Among critics and architects alike, James Stirling is generally acknowledged to be one of the most important and influential architects of the second half of the 20th century.
He began his career as one of a number of young architects who, from the 1950s onwards, questioned the compositional and theoretical precepts of the first Modern Movement. Stirling's development of a mannered reinterpretation of those precepts – much influenced by his friend and teacher, the architectural theorist and urbanist Colin Rowe – introduced an eclectic spirit that allowed him to plunder the whole sweep of architectural history as a source of compositional inspiration, from ancient Rome and the Baroque, to the many manifestations of the modern period, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Alvar Aalto. His success lay in his ability to incorporate these encyclopaedic references subtly, within a decisive architecture of strong, confident gestures that aimed to remake urban form. For these reasons, it can be said that in his time, Stirling's architecture was a rebellion against conformity. He caused annoyance in conventional circles, who lost no opportunity to attack his work and led him to seek opportunities outside the UK.
Stirling worked in partnership with James Gowan from 1956 to 1963, then with Michael Wilford from 1971 until 1992.
Early life and education
Stirling was born in Glasgow. His year of birth is widely quoted as 1926 but his longstanding friend Colin St John Wilson later stated it was 1924. Stirling went to school at Quarry Bank High School, Liverpool, England. During World War II, he joined the Black Watch before transferring to the Parachute Regiment. He was parachuted behind German enemy lines before D-Day and wounded twice, before returning to Britain.
Stirling studied architecture from 1945 until 1950 at the University of Liverpool, where Colin Rowe was a fellow-student.
In 1956 he and James Gowan left their positions as assistants with the firm of Lyons, Israel, and Ellis to set up a practice as Stirling and Gowan. Their first built project – the Langham House Close (1955–58) – was regarded as a landmark in the development of 'brutalist' residential architecture, although this was a description both architects rejected. The best-known result of Stirling & Gowan's collaboration is the Department of Engineering at the University of Leicester (1959–63), noted for its technological and geometric character, marked by the use of three-dimensional drawings based on axonometric projection seen either from above (in a bird's eye view) or below (in a worm's eye view). The project brought Stirling to a global audience.
In 1963, Stirling and Gowan separated; Stirling then set up on his own, taking with him the office assistant Michael Wilford (who provided invaluable administrative help and later became a partner). From that point on the design task, which had previously been shared between Stirling and Gowan, remained very much under the control of Stirling, assisted by hand-picked helpers. Stirling oversaw two projects which confirmed his credentials as a leading British architect - the History Faculty Library at the University of Cambridge and the Florey Building accommodation block for The Queen's College, Oxford. He also completed a training centre for Olivetti in Haslemere, Surrey and housing for the University of St Andrews both of which made prominent use of re-fabricated elements, GRP for Olivetti and pre-cast concrete panels at St Andrews.
During the 1970s, Stirling's architectural language began to change as the scale of his projects moved from small (and not very profitable) to very large. His architecture became more overtly neoclassical, though it remained deeply imbued with his powerful revised modernism. This produced a wave of dramatically spare, large-scale urban projects, most notably three important museum projects for Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Stuttgart in Germany. The projects of the 1970s show him at the zenith of his mature style. Winning the design competition for the Neue Staatsgalerie, in Stuttgart, he loaded its powerful basic concept with a large number of architectural amusements and decorative allusions. It came to be seen as an example of postmodernism, a label which stuck but which he himself rejected.
As part of the world-wide expansion of Stirling and Wilford's practice beginning in the 1970s, the firm completed four significant buildings in the U.S., all university structures that exhibit inventive responses to their existing campus settings: an addition for the Rice University School of Architecture in Houston, Texas; the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; and the Biological Sciences Library at the University of California, Irvine. Among unrealized projects in the US are designs for Columbia University and a competition proposal for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
In 1981, Stirling was awarded the Pritzker Prize. Stirling received a series of important commissions in England – the Clore Gallery for the Turner Collection at the Tate Britain, London (1980–87); the Tate Liverpool (1984, but since then heavily altered and no longer recognisable as a Stirling project), and No 1 Poultry in London (1986, but completed posthumously without his input and not therefore classifiable as a Stirling building). This work revealed a particular interest in public space, and the meanings that façades and building mass can assume in a constrained urban context.
The last buildings to be completed under Stirling's name were a series comprising the Braun Headquarters in Melsungen Germany, which was completed in 1992. The Braun complex was hailed by critics as the possible beginning of an important departure in Stirlings's work (cut short by his death). However it is questionable to what extent he designed the Braun complex himself and how much of a free hand he allowed his former employee, Walter Naegeli. Naegeli effectively developed and built the entire project from Berlin, with little or no input from London.
In June 1992, Stirling was given a knighthood which he accepted with reluctance, having never considered himself a member of the establishment. After consulting with Michael Wilford, he accepted the award on the grounds that it might help their practice.
Death and legacy
Three days after the announcement of his knighthood, Stirling was hospitalised in London with a painful hernia. What should have been a straightforward operation went wrong and Stirling's condition deteriorated considerably. He was able to see his family before sinking into a coma. Stirling died on 25 June 1992. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes are buried near to his memorial in the narthex at Christ Church Spitalfields. Stirling's sudden passing was considered a great tragedy for architecture; the Italian architect and critic Vittorio Gregotti wrote in Casabella magazine that "from now on, everything will be more difficult".
After Stirling's death, Michael Wilford (who had become a partner in 1971) continued the practice, completing the work that remained in the pipeline and had been left by Stirling at various stages of development. Various buildings completed thereafter (such as No 1 Poultry and the State University of Music and Performing Arts, Stuttgart) were attributed to Stirling, but completed under the direction of Wilford and his assistants.
The Stirling Prize, a British annual prize for architecture since 1996, was named after James Stirling.
The cultural depth and richness of Stirling's work attracted the attention of all the major world critics and theoreticians, from Colin Rowe to Peter Eisenman to Charles Jencks, and the literature examining his architecture is vast.
Many architects and critics had disapproved of Stirling's shift away from the modernist assemblages of his early career, to explorations of design that engaged the urban context more directly and that appropriated elements from a broader range of historical precedents than the modern, engineering and vernacular sources that typified the first works. This seeming embrace of Post Modernism meant that, despite the office's international array of powerful urban assemblages that reconceptualized architectural forms and spaces, this work went rapidly out-of-fashion with the architectural world's revival of modernism. However, by 2010 a more thoughtful assessment of Stirling's overall career was underway, spearheaded by Anthony Vidler's major exhibition and catalogue, James Frazer Stirling: Notes from the Archive.