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Sarah Wigglesworth on James Stirling's legacy

To survey Stirling’s oeuvre today is to be struck by its abstract quality

His work appears rigorously rational – almost diagrammatic – based as it is on principles that are first and foremost intellectual. The much-repeated myth that Stirling had sketched the diagram of Staatsgalerie on the back of a napkin was regarded as something magical, to be emulated if at all possible.

We were taught to admire the ability to condense a design into a diagram, for it symbolised clarity of purpose. For clients, who find the complexities of the creative process mysterious, such clarity was, no doubt, reassuring in its simplicity. I always felt that such a reductive process led to abstracted, aestheticised work, reinforcing an estrangement from the social and political context within which the buildings were expected to operate.

The speculation inherent in modernism, that of building a new society by experimenting with new spatial/formal types and technologies – indeed, in stimulating technical advances to meet the requirements of impossible-to-construct designs – produced notorious problems for both social life and technology. In Stirling’s work all the contradictions of the modernist project – the tension between imagination and reality, between innovation and ordinariness, between heroism and failure – are highlighted. The consequences of this ideology are still with us today.

In the early modern era, adherence to the ideology of progress through the advancement of technology meant it was accepted that architects would experiment in their work; clients supported these experiments by tolerating malfunctioning buildings and/or the premature replacement of prototype components. With the architect taking the role of the design team leader, clients shouldered the burden of providing opportunities for their chosen designers to behave like the artists they aspired to be. As in many modernist buildings before and after his, complex and subtle social conditions were overlooked or misunderstood and the image of technical innovation was belied by the craft-based nature of the era’s construction capability. In the nature of prototypes, some were doomed to fail.

Nowadays, alienated by many building failures, clients have, understandably, defended their interests. As a result we have witnessed an ebbing of confidence in architects’ ability to deliver anything physically reliable and of lasting value to a client.

All text is extracted from Jim Stirling and the Red Trilogy – Three Radical Buildings,  Frances Lincoln, October 2010, £30

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