster – is to be cut off in your prime. And, as the recent exhibition of his drawings at Tate Britain revealed, Stirling’s work had reached a pitch of creative fertility in his last years. Tantalising projects in Venice, London, Kyoto, Singapore, Edinburgh, and Salford were all on the drawing board or recently finished at the time of his death. Stirling’s last partner, Michael Wilford, would build some of these. Others were unbuilt but they – and many other designs – remain a rich mine of ideas waiting to be quarried by architects once they can get beyond the present distaste for anything associated with postmodernism.
Few architects have ever become household names in the same way as artists, musicians and writers. Fewer still have been British and worked in the twentieth century. That Stirling is not much more widely known among the general public, even popular like his contemporaries Francis Bacon and Ted Hughes, says more about the wider loss of faith in architectural modernism than it does about the qualities and achievements of his work.
There are the canonic projects that appear in every undergraduate survey: Leicester University Engineering building (designed with James Gowan), a great, awkward monument left by the ebb tide of modernism; and the Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, where a piece of urban scenography and stately museology is also a witty and melancholy meditation on our relation to the past. There is the extraordinary sense of colour that pervades Stirling’s work: his love of bricks and Victorian polychromy early on, his mineral reds of the ‘60s, and then his acidic pop colours often combined seductively with stone revetment in the late works. There is also the inventiveness and allusiveness of his formal language, where anything from Inca walls to Vanbrugh and Le Corbusier is grist to the creative mill. And of course there is Stirling’s humour, whether in falsely tumbling stones, unexpectedly inverted or hollowed out masses, or the teasing of sources of cultural authority.
The early work holds the key to everything else. Here Stirling needs to share any credit with his partner of seven years (1956-1963), James Gowan. Theirs was a complex relationship, an interlocking of complementary aptitudes and ambitions but often also a tense grating of very different personalities. (In the partnership’s bitter aftermath both sides refused to fully acknowledge the role of the other.) Like the famous description of the Cubist-period Picasso and Braque ‘roped together like mountaineers’ to explore new forms of pictorial space, so Stirling and Gowan found completely new directions within and beyond a modernism that had become the diluted, official architecture of the time. They pushed functionalism to its formal limits. They reappraised aspects of the Victorian city despised by their contemporaries. They insisted on a ‘style for the job’ or ‘multi-aesthetic’. Above all, modernism itself had to be made to relate to its own history and prehistory if it was to take better measure of its moment.
Like the two great Cubists, what the two James’s got up to was of abiding interest to their contemporaries. Clever young student architects like Neave Brown, Quinlan Terry and Eldred Evans would help out in the office, often for practically nothing. The grand seigneur of British modernism, Leslie Martin, dropped important commissions into the partners’ hands. Denys Lasdun would stop by to steal glimpses of their latest design. Alison and Peter Smithson, their great rivals, after attempting to treat them as mere followers of their own vanguardist bandwagon, would cut them out of their records and dismiss their work as one-offs. And Nikolaus Pevsner, horrified yet fascinated by what he could only see as a throwback to expressionist subjectivism, would attack their work at every opportunity.
Critics often divide Stirling’s career into two parts, one modernist the other postmodernist; and then these critics themselves divide around these two apparent poles. There was a change but it was not along these lines, indeed almost all the elements that would come to be recognized as postmodernism can be found in the earlier work, and not just in embryonic form but also within an expanded conception of modernism. The early 1950s, for example, saw Stirling engaging with many of the same ideas that made the Independent Group (of which he was a peripheral member) such an important incubator of new forms of cultural expression and analysis. Rather, the change in Stirling’s work – and here he was at one with Gowan – was about industry and how architecture related to it in the long years of British deindustrialization after the war. While Reyner Banham’s take on this was that a new, ‘second machine age’ of white goods, TVs and mass consumption, was about to arrive and that architecture should take its cue from this, Stirling’s view was much less gung-ho. He remained fascinated by the Industrial Revolution and the buildings, urban forms and engineering structures created during and since that radical paleotechnic shift. But he also had a strong feeling of changed circumstances concerning not just the forms of industrial production but industry’s status in the society at large. He was fascinated by the creative possibilities of this moment of decline and discontinuity. He and Gowan attempted to make architectural use of this post-industrial mindset in a way that was equally as distinct from Banham’s second machine age as it was from the taste for ruins and genteel dereliction prevalent within the neo-romantic movement of an older generation.
The real divide in Stirling’s work happened a few years after the split with Gowan. It was certainly given impetus by a new presence in his office, with the arrival of the brilliant draftsmanship of Leon Krier. The ‘collage city’ ideas of Stirling’s old friend and mentor Colin Rowe also played a part, as did Stirling’s increasing role within a jet setting elite of architects. A new range of alluring historical ideas and references flooded in, above all to help explore how architecture could re-evoke the historical city. But with the dissipation of the strength of the industrial theme came also an abandonment of any idea – representational or actual – of architecture keeping in some kind of dialogue with the forces of production.
Mark Crinson is professor of art history at the University of Manchester. His new book Stirling and Gowan: Architecture from Austerity to Affluence is out now.