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James Stirling: Notes from the Archive

at Tate Britain until 24 August curated by Anthony Vidler

This exhibition of 300 items out of around 4,000 now owned by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, includes drawings, development sketches and models, organized under three overlapping sections. The collection is important, not least because some of his key designs were not built.

1 THE CRISIS OF MODERNISM

2 AXONOMETRICS: NEW TYPOLOGIES FOR EDUCATION AND INDUSTRY

3 COLLAGE CITIES

Vidler chose these categories as he reckons the stylistic shifts ….. mask an underlying consistency……"continuity…. based on compositional strategies, volumetric assemblages and disassemblages, programmatic responses, and finally stubbornly held personal preferences."

Indeed the later developments can be detected in his student and earlier professional work seen in the Crisis of Modernism. In 1954 Stirling wrote "Frequently I awake in the morning and wonder how it is that I can be an architect and an Englishman at the same time, particularly a modern architect. Since the crystallization of the Modern Movement around 1920, Britain has not produced a single masterpiece."

Stirling saw a schism in modern architecture between what he called the US technology style and the European art style represented by the contemporary Lever House and Ronchamp, and wanted to steer a course between them.

Early work includes public housing, mostly flats in Preston similar style to Ham Common, both c1958, and the Leicester Engineering building of 1959, famous for its worms eye axonometric drawing. Stirling chose axonometric rather than isometric because it remained true to scale and best expressed his geometric forms. If you think about entering buildings with large atria that is how we first see them – looking up.

The unbuilt competition schemes for Sheffield University and Churchill College launched his reputation as a form giver but Leicester finally brought international attention. The axonometrics illustrated Stirling’s new typologies for education and industry, the latter illustrated by the Olivetti Training School and Dorman Long HQ.

Collage Cities represents a shift from shapes to spaces from Derby Civic Centre (unbuilt) to fulfilment at Stuttgart. From 1970 this "contextual- associational method of planning" confirmed and complemented the existing context. Buildings became small cities in themselves and now the drawings and models show them in context unlike the isolated Cambridge History Faculty.

The postmodern Staats Gallery in Stuttgart, and adjacent Music School, is a prime example of a building as a small city, with public routes through it and a variety of forms and spaces. Stirling never admitted to being a Postmodernist, though ironically this exhibition was held in his Clore Gallery extension to the Tate, which is clearly Pomo in its colouring though less dated spatially. Unfashionable at the time, it, like its designer, is the subject of renewed interest and appreciation. (Tate website)

His No1. Poultry is most clearly Pomo, and again ironically on a site which had been earmarked for Britain’s finest and most prominent example of what Stirling had called the US technology style.

Another aspect of Stirling’s work was to highlight the interplay between tradition and modernity. His design for the Tate North in Liverpool was such an interplay between the industrial classicism of the Albert Dock and its conversion into a modernist art gallery. It is also seen in the contrast between the classical design of Tate Britain and the Clore Gallery extension. The doomed housing at Runcorn, a mixture of brutalism and postmodernism was born from his study of classical housing layouts like Bath and Edinburgh.

So Big Jim’s legacy following his untimely death in 1992 is still relevant and controversial, and includes the renaming of the RIBA Prize after him in 1996. He himself was awarded the Pritzker Prize, an acknowledgement of his international standing.

If you have missed this exhibition then hurry along to the Staats Gallery.
 
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