Blimey

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.

Immediately after the war, he entered the Liverpool School of Architecture. The recently demobilised students were eager for something new and fresh, and found it in the architecture of the Modern Movement, but they were faced by tutors steeped in the prewar Beaux-Arts tradition, if slanted towards the North American version of the style. For the students, Le Corbusier was the man of the moment. Stirling read everything there was to read about Modernist buildings and accorded his copy of Alberto Sartoris’s important 1948 survey the rather surreal honour of a white fur binding. (Many years later he showed the well-used and grubby object to Sartoris, a distinguished Roman academic, who was predictably horrified by it.) Having been a bird-watching, un-academic schoolboy, Stirling now read voraciously and thoughtfully, began to travel and discovered the US, although his first impressions of New York were very critical. He obediently echoed Le Corbusier in his enthusiasm for American engineering and his criticisms of mainstream American architecture.

Arriving in London in late 1950, Stirling followed the novice architect’s path of trial and error, boredom and setbacks, but was always resilient, his self-belief keeping him buoyant. Sandy Wilson, the designer of the British Library, who met him soon afterwards and became a close friend, had ‘never met anyone who was so deeply convinced of his own significance’.

Despite the dead-end jobs and unsuccessful competition entries, Stirling embarked on adult life in the voracious fashion in which he would continue to live: food, drink and women were his other pleasures. He drew continuously, brilliantly fluent answers to the problems he was considering, and did so whatever the circumstances. In the evenings his girlfriends sat meekly by as he laboured on: everything and everybody came second. By 1956, as Girouard puts it, Stirling ‘stopped writing, except for postcards, stopped talking, except in gruff laconic phrases, stopped reading, except for books on architecture’. He knocked two years off his age and set about the careful construction of an image. Despite the sometimes contradictory picture given in these pages, Stirling was formidably ambitious and eager to become an international figure; perhaps he could even fill the shoes of the now elderly Le Corbusier.

The Engineering Building at Leicester University, which the tiny new practice of Stirling and Gowan designed in 1959, was the rocket on which Stirling launched himself into the limelight. A relatively inexpensive low-tech building in high-tech dress (though the term was not to be coined for many years), the result was a consummately elegant meeting of imagery and function. The poised tower and laboratories which rear up above the choppy roofs of the glass-covered workshops were like nothing post-war architects had seen or even imagined. From 1963, when the Engineering Building was completed, every alert architect or student, from home or abroad, took the train or headed up Ernest Marples’s empty new M1 to see what had happened in Leicester. Following the, by then, well-worn pilgrimage route in the early 1970s, I can remember the electrifying effect of the building, even on the dingiest of March afternoons. This year, on a sparkling April morning, I went back. The Engineering Building, forty years old, can still give a charge.

Yet the difficulties out of which the building had triumphantly emerged showed the inevitable limitations of a young architect, leaving his drawing board and sketchbook for reality. It was Frank Newby, a superb (and generous) engineer, who made the untried concept of the lavishly glazed building actually work; it was the young Michael Wilford, newly arrived in the office as the first full-time assistant, who provided last-minute design details for the contractors. (Sitting between Stirling and Gowan, Wilford found himself in the creative crossfire between the two highly opinionated partners.) For much of the early gestation of the building Stirling was away in the US, in his first year of teaching at Yale (his students the following year included Richard and Su Rogers and Norman Foster), and there were no faxes or e-mails to facilitate long-distance exchanges. Yet the scintillating design, finalised late in 1960, was, according to the client, Edward Parkes, very much a joint effort. However, when Parkes later wanted an architect for his own house, it was to Gowan that he turned.

The History Faculty Building at Cambridge was the first major commission after the acrimonious split between Stirling and Gowan (caused in part by differences of opinion as to the design). Focused on a toplit library which alternately fried and soaked the readers and volumes beneath, the building quickly became a byword for architectural self-indulgence and was heavily and constantly criticised for its functional failures. It narrowly escaped demolition in the mid-1980s – instead, the defects were remedied at a cost of some £2 million – but its problems have long since been dwarfed by those of Dominique Perrault’s Bibliothèque Nationale.

