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Monday28 July 2014

Stirling & Gowan: Architecture from Austerity to Affluence by Mark Crinson

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Stirling & Gowan: Architecture from Austerity to Affluence
By Mark Crinson
Yale University Press, 2012
288pp, HB £40

Crinson’s very readable study traces the origins of Stirling and Gowan’s creative approaches

Where would published British architectural history be without the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press? Without them, and in the absence of the state subsidies that until recently supported such ventures in, for example, the Netherlands, Mark Crinson’s important study of a mere seven years of one practice’s work would have remained either unread or confined to academic journals.

Jim Stirling and James Gowan

Jim Stirling (left) and James Gowan outside York Terrace, Regent’s Park. Although brief, their seven-year partnership (1956-1963) gave Britain a new vocabulary for architecture. Photo: James Stirling Foundation

His aim is to understand and explain the creative relationship in the formation of Stirling and Gowan in 1956 and its continuation until dissolved in 1963 of the partnership of the two Jameses: Gowan (born 1923) and Stirling (1926-1992).

Crinson intends to re-balance the present record in which James Stirling continues to be incorrectly credited, especially by some North American writers, as the sole genius-author of some of the practice’s most important works, particularly of the still-pungent Ham Common flats (1955-58) and Leicester University Engineering Building (1959-64).

Through his subtitle he sets these in a narrative framework of the transformation during the period of a British industrial society into a post-industrial one, a transformation to which, as a new austerity looms, he suggests architecture could still address itself.

Crinson has reinvestigated the entire archives of each of the independent protagonists including Stirling’s schoolboy diaries, student notebooks and photographs, and his work as a student at Liverpool and Gowan’s at Glasgow and Kingston. Identifying later traits in juvenilia has its risks, but the author has no qualms in proposing that it’s possible to see in Stirling’s compositions the use of the square as an ordering device in both plans and elevations, and in Gowan’s the attraction of the building on a plinth and of the “pile-up” or collage in which disparate elements are put together, illustrated in his house studies of 1957.

There is a much more straightforward story that might explain the partners’ exploration of particular architectural forms and technics that renders Crinson’s ingenious background parable of British industrial decline or transformation redundant. More simply, there was a lot of it about at the time.

By the mid to late-1950s both Stirling and Gowan, and the majority of the students and staff of, for example, the Architectural Association School (where both Stirling and Gowan taught, together with Peter Smithson and John Killick), had become dissatisfied with what they regarded as the anodyne and formulaic usages to which modern architecture had been reduced. Arrays of possible alternatives were actively sought.

Jim Stirling and James Gowan

University of Leicester Engineering Department by Stirling and Gowan

In Britain the Architectural Review had been promoting what it called the functional tradition — sturdy 18th and 19th century industrial and vernacular buildings mostly designed without architects — illustrated by Eric de Maré’s photographs (which may have influenced Stirling’s own pictures, but without the bollards). The magazine was simultaneously trying, with Pevner’s scholarship, to theorise the picturesque: unlikely juxtapositions, surprise, collage perhaps.

Helped by Reyner Banham’s studies into the proto-history of 20th century architectural theory, the Smithsons were trekking across Europe discovering and photographing what they turned into an alternative to CIAM’s story, and publicising this in lectures and polemics.

In the United States, architects as various as Saarinen, Kahn and Rudolph were exploring forms and compositions unknown to the International Style, and in France Le Corbusier had in 1956 completed the excitingly transgressive Jaoul houses on which Stirling reported in 1956 for the AR.
At the AA, students were discovering the allure of complex compositions and of the shaggy over the smooth in both the forms and presentation of their designs.

But however muddled the mid-20th century zeitgeist, Crinson’s detailed study of the creative individual contributions of Gowan and Stirling to the design at Leicester is rich, convincing and very readable, but perhaps viewed in too narrow historical depth.

The antonymy he detects between Gowan’s preference for the composed pile-up and Stirling’s for the square-gridded form has been with us since at least the sixth century BC: on the Acropolis, between the Erectheion’s car crash and the primly cornered Parthenon.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • If you want to know which of the two architects Stirling and Gowan was the one with skill and vision, look at their work after they split up. There is no future in Mark Crinson's tireless campaign to convince us that Gowan was as important as Stirling.

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