AJ critic-at-large Ellis Woodman remembers architect James Gowan, who has died at the age of 92
It was a little over a decade ago that James Gowan first admitted me to the high-ceilinged studio that extends across the first floor of his house in Notting Hill. Furnished with a system of plywood cabinets that he had originally designed for use in the house of the furniture manufacturer Chaim Schreiber it looked like it had scarcely been changed in forty years. There was no computer and no desk other than the architect’s own: in all the years since the dissolution of his partnership with James Stirling, he had never employed more than one assistant. However, now in his eighties, he was still building. A tiny pencilled axonometric of the latest of a series of projects commissioned by an Italian health-care provider was taking shape on his drawing board, soon to be faxed to his associate architect in Milan.
I had made contact to ask whether I could review one of these schemes but by the time I left him that afternoon it was in the knowledge that there was a considerably larger story to tell. Over the next three years I returned every couple of months, conducting the interviews that formed the basis of Modernity and Reinvention, a comprehensive survey of Gowan’s career which was published in 2008. I have to admit that not least among my motivations was a journalist’s nose for a scoop. Mystery still attached itself to the nature of Stirling and Gowan’s working relationship and the reasons why one of the most celebrated partnerships of the post-war era had broken up in acrimony following the completion of the 1964 engineering department building of the University of Leicester. Focussed on houses and housing, Gowan’s subsequent career had received little of the public acclaim afforded to that of Stirling Wilford. His refusal to be interviewed for a biography of his then recently deceased former partner only consolidated the widespread impression that - as he once wryly put it to me - he had done little more than sharpen the pencils.
Our book therefore served as a belated opportunity for him to put his side of the story and I was soon persuaded that the buildings that he had designed with Stirling were not only the product of a partnership of creative equals but were of a fundamentally different character from those that Stirling had designed even in the period immediately following its break-up. I became no less sure that, while modest in number and scale - and often badly disfigured by their owners - the buildings that Gowan had authored in independent practice represented a body of work of remarkable singularity and conviction. The palatial house for Schreiber had received notably grudging reviews in the architectural press on its completion in 1967 but suggests itself today as the most significant London townhouse of the second half of the twentieth century.
His penetrating intelligence went hand in hand with a barbed wit. Accompanying him on a visit to Caruso St John’s recently completed Brick House, I was present when Adam Caruso gamely sought the older architect’s opinion. “It’s a tour de force…I’m afraid,” came the characteristically explosive reply. Yet as the affection in which he was held by generations of former students attests, to be teased by James Gowan was one of life’s abiding and frequently illuminating pleasures. Their ranks include architects as diverse as Richard Rogers, Tony Fretton, Piers Gough and Alex de Rijke. Celebrated teachers often seek to imprint their own identity on students but Gowan’s concern always lay in educating free-thinkers, not disciples. His influence on the current complexion of British practice could easily be overlooked but for many of our best architects, he remains a measure of rigour and creativity.
Projects by James Gowan in the AJ Buildings Library
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