As Girouard carefully explains, Stirling had entered unknown territory at Cambridge. As at Leicester, the materials chosen were engineering bricks, tile, steel trusses and patent glazing – foreign to any traditional contractor. The timetable was very tight and the cost considerations stringent: conditions, you might think, that every architect faces on any public commission. The final straw at Cambridge was an unforeseen planning problem. A last-minute hitch in the acquisition of a neighbouring property meant that a building designed to expose its glazed elevations to the northeast had to be swivelled 90 degrees to face south-east. Stirling made some adaptations to the glazing and then pressed on. No wonder his nickname at school was Blimey. Stirling could doodle lines on someone else’s drawing and transform a scheme at a stroke from the pedestrian to the inspired. He could be a wonderful teacher and a designer of genius but confronted by obstinate contractors or awkward clients he tended to become aggressive and uncooperative. The users of the buildings paid the price.

From the moment the spotlight fell on him, Stirling adopted an unchanging style of dress – blue or green shirt, baggy sweater, purple socks, acid green briefcase – revved up his buccaneering manner and collected a circle of acolytes. Beware the student or office colleague who did not fall into line, or who bored him: there was a cruelty in Stirling which even his closest friends, family and admirers do not disguise.

The 1960s continued to provide commissions, but the failures mounted. From the residential Florey Building in Oxford the bursar wrote sourly that they could not provide the students with an instruction manual showing how they should adapt their way of life to the ‘peculiar requirements of the building’. Housing at Runcorn New Town soon became unloved and was later demolished. The competition entries poured out, but Stirling was all too often now the runner-up – viewed as a not very safe pair of hands. After 1969 he received no new work (apart from abortive projects) for eight years. There were to be no commissions in Britain for 11 years.

Self-belief, international visibility and the presence of Michael Wilford, who was to become Stirling’s architectural partner, kept the office going. The notoriety of the buildings, the long period without commissions did not dim Big Jim’s star. Students sought him out, usually in vain. A characteristic response to an overseas request for an office visit ran: ‘Regret we are not Madame Tussauds or a jolly Tourist Agency. We are private architects and want to remain private.’ Bloody-mindedness paid off. With the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, a properly funded commission with a supportive, not to say indulgent, client, and superbly efficient contractors, Stirling and Wilford hit their stride and another masterly building emerged. It placed their architecture in the Post-Modern camp but gained them admirers from every tendency. Other less successful buildings followed, laying down a path which led to Stirling’s posthumous monument in the City of London, the assertive development for Lord Palumbo at 1 Poultry.

Collisions and connections are the stuff of this biography. One memorable collision was between Stirling and the Warhol Factory in New York: the by then hugely overweight architect encountering the wraithlike artist is an image to treasure. The gossipy element of Girouard’s book traces the networks of the early years, spiralling out from Reyner and Mary Banham’s Sunday coffee mornings in Primrose Hill, events around the ICA or meals in Chelsea. The friendships of these years set up links for life. Eduardo Paolozzi’s huge figure of Newton dominating the forecourt of the British Library is just one mature offspring of the intertwined circle formed some forty years before.

The women in Stirling’s life were seldom less than his match in ability and intellect, and were often architects, too: women such as Eldred Evans, Santa Raymond and Janet Jack. His wife from 1966, and mother of his three children, was Mary Shand, the stepdaughter of Philip Morton Shand – a key figure on the Architectural Review in the 1930s (intriguingly bringing Geoffrey Howe into the circle, as Stirling’s brother-in-law).

Asked to choose his favourite plant, Stirling claimed that it was Strelitzia reginae ‘because it is asymmetrical, over the top, aggressive, brightly coloured and ambiguous’. Few people enjoy a flower because of its qualities as a self-portrait. Stirling self-consciously kicked against the limits – of good taste, the quiet life, established norms and forms. In social life this could translate into boorishness, but in architectural terms it is that dash of chutzpah that gives his best buildings their quality, their extra ingredient.

When this book was published in hardback, two years ago, some critics felt that a veil might have been cast over Stirling’s messy personal life. Yet he sustained some twenty years of faithful marriage, only frayed at the end by a deep love affair with a former student. That late betrayal, a clutch of below-par buildings, the health problems that arose from his weight, and the final awful tragedy of his death, aged 68, as a result of medical negligence form the tailspin in Girouard’s respectful and moving portrait. Ringmaster in the international architectural circus, with a handful of fine buildings to his credit and strings of accolades and honours, James Stirling never again quite justified the label of world-class architect that he had earned, so suddenly and instantaneously, at Leicester. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that he was as aware of that as anyone, and that the sometimes desperate pace and conduct of his life, so well caught here, reflected his determination to surprise everyone once more, an opportunity of which he was sadly cheated.