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What was it like working with James Stirling?

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Many of the architects Stirling employed have gone on to run their own successful practices. Flora Neville asked them about their memories and how the experience shaped their own firms

Michael Wilford


I worked with James Stirling for 32 years, and the experience made me as an architect. It was a constant, evolving relationship and whatever I achieved since his death I owe to him.

I couldn’t pick a particular element that I have taken into my practice. Stirling was an artist, then an architect and designer, and in my mind, architecture is an art, not a business. The business side was always secondary and pretty much took care of itself. We didn’t hire any PR consultants, but publicised most of our work through lectures and journals. It was the quality of the work that ensured the continued existence of the business.

Wilford joined Stirling’s practice as a technician in 1960, and their partnership was established in 1971.

Leon Krier


When I was 22 I was looking for a master who had something definitive to teach, who could tell with authority what was the right thing to do in any geographic or cultural situation. The university I attended merely taught the architectural abstinence that was responsible for the then reigning architectural misery. Stirling’s Leicester engineering faculty was a work of genius, but it was unique in his oeuvre. I entered his office as a reserved admirer.

Life at 75 Gloucester Place had little glamour and Stirling’s manner was not one of a maestro. His most spectacular projects started not from a visionary sketch but from rudimentary and even humdrum partis. It was constant reworking which through time developed objects with a recognisable signature. In fact it was Stirling’s lack of a consistent architectural and urban theory that convinced me of its stringent necessity.

Leon Krier worked as an assistant for James Stirling from 1973 to 1974

Robert Dye


Jim was a big man in many ways. One year out of Kingston and working on details at the Tate, I volunteered to deliver our design for the Sackler, Harvard. It was already at shell stage. Off I went to Boston, Jim arrived a month later and, to my shame, walking up the grand stair, he noticed what I hadn’t: the crucial misalignment of a main steel column on which two floors were already balanced.

As we entered the site meeting, the contractor seemed suitably awe-struck to meet the great man. After introductions and before they’d sat down, Jim announced: ‘I’m very sorry, I’ve made a mistake. I have to ask you to move a column on the staircase.’ They moved the column for him, and Jim never mentioned it to me again. This protective loyalty to his staff was one reason I cried on the morning of his death. It’s something I’ve tried to remember in 25 years of running my own practice.

Robert Dye worked at Stirling Wilford from 1980 to 1989 and was project architect for the Sackler Museum, Harvard, andthe Performing Arts Centre, Cornell. He established Robert Dye Architects in 1992.

Barbara Weiss


In the early stages of a project, Stirling allowed us great design freedom, expecting us to come up with our own ideas, which he would then compare to his in order to pick the best aspects from each.

At 21, quite terrifyingly, I used to go off to meetings on my own. It was a sink or swim approach. There were 11 of us and I was the only female architect. It was very much a boy’s office, very un-politically correct, but I was absolutely an equal.

We spent most of our life there. We worked very long hours as everything was done by hand: photocopiers were only just starting to exist and nothing could fall short of perfectionism. I learnt a lot relating to design.

Stirling was a magpie, constantly looking at buildings or objects and using what he saw in his schemes. It was a very particular way of looking at things; a culture of pushing the boundaries and believing in what we did. Everyone was wholeheartedly invested.

I hope I’ve brought that into my practice as it is very rewarding to have people working with passion.

Weiss worked for Stirling in two separate phases of her early career: first as a student in 1976, on a competition in Italy,then in 1983 she returned as a project architect.

Charlie Sutherland & Charlie Hussey


Charlie Sutherland There were no computers, no phone calls, no reps, no PFIs, no Design and Build pro formas. No client meetings, no project managers, no quantity surveyors, no site visits, no working drawings, no performance reviews nor CPD seminars.

Instead we would routinely spend a month developing one drawing. It was a unique apprenticeship which trained us to be totally unemployable by anyone other than Jim.

Charlie Hussey  I joined the office in 1987, at the height of Thatcherism and the ‘LoadsaMoney’ mentality that defined an era. I stepped through the doors into a rarefied world of silence, 0.13 pens being gently sharpened for the day ahead. The phones rarely rang, there was no whirring of computers and visits from clients were few and far between.

Exotic projects from around the world seemed (at least to my young and naive senses) to magically appear, and we were tasked with exploring their possibilities. Every week or so we would gather around Jim’s table and he would review the work, rarely rejecting out of hand, and always making suggestions as to how to proceed. As the proposals became more defined and finite Jim would take out his colouring pencils and red pen, and photocopies of plans, sections and axos (always axos – both up and down) would be provided for him to colour (his method of thinking through a design) and red-line (his method of instruction).

Looking back some 30 years on, some of these characteristics remain. Our office is – apart from the constant whirr of computers – very quiet and (somewhat sadly) visitations from clients are few and far between.

We are still preoccupied with ‘the diagram’ – a clear distillation of plan, section and circulation – and the importance of the drawing in making clear the idea, but now these are explored almost entirely through computer models, which we have embraced completely.

Charlie Sutherland and Charlie Hussey studied together at the Mackintosh School of Architecture before bothgoing on to work for James Stirling. After six years, Charlie Hussey spent a brief period in Italy working for Renzo Piano.During this time Charlie Sutherland took on the role of associate at Michael Wilford and Partners where he was responsiblefor the new British Embassy in Berlin and the Lowry Centre in Salford.

Andrew Birds, Richard Portchmouth, Michael Russum & Karl Jensen


Jim Stirling’s office was an atelier filled with young aspirational architects from all over the globe. He selected collaborators on their design ability and capability to prepare incisive and extraordinary three-dimensional hand drawings. Seminal drawings hung in frames on every wall as inspiration for all those who followed this trail.

Jim provoked polarised approaches from collaborators, which tested the full parameters of the brief and often well beyond. Eschewing any notions of taste he became a conductor, teasing a direction from a rich variety of concept sketches, often laced with wit. He encouraged sophisticated three-dimensional studies of external form and its relationship with internal space as a precursor to delivering extraordinary architecture.

Like Stirling, we endeavour to create a concept that distils the essence of the architectural proposal and becomes the touchstone for developing a unique design. We develop drawings and models that enable design explorations to deliver joyful architecture. In turn we frame and exhibit our drawings within the office and, since our departure from Jim’s 25 years ago, a whole gallery has evolved displaying our own cultural contribution.

Prior to the establishment of Birds Portchmouth Russum Architects in 1989, its three partners as well as New Yorkdirector Karl Jensen worked in Stirling and Wilford’s practice as project architects, leading the design development ofvarious prestigious projects in Britain and overseas.

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