Gillian Darley

  • Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling by Mark Girouard
    Pimlico, 323 pp, £14.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 7126 6422 X

The recently opened Gilbert Collection at Somerset House includes a vast number of objects made by a meticulous technique of inlay known as micromosaic, in which tiny fragments of glass are assembled to form a picture – not always in the best possible taste. Mark Girouard’s biography of James Stirling is constructed by a similar procedure, an astonishing accumulation of small details, asides and memories building up to a portrait. Big Jim is vividly told and convincingly three-dimensional. And it isn’t always in very good taste. Yet despite some paragraphs that read like an architectural Hello!, Girouard’s inclusive approach is entirely vindicated as the book gathers momentum. Big Jim offers the best insight into the architectural process, the gestation, design and construction of buildings, seen from over the architect’s shoulder, that I have ever read. Even a fly on the wall TV documentary, which it often resembles (particularly in the discreet invisibility of the author), could not compete with this sequence of Restoration dramas, largely enacted on British university campuses in the expansionist years of the 1960s and early 1970s.

This spring and summer a continuous stream of handsome new, or renewed, structures has been opening, thanks to Lottery largesse. Don’t be deluded, however, by the ear-to-ear grins on show at the opening ceremonies, or the protestations of eternal respect between architects, engineers, artists, clients and other members of ‘the team’. Almost every commission will have run the gamut of monumental professional jealousies, interminable procedural wrangles, desperate financial crises and gigantic ego clashes – mostly behind closed doors. Jim Stirling’s first architectural partner, James Gowan, remains so bruised by the experience and hostile to the memory of working with him that he still refuses to comment on their short-lived joint practice.

The creation of James Stirling, world-class architect, the man who as much as Philip Johnson or Arata Isosaki invented the ‘signature building’ and who travelled the rewarding circuit of international big money prizes, lectures and juries from the 1960s onwards, is a very contemporary tale of celebrity and image, fame and fallibility.

His background, as so often with those who reinvent themselves, was unexceptionally suburban, although that wasn’t what he liked to say. His parents were both Scots who moved to Liverpool soon after his birth. His father became the chief engineer of the Blue Funnel Line, a job which took him around the world, and meant that he was more often absent than present – a pattern his son replicated; his mother had been a teacher. Jim was eager to be seen as a Scot (and reinforced his Scottishness by going into practice with Gowan, a Glaswegian) but his connections with Scotland began and ended with his birth there in 1924.

On leaving school without a School Certificate, Stirling entered Liverpool School of Art, on day release from a job typing out specifications in a dreary architects’ office. Wartime service offered a happy escape and he became a member of the Parachute Regiment. His early training drops were, inspiringly, within a few hundred feet of Hard-wick Hall; later, he convalesced at Hare-wood House. Stirling claimed that it was lying in bed under the Adam ceiling in the great Gallery that he determined on a career in architecture.

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