I have always felt slightly guilty about admiring James Stirling. The pleasure I took in his architecture always seemed somewhat perverse. How could I explain to a rational person the delight I took in a floor plan, like that of his entry in the Dusseldorf Museum competition, deliberately drawn so that its collage of historical citations and slipped geometries would frustrate any understanding of how one would actually move through the space? How could I admire the glorious reading room of the History Faculty Library at Cambridge when it left scholars to fry on the altar of architecture? And what of the site plan of the Olivetti Training Center, in which the Archigram fragments of molded plastic skins were presented as an airplane crashing in the Derby countryside? I loved it all, even such recent absurditites as the four different facades of the Clore Galleries at the Tate, whose Tudor references seemed as out of place as their planes of differently colored brick seemed pandering. I loved them because James Stirling taught me to delight in architecture.
From Charles Moore I learned about light and texture and landscape, from Rietveld I learned about the utopian beliefs of modernism, and from the classics I learned about clarity and order, but from Big Jim I learned about the delights of that particular discourse of building that we call architecture. The pleasure of an intricate plan, the revelatory, but yet measurable beauty of the “full frontal up view,” the almost naive delight in great moments of architectural history stolen and hung like dirty pictures on a wall, the outrageousness of those lime-green metal colors, and the indulgence in gadgeteering all made me feel as if architecture was a complicated language written in real terms. As I learned its grammar, its phrases, its great texts and its dialects, new worlds opened up to me. Jim Stirling was my guide and translator, leading me through the purgatory of form and function to a heaven that was no more than an imaginative recombination of the real world all around me.
In a sense, Stirling was the perfect postmodern architect, because he knew the rules of collage better than anyone else in the business. His 1976 image of Rome, composed of plans of all of his buildings pasted together into and idealized version of that great ossuary of architecture, was the perfect picture of his methodology. Stirling’s thesis project was the most seamless combination of Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe ever to not come out of the Bauhaus. He did not invent Brutalism, but perfected it. When the mod young men of the Architectural Association started sending out their Archigrams, he responded with experiments in prefabrication and flexibility in the Olivetti and St. Andrews College projects, extending them into the megastructural visions that culminated in the unbuilt Siemens Headquarters. In the 1970s, he returned to the burned-out schools and came back with Schinkel, Tudor, and Ledoux, only to fragment them further as we unlearned the coherence of such grand texts.
Yet Stirling’s architectural thefts were always appropriations and transformations, rather than the petty larceny and face-lifting to which the scamsters of the Jencksian and Johnsonian persuasion resorted. There was a sense that his architecture liberated the preformed materials from their context, projecting out of their very disjunctive superimposition a slipped world where everything would not only be different, but decomposed to the point that you could imagine yourself marching as confidently through the cracks of inherited authority as you would through the offices and galleries of the Sackler Gallery, through the public path snaking its way through the Stuttgart Museum or down the curving galleria of the Olivetti Headquarters project.
In retrospect, the glory days of Stirling’s career, when he developed his own signature style and palette in the Leicester Engineering Laboratories, the History Faculty Building and Queen’s College at Oxford, seem almost like an anomaly. Their expanses of clear glass promised to rescue modernist transparency from corporate banality, while their red tiles institutionalized a social-democratic version of Constructivism. After several decades of Thatcherist neglect, they appear to us today as the last hurrah of a romantic, idealistic and heroic modern architecture. They are the exuberant counterparts to Kahn’s institutional ruins: an architecture that spoke of making a new world, not a new world order.
Most of Sterling’s work is darker, more ironic and filled with self-doubt, but also more fun and recherche than the last hurrahs of an architecture of amelioration, if not salvation. Thumbing its nose at rules of good civic conduct while secretly enriching the city with picturesque pathways and fragments of a unifying monumentality, Stirlings’s German museum buildings rehabilitated his career while allowing him to continue to have fun with the tools of his trade. His Wissenschaftszentrum in Berlin connected his buildings in all the wrong places (and was based on a monastery plan by Kahn), used bizarre pink and blue colors and cut its own monumentality off with the sills left off the heavy window surrounds. Yet it somehow managed to convey a more authentic and confident vision of that city than all of Rossi, Hejduk or Kleihues’ ponderous attempts at authenticity. If some of the recent buildings to come out of his office seemed somewhat facile and incomplete, his last design, a factory in Southern Germany, offered us a built version of the Roma Interrota project, a three-dimensional summation of his whole career.
Neither Stirling nor his buildings was ever comfortable, beautiful, or accommodating. His very presence and attire gave lie to the whole notion of a service profession. That is why I felt guilty for liking his designs: it was not work that seemingly served the masses. It was an act of self-consciousness carried out in space. In the end, though, that game or design process seems to stand up against the bankruptcy of good form with great conviction. It is what I would call architecture.
Since the 1950s, the Rebel James has become Big Jim and then Sir Jim, and now he is the Late Sir James Stirling. I gladly memorialize, memorize and monumentalize his massive presence. Long live the Full Frontal Up View!