Sir James Stirling (1926–1992)
James Stirling is one of his generation’s most internationally significant architects. He is known for innovative, eclectic designs that range from brutalism to postmodernism and often divide opinions, as well as for three-dimensional axonometric drawings showing bird’s eye – or worm’s eye – views.
Stirling was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1926. He studied from 1945 to 1950 at the University of Liverpool School of Architecture. After graduation, he continued his studies at the School of Town Planning and Regional Research in London. He set up his first office with James Gowan in 1956. In 1963 Stirling established his own office, with his assistant Michael Wilford becoming a partner in 1971. After Stirling’s sudden death in 1992, Wilford continued the practice. Stirling also served as a visiting professor at Yale University from 1966 to 1984.
In the early part of his career, Stirling particularly became known as a designer of creative, stylistically new university buildings. These included Stirling and Gowan’s office’s international breakthrough project, the Leicester University Faculty of Engineering (1959) as well as the Cambridge University Faculty of History (1964–1967) and the Florey Building dormitory at The Queen’s College, Oxford University (1966–1971). His early works also include experimental small houses and blocks of flats. The first of these, the brutalist Flats at Ham Common, London (1958), dominated by concrete and brick surfaces and structures, was a landmark work of its era. A housing estate complex in Runcorn, Cheshire, England (1967–1976, now demolished), featured apartment blocks and terraced housing for 6,000 people. Although its concrete architecture was material-centred and designed to suit mass production, the design also included the ideals of traditional garden planning and minimising traffic problems.
In the early stages of his career, Stirling declined to commit to the prevailing serious design language of the day, sticking instead to an experimental path. He sought to honour local traditions wherever possible in his work. Stirling emphasised the building’s connection to its users, to the history of the surrounding town and country, and the people who grew up there. For him, a building could well be a collage of new technology and traditional materials and building methods.
In the 1970s, his designs began to approach postmodernism, as the scale of his projects grew. Imaginative building designs such as the Olivetti Training Centre in Haslemere, Surrey (1969–1972), which used prefab GRP elements for its facade, and the aforementioned Runcorn housing estate (1972–1977), paved the way for more open building entities. These include the competition-winning Stuttgart’s Neue Staatsgalerie building (1977–1983), with its broad range of expression, now considered a key landmark of postmodernism.
In the late 1970s, Stirling also managed to expand his work into the United States, where over the next decade four of his university buildings were built: an extension of the Rice University School of Architecture in Texas (1981), an expansion of Harvard University’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum (1979–1984), the Cornell University Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts in Ithaca, New York (1983–1988) and the Science Library, University of California, Irvine (1994).
Stirling’s last project, the postmodernist No 1 Poultry retail and office building in London, was completed in 1997, five years after his death. It became a listed building in 2016.