Back Issues Stirling’s trilogy of educational buildings were more objects than architecture, says Steve Parnell
Between editor J M Richards leaving the Architectural Review in 1971 and Hubert de Cronin Hastings retiring in 1973, James Stirling completed his Florey Building for Queen’s College, Oxford. The last in the series of red-tiled and planar-glazed brutal academic buildings, the Florey was perhaps the least successful of a trilogy that included Leicester University’s engineering building and the history faculty at Cambridge University.
Mark Girouard, who ultimately wrote Stirling’s posthumous biography, Big Jim, also wrote the article on the Florey in the AR of November 1972. His criticism aims low at the building’s merely technical shortcomings: its poor sound insulation, restricted ventilation and clumsy blinds. A claustrophobic breakfast room is his worst indictment; but he fails to point out Florey’s biggest failing, the lack of place. This is something Kenneth Frampton picked up on in his Critical History and hinted at in his ‘Stirling in Context’ article in the RIBA Journal of March 1976.
A sense of place wasn’t a priority for Stirling; he was building objects. ‘Like the engineering and history faculty buildings,’ says Girouard, ‘the Florey is immediately and convincingly there; a single coherent, glistening, precise, and totally convincing object.’ The Florey came to be nicknamed, ungenerously, ‘the spaceship’ by its students.
In the same AR, another academic building is featured: the office of one Sir Basil Spence. The article begins with a white-onblack axonometric line drawing of a very orthogonal, concrete medical sciences building at Southampton University. Nevertheless, the image chosen for the front cover was the now iconic worm’s eye of the Florey, drawn by Léon Krier. This drawing has since become one of the most successful of Stirling’s images (if not the most successful), which demonstrates how object-making was absolutely the right career move for a 1970s star-chitect in the ascendancy.