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James Gowan: a legacy overshadowed by 'the other James'

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A Royal Academy talk on James Gowan by Tony Fretton and Ellis Woodman was full of insight but sidestepped his crucial relationship with James Stirling

It seems impossible to discuss James Gowan without at least a passing nod to James Stirling. That Gowan’s legacy lives, to an extent, in Stirling’s considerable shadow is perhaps the reason for his relative anonymity, and when he was celebrated this week in the Royal Academy’s canon of ‘Forgotten Masters,’ even the chair of the event mistakenly referred to him as ‘James Stirling’.

Talking at the evening event were Gowan’s biographer Ellis Woodman and architect Tony Fretton, who was also taught by Gowan. Woodman emphasised Gowan’s perpetual preoccupation with style. Gowan believed that architects were either Goths or Classicists, and always maintained that while Stirling was a Classicist, he was a Goth. 

Both Fretton and Woodman explored Gowan’s work through his sketches. His projects didn’t necessarily have an end other than the drawing itself, said Woodman. His sketchbooks were, in Gowan’s words: ‘A repository for ideas which would otherwise be thrown away because they had no immediate usefulness … None of the thoughts has any great weight about it nor is likely to affect the course of history in any way whatsoever and this is the attraction of the books for me … one can speculate on any triviality of abstractions which generates a glimmer of appeal.’

The sketch books were where architectural ideas could be explored, and Fretton took Gowan’s teaching so much to heart, that he now claims to have 550 sketch books that he doesn’t know what to do with.

Gowan seemed to relish uselessness. His sketches of useless architectural structures are comparable in ideology and aesthetic to the work of Marcel Duchamp, which very much interested Gowan. There is a kind of uselessness to the prolonged periods between projects which, said Fretton, Gowan spent redesigning projects that had already been built.

There is something very ‘Duchampian’ in Gowan’s gigantic animal sketches. His contribution to the Millbank housing competition was a gold-plated, enormous dog howling at the moon, which would be funded by a large tax on city bankers. Along with the dog, Gowan designed bird and pig-shaped buildings and a giraffe skyscraper for the Thames at Greenwich reach, whose long legs would endure and be appropriate for the changing tidal conditions.

This extraordinary flexibility and imagination is what Fretton thought made Gowan such an influential teacher. He was dedicated to his students, and open to whatever work they brought him. Fretton attributes this openness again to Duchamp’s influence, which meant Gowan recognised the great value and possibility of chance.

It was a question of style that ultimately broke the collaboration between Stirling and Gowan. The two went their separate ways after a fractious split in 1963, purportedly over the design of the History Faculty Library at the University of Cambridge. In fact there was barely any discussion of the split until Paul Shepheard, who worked for Gowan, piped up during question time.

He recalled Gowan tearing his hair out over writing a letter to the Architectural Review, which repeatedly wrote about Stirling and Gowan’s practice as Stirling’s only. Gowan advised Shepheard that when writing a letter, he should always remember that it could be read aloud in a court of law.

The details and the nature of the division was not explored, and neither was what brought them together in the first place, which is perhaps the more perplexing question. This was a shame, as the circumstances of the split are generally under-reported; possibly swept under the carpet as an awkward little interchange that is best not to mention. I suppose that the Royal Academy of all places is a suitable place to honour that rather English reticence about controversial and personal topics but I left feeling a little short-changed. Gowan was clearly an extraordinary man and architect, and I wonder whether London’s lack of giraffe-shaped skyscraper in the Thames really had nothing to do with ‘the other James’.

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