James Stirling: Notes from the Archive

Today I met Sarah Handleman at Tate Britain. Sarah wanted to interview me about my zine ‘The Everyday Experiment‘. Before the interview we wandered around the James Sterling exhibition, this description from Tate’s website sets the scene:

‘It is eighteen years since James Stirling’s death, and he is long due a retrospective exhibition. Given his close association with Tate, in the form of the Clore Gallery and Tate Liverpool, Tate Britain is an especially appropriate place to review his work. This exhibition, curated by the renowned architectural writer Anthony Vidler, draws on the Stirling archive held at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. It will be presented in the Clore Gallery, designed by Stirling and opened in 1987. Unfashionable at the time, it, like its designer, is the subject of renewed interest and appreciation. The exhibition will cover the whole of Stirling’s career, from the iconic Engineering Building of 1959 at Leicester University through to the late 1990s, including built and unbuilt projects, drawings, photographs and furniture.’

Sarah and I were inspired by Sterling’s plans, models and drawings and photographs. The muted colour scheme supporting the exhibits allowed them to breathe and provided a sense of calm and thoughtful contemplation. The small but constant amount of visitors were mostly male, suited and generally over 40 years old, suggesting that the academic nature of the collection was never going to bring in a family audience.

James Stirling, A House From The Architect. Photo: Canadian Centre for Architecture

Impressive as his work is, I am not a fan of his later post-modern work, in fact it was Sterling’s student projects that particularly appealed to Sarah and I. One of my favourite pieces in the show was A House From The Architect (above), probably because it is raised on Le Corbusier style piloties.

The first time I was introduced to Sterling’s work was via Geoff White who told me an anecdote about the building of the ‘old’ Ravensbourne College in Chislehurst:

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, Chislehurst, 1976. Architect: Robert Matthews under the direction of Bromley Borough Architect, Aneurin John. Photo: Andrew Slatter, 2005

Architect Robert Matthews used red brick to fill in the spaces between the steel columns and the glazing. This followed the style of Sterling’s Engineering Faculty building at the University of Leicester:

Engineering Faculty building, University of Leicester, 1963 (with James Gowan). Photo: Quintin Lake.

The head of the graphic design department at Ravensbourne in the 1970s was Peter Werner. Geoff told me that Peter was not convinced that the red brick was suitable and would stand out too much, so he suggested to Matthews that he use grey brick. Werner’s request was refused, Geoff says that Matthews was adamant that red brick be used. When you compare Matthews’ and Sterling’s buildings you can see the way the sunlight renders the red brick luminescent, and I recall this effect when I first visited Ravensbourne in April 1993, and it created a lasting impression.

I departed this retrospective exhibition with mixed feelings, maybe because I was enamored by the beauty of the drawings, and execution of the models, but the buildings themselves polarise, they can be applauded for their inventiveness and tendency towards being maverick, however Sterling’s post modern pursuits will always leave me bereft of enthusiasm.

1 comment
  1. Left me feeling interested on James Stirling and his work.

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