James Stirling (1926-1992) was a frequently honored British architect and city planner, whose work influenced architecture in Britain and Western Europe (particularly Germany) beginning in the 1960s. Two good examples of his work may be found in the United States, although the bulk of his buildings are in England.
James Stirling (he never used his middle name or initial) was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on April 22, 1926. His father was a marine engineer. He was raised and educated in Liverpool—Quarry Bank High School, Liverpool School of Art, and the University of Liverpool School of Architecture—finishing at the School of Town Planning and Regional Research, London (1950-1952). He served as a lieutenant in the paratroops, 1942-1945, and participated in the D-Day landing in France with the 6th Airborne Division.
After three years as an assistant with the firm of Lyons, Israel and Ellis (1953-1956), Stirling entered private practice with James Gowan as a partner (1956-1963) and then with Michael Wilford as a partner beginning in 1971.
Although the curriculum where Stirling trained as an architect was based on the classicism of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Stirling's early work, beginning with his thesis project in 1950 (a community center and town center plan for Newton Aycliffe), appeared to owe most to the then prevailing International Style as practiced by Le Corbusier. Much of the work Stirling did in this decade was small scale houses or housing complexes, nearly all to be built from the traditional red brick and designed with reference to the traditional English forms of warehouses, factories, barns, etc. The architecture was unquestionably modern: functional, austere (no surface ornament), and with volumes defined by clean lines and open spaces. What was markedly different about his work was its humanistic side: an unmistakable concern for communal vitality and integration in terms of space and circulation of people. Architecture was, as Stirling said, "not a question of style or appearance; it is how you organize spaces and movement for a place and activity."
In the 1960s Stirling exploded on the international art scene with two famous—and shocking—buildings: the Leicester University engineering building (1959) and the Cambridge University History Faculty Building (1964). These were both thoroughly modern constructivist designs that depended upon technical innovation, demonstrated the truth in the cliche that "form follows function," and exhibited no concessions to their surroundings. Both were built of brick and red tiles in the tradition of Victorian architecture, but with massive amounts of greenhouse glazing used on chamfered surfaces as a kind of glass skin. They were, in fact, proof that new methods and materials were a vital aspect of progressive architecture. Although the extrovert quality of these buildings was a surprise, they and their successors (which used precast concrete and even prefabricated plastic to demonstrate their self-reliance) helped change the course of British architecture from a flat blandness to one showing careful use of numerous materials within a rigorously functional design.
By the 1970s Stirling's work took another turn: his buildings began to show a greater interest in their context, in symmetry, and in historical allusion. The two examples of Stirling's completed commissions in America appeared during this period. The first, an extension of the School of Architecture at Rice University, was commissioned in 1979 and completed in 1981; the second, the Sackler Museum at Harvard University, was also commissioned in 1979 but was not completed until 1985. The Rice building, "a lesson in restraint," was the ultimate in contextual architecture. Both the materials and the design forms were the same as the original buildings, but Stirling used and interpreted them in witty and off-beat ways (for example, a two story arch on the main facade included a round window near the top set decidedly off-center) to give life and light to this addition.
The Sackler Museum, on the other hand, was a free standing building, located on a small lot across from the Fogg Museum, with which it was intended to be connected by an enclosed catwalk over an entrance that some said recalls the ancient Lion Gate at Mycenae and others insisted was Superman's Fortress of Solitude. The exterior of the building was striped orange and grey brick, and the interior continued this color pattern. The use of color was a characteristic of Stirling, who saw architecture as an expression of art, not merely of social planning and engineering. The Sackler Museum, called by one critic a "mixture of historical motifs with raw industrialism," was dominated by a monumental staircase that provided the necessary sense of seriousness for a museum while skillfully dividing the building into gallery space and office space. Another skillful touch by Stirling showed in the changing size of the exhibit rooms, which encouraged the public to move along through the exhibit areas. One eminent critic called the building "remarkable for the creative virtuosity with which its functions are accommodated…. It is knowledgeable, worldly, elitist and difficult…."
Notable among Stirling's later constructed buildings are the Wissenschaftszentrum (Science Museum) in Berlin and two additional structures: the Clore Gallery for the Turner bequest at the Tate Gallery in London and the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. The Clore Gallery, an L-shaped addition to a neoclassic structure, relied for effect on the familiar Stirling signature of mullioned glass, colored building materials (including green window frames, purple and turquoise moldings, and pink railings against yellow stucco and Portland stone), and simple geometric forms and apparently random fenestration punched and cut into the building. The exhibition areas for displaying the Turner paintings were cleverly designed to be awash with natural light. The Staatsgalerie, characterized by Paul Goldberger of the New York Times as "arguably the one building that sums up the current concerns of Western architecture better than any other built in this decade," contained all the Stirling signatures, plus a superb solution to two site problems: the need to serve as a connector between the old museum and a theater and the requirement to incorporate the legally mandated footpath through the building space.
Stirling received numerous awards and other expressions of public acclaim for his work. He was made an honorary member of the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin in 1969, an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1976, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1979. He received the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal in 1980 and the Pritzker Prize (the "Nobel Prize" for architecture) in 1981. He died at the age of 66 in 1992.
The bibliography of articles and monographs about Stirling and his work is constantly growing. A great deal of this was published in specialized architectural magazines and journals—particularly British publications, but increasingly those in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe. Many of these, along with essays by American critics, have been reprinted in volumes about Stirling. The two best of these were James Stirling: Architecture Design Profile (1982) and James Stirling: Buildings and Projects, introduction by Colin Rowe, complied and edited by Peter Arnell and Ted Bickford (1984). The strength of these two publications was in their lists, descriptions, and photographs of plans from all of Stirling's important work. The second volume contained about 300 bibliographic citations to periodical literature dealing with specific Stirling buildings, as well as a list of 21 articles by Stirling, numerous general articles, and a list of the 16 major exhibitions of Stirling's work. Also see Michael Wilford and Thomas Muirhead, Purple Passages—James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates: Buildings and Projects, 1975-1992 (1994).