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No house style: the drawings of Stirling and Wilford

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Chris Dyson, who joined James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates at the age of 25, takes a look at some of the office’s significant drawings

I started working with Jim aged 25, having graduated from the Mack. It was like an extension of university education; each project involved research into historical background of the place and a fresh interpretation of the architectural language.

There was no obvious solution, no house style – we would refer to other projects in passing, and often the work of great, usually dead, architects.

The plan was the originator - initially quite diagrammatic, it was then fleshed out using the axonometric, the worm’s eye, the split up view and the single-point perspective.

Though the axonometric was not widely used in the industry, it enabled measured massing and form to be tested in contextual drawings. Thinking about the fifth elevation became important too.

The worm’s eye, latterly called the ‘up view’ so as not to offend clients(!), was a method of showing off dexterity in drawing skills.

The split up view (where a sectional cut slices the building open) enabled the viewer to understand the hierarchy of spaces within the building. Looking up at the ceiling allowed that surface to become an integral part of the design process as much as the roof in the down view axonometric.

The single-point perspective was very powerful on projects such as Olivetti in Milton Keynes, Tokyo International Forum and Bilbao interchange.

Chris Dyson is principal partner of Chris Dyson Architects

British Olivetti Headquarters, Milton Keynes


For James Stirling · Drawing by Léon Krier · Ink, coloured pencil and graphite on paper · 1970-74 

Here the wiggly wall – a form that makes a comeback later in the Staatsgalerie – is expressive of ‘free form’, loose space not confined by strict geometry such as a circle or square. I like the structural clarity and free-form space. This project was framed on the wall, and later taken down and crayon-coloured by hand by Jim

Bibliothèque de France, Paris, France


For James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates · Coloured pencil and graphite on paper · 1989

This was the first project I worked on in the office. At my interview Jim said: ‘you can start tomorrow’ (Saturday), and asked his PA to get me a set of keys. I remember drawing the axonometric – a slightly bizarre arrangement of shapes that clearly preoccupied Jim and his associate at the time, Russell Bevington. I remember the smell of Jim and Russell’s Villager cigars mingling with our lowly cigarettes. The mass of paper was never a concern.

B. Braun administration building A2, Melsungen, Germany



For James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates · Pen and ink on tracing paper printed on white acetate and coloured with pantone · 2000-05

This triangular building contrasts with its banana-shaped neighbouring building A1. The worm’s eye view here shows the foyer, the circulation and the massing arrangement. The sectional axonometric down view reveals the circulation diagram relative to the building form – when you visit the building this clarity is very prevalent. Colour was something the office cared about as an integral part of any building design.

No 1 Poultry, London


For James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates · Photomechanical print enhanced with coloured pencil · 1984-88

By 1986, worm’s eye perspectives were de rigeur and all architects in the office were expected to draw them. This perspective shows the public experience of the building’s public realm and the all-important colonnade that keeps you dry from the rain!

Abando Passenger Interchange, Bilbao, Spain


For James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates · Pen and ink, on tracing paper · 1992-2000

A heroic drawing. The initial conversation with Jim about this project I remember well – ‘How do we avoid the box?’ He sketched out a box, implying that stations had by that time become dull shopping centres with little contextual connection. The challenge was to create inviting, interesting and three-dimensional civic space from an interchange, and I think we achieved that in this unbuilt design.

Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany


For James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates · Pen and ink, graphite and coloured pencil on tracing paper · 1977-84

A project that was completed as I finished at the Glasgow School of Art. I remember seeing the photographs everywhere thinking here was a truly interesting architect! It’s contextual, historical and witty, with some great public spaces in the circle. The well-known wavy green wall is pure geometry.

The Florey building, Queen’s College, Oxford University


For James Stirling · Ink, coloured crayon and graphite on tracing paper · 1966-71

I spent my degree studying at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes) before going to Glasgow School of Art, and this building was particularly memorable. Here, the up and down views show, in diagrammatic clarity, the real essence of the building – a crab-like form turning its back on its immediate surroundings to address the river and academic town.

Leicester University Engineering Building


For Stirling and Gowan · Ink and graphite on tracing paper · c1959-63

‘The triptych’, as they were known, were the Florey hall of residence in Oxford, the Cambridge history library and the Leicester engineering building. These three projects were framed on the walls of Stirling’s office at 8 Fitzroy Square, and were highly influential to a group of us there at the time. We wanted to reinvent that period of Modernism. It was fresh and ahead of its time. Sure, the buildings had failed, but the diagrams and the architectonics were intoxicating – so brave and without adornment.


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Chris, as I've mentioned to you before, your single point perspective of Abando is a true work of art. As Kahn said, "put simply, hand drawing is the language of the architect"

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