Here’s the rub. Big Jim, aka James Stirling, went at architecture the way a heavyweight on the way up goes after a doll.
No. Scrub that.
Here’s the incongruity: Sir James Frazer Stirling addressed the profession of architecture in a manner that reflected his humble origins, but along the way …
No, no. Way off. He was no social climber.
Okay. This is the real deal: Stirling’s blunt, intensely personal, confrontational, even hyperfunctional style was something he wore as naturally as his fluorescent-green stockings and cadmium-blue dress shirts.
Too many words.
Sir Jim said very little about his work, sticking to very disciplined (never flowery) descriptions that were absolutely devoid of jargon. In fact, one might infer that he was dismissive of the “elevated” discourse some think is appropriate when talking about architecture.
It’s one of the conundrums of his legacy, because there is so much to chew on. A review of his built and unbuilt projects over a mere 40 years is startling, not only for its sheer quantity, but for the consistently challenging concepts which he regularly launched from his crowded atelier. In the beginning, one waited in line for a fresh cut from the Beatles, wore the latest thing from Mary Quant—and watched for a salvo from Big Jim.
Ham Common was Aalto redux. Preston was more of the same, but better. Leicester was Aalto delicto, and from there on, it was time to call in the bomb squad, or the morals police, or the guardians of British culture—whoever could get there first. Remarkably, at least for a while, the commissions kept rolling in, from prestigious universities and planning councils and industrial titans who (one must assume) were advised to catch him quick, while he was on the way up.
Sir Jim’s delight was to join the puzzle pieces of a program into an assemblage that was barely reined in by structure and weatherproofing. This teetered on the edge of a critical precipice, which, of course, is what engendered such a babble of commentary. With his champions—the critics Reyner Banham and Colin Rowe—leading the incursion, architects around the world were alerted to an aesthetic so fundamentally removed from their own that only a brave few would sign up for it. After all, who among them had ever imagined that brightly colored air extractors might stand in for the “plop art” with which they adorned their windswept plazas; or that one might manage airflow with cleverly placed inverted vents, rather than a ducted system? The forthright, often scatological functions which Stirling celebrated sometimes made an assault on the senses. At his Leicester University Engineering Building, the infamous vent at the prow of the terrace wafted the olfactory delights of the restroom below.
At that time, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, artists such as Charles Mingus, Allen Ginsberg, and Francis Bacon were producing work that drew on the same strain of radical reconception that provided the DNA for Stirling’s early buildings. In marked contrast to his contemporaries, Stirling seems to have been less preoccupied with the (narrowly defined) “culture of architecture” and far more engaged with broad cultural tremors which he could not ignore. An ack-ack of unprecedented built and unbuilt projects underscored his willingness to risk all in the search for a matching paradigm: raw concrete and brightly colored molded fiberglass at Runcorn; more extremely molded fiberglass for Olivetti; a ribbed, precast concrete system for university housing at St. Andrews; an unbuilt proposal featuring gigantic rotating sunscreens for Siemens.
With each jab of his famous stub of a pencil, he pushed both aesthetic and technological boundaries further into an unknowable future. And yet, later, the punctuation often took the form of veiled historical references, such as the concave cornices on the Siemens design, and the depressed Piranesian footprint that gave his competition entry for the Wallraf-Richartz Museum an epic, even elegiac, quality.
This tendency—to oscillate between a functional, programmatically driven parti and a visual narrative blending episodes old and new—endowed his projects with something like the “nose” extolled by wine connoisseurs. It was a melding of influences, overtones, and subtle references that never approached the banal cynicism of Philip Johnson’s Chippendale pediment.
In the states, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, and Jaquelin Robertson circled his camp, as each was carving his own place in architectural history; House X and the High Museum were in vitro experiments during the period of Stirling’s greatest influence among the avant-garde, as was Paul Rudolph’s nearly simultaneous Yale School of Art and Architecture, and Robert Venturi’s Guild House. Wildly divergent styles marked the break with classical Modernism, mirroring challenges to the social and political order of the culture as a whole. Yet only Meier and Venturi found acolytes to carry on their principles: Eisenman’s celebrated match-up with Jacques Derrida led to a wider breach between theory and practice, while Sir Jim’s forthright diagrams caught flak from an establishment committed to the status quo, and above all, in thrall to its conservative, corporate clientele. Stirling’s complex design rhetoric, difficult for critics and architects alike, seemed to sow only confusion among even his most ardent followers.
A less adventurous Stirling emerged in the late ’70s, “curated” by Léon Krier. He left behind agitprop to create a series of projects which, while still idiosyncratic, cloaked functional flourishes—such as the monumental exhaust stacks framing the entrance to the Fogg Museum—with thin, often disingenuous disguises. This work, embraced by many of his students at Yale, extended the premise of the Staatsgalerie by relying on a material gravitas (mostly absent earlier) that was supplemented by an assemblage of primary geometries in order to convey a sense of civic authority.
This turn of events mortified many of his admirers, while inspiring a kind of hybridized postmodern affectation that quickly became the hallmark of innumerable schools, libraries, and courthouses. Possibly the most-often quoted project of this period is the theater arts project at Cornell University, which features a slender bell tower, an Italianate arcade, and a hilltop village layout. Devoid of the somewhat pompous air which found its way into many of Sir Jim’s later projects (the No.1 Poultry building in London comes to mind), Cornell pulls off a kind of pleasant, synthetic vernacular. But it is difficult to reconcile its placid countenance with the ferocious originality which brought him to the attention of the architectural world.
American disciples are thin on the ground, but echoes of the first (the “good”) Stirling can be found in Frank Gehry’s early projects, and one thinks of Marion Weiss and Eric Owen Moss. Then there’s our own studio, a throttled-down, road-going version of the ATV screamer that Jim was piloting.
Retrospectively, his influence seems as fleeting as that of Ledoux and Boullée, even though, within 20th-century architectural history, the sheer brilliance of his work has no equal. While such a quick fade from memory may be due in large part to his reluctance to theorize, it’s meant that just “getting the job done”—as Sir Jim liked to say—has given way to the unbridled rush to get to the head of the line. ?
The drawings in this article are from the collections of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. They appear as part of the exhibition “Notes From the Archive: James Frazer Stirling, Architect and Teacher” at the Yale Center for British Art (through Jan. 2). A companion exhibition, ”An Architect’s Legacy: James Stirling’s Students at Yale, 19591983,” is on display at the Yale School of Architecture (through Jan. 28).