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James Stirling: Notes from the Archive

James Stirling’s Clore Gallery at Tate Britain is an unintentionally fitting venue for a retrospective of an architect whose work continues to divide opinion, writes John Allan

James Stirling: Notes from the Archive, Tate Britain, London SW1, until 21 August, free.

To the perennial question that has challenged curators down the years - ‘how do you exhibit architecture?’ - the new Tate show on James Stirling (1926-92) provides a convincing answer - ‘you don’t, but you can exhibit drawings’.

Nothing displayed here gives, or purports to give, the visitor any sense of experiencing Stirling’s buildings. Curator Anthony Vidler has simply defined his brief as the exegesis of an archive, with the convenient compensation that his selection is staged in a building designed by the subject himself - to be precise, within three rooms in the Clore Gallery, which Stirling completed in 1987.

Thus, to amend the inscription on Christopher Wren’s tomb, si exemplum requiris, circumspice. If you seek an example, look around you.

So - to review the exhibition itself - some 300 items, including drawings, sketches, models, notebooks, lecture notes, even napkins and airline tickets, have been selected from the forty-odd thousand in the collection now held and catalogued at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, co-organisers of the Tate installation with the Yale Center for British Art.

The display is plausibly structured in three sections - ‘The Crisis of Modernism’ and ‘Axonometrics: New Typologies for Education and Industry’ in the two smaller rooms, with the better-known competition entries (won and lost), numerous models and various other exhibits (including the famous Black Notebook) in the principal chamber.

Though you enter the main room first, it is most instructive to go straight to The Crisis of Modernism. Here we trace Stirling’s journey from student years in Liverpool to the threshold of his professional career.

Alongside the exquisitely drawn thesis project for a community centre in Newton Aycliffe - rendered in ink, graphite, gouache, dry transfer and collaged paper on card (Microsoft eat your heart out!) - we see a proposal for replanning Port Sunlight deploying lotissements à redents, and a scheme for Organic Chemistry Laboratories that includes a mouse caryatid where Berthold Lubetkin once employed an Erechtheion cast.

The draughtsman’s gift, the assimilation of Corb, the appetite for mischief: all are already revealed.
Most poignant in this glimpse of Stirling’s professional embarkation, however, is the assumed obligation to regenerate the MoMo inheritance - a sense of duty long since lost, but then understood by a whole postwar generation, howsoever variously interpreted.

A personal memo suggests that in Stirling’s case this self-imposed mission was no pretext for modesty. ‘Frequently I awake in the morning,’ he writes in 1954, ‘and wonder how it is that I can be an architect and an Englishman at the same time, particularly a modern architect. Since the crystallisation of the Modern Movement around 1920, Britain has not produced a single masterpiece.

‘The attribution of this perceived failure to the bland vocabulary of orthodox modernism sets Stirling off on his obsessive search for a new lexicon of forms. ‘It stands to reason that each building will have its own fundamental shape (i.e. cube, cylinder, wedge, etc),’ he writes in a thesis paper.

‘In a way this is a return to Graeco-Roman principles (Acropolis/Forum) and contrary to the Renaissance piazza or Georgian square where maybe entirely different functions are given very little individual treatment and are strung together to form a continuous wall around space.’

The ensuing explosion of shapes is concentrated in the second room - Brunswick School, the Leicester Engineering Building, Cambridge History Library, Florey, the University of Sheffield competition entry, Dorman Long, Olivetti, Siemens AG, and the memorably bizarre entry for Churchill College.

Axonometrics abound, but conspicuously absent are any technical details or production drawings of this array of forms with their hectic juxtapositions and daring junctions. Today’s indemnity-conscious practitioner hoping to scrutinise the drainage ‘solutions’ of the History Library roof will have to go to Montreal.

Here he will see but a single sketch. Neither, for that matter, will the forensic historian find much evidence in his quest for attribution. James Gowan and Michael Wilford are duly acknowledged, but as to the chemistry of their collaboration the show has little to tell.

Back to the main gallery and the abrupt shift from shapes to spaces - apparently triggered by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s seminal Collage City in the early 1970s and the challenge of formulating a modern equivalent of Giambattista Nolli’s famous plan for the Roma Interrotta.

The axonometrics give way to figure-ground studies and the well-known sequence of urban competition entries - Derby Civic Centre, the Arts Centre St Andrews, Dusseldorf, Cologne and eventually the fulfilment at Stuttgart, allegedly if rather unsportingly, described as ‘formalistic, Palladian and even quasi-Fascist’ by Frei Otto and Günther Behnisch (who came third).

Stretching across the room, a dazzling display of models includes the seldom-seen entry for the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, which in light of Dominique Perrault’s built reality, looks almost persuasive. Other intriguing items include several sets of lecture notes closely handwritten on index cards, offering a palpable glimpse of Stirling thinking aloud.

So, to return to the beginning, the exhibition is enthralling - but what of the venue? How well is Stirling served by his own building? So-so, is the most charitable answer. The entrance parti and promenade, so shrilly amusing when first unveiled, now seem dated and contrived - like the punch line of a joke you’ve heard before.

The ‘statement’ colours might best be described as adolescent, the architectural equivalent of a schoolboy’s shirt defiantly not tucked in. Though they frustrate the most logical viewing sequence, the galleries are not unpleasant, and the drawings themselves are beautifully mounted. But the lighting is bland and the pervasive background of baked magnolia eventually becomes oppressive.

There seemed to be many students at the preview I attended. This is as it should be - and I urge as many as possible to make the trip. But encouraging an aspiring generation of architects comes with a caveat.

Interrogate the drawings, enjoy the models, ponder the notebooks. Study this fascinating insight into a restless and inventive mind as a receding episode in architectural history. But don’t be tempted to emulate the outcome.

John Allan is a director of Avanti Architects.

Readers' comments (2)

  • can someone explain to me why Stirling did those «upside down» axos?

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  • What a terrible write up! How patronising, dictatorly and restrictive to tell students what they should and shouldn't look at/learn from/emulate. Glad he's not my tutor.

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