London Calling: The Man Behind the Stirling Prize

London Calling: The Man Behind the Stirling Prize

A few weeks ago the RIBA doled out the 18th Stirling Prize to London-based architects Witherford Watson Mann. The decision was a good one. It was good for WWM and good for the profession – a youngish practice being recognized for a small but beautiful piece of work.

The scheme’s application of brickwork and joinery removes the work from the expediencies of modern construction technology and building products, which almost exclusively characterize the contemporary built environment. It genuinely feels like a project made at a different point in history, the result of the quite particular interests of three minds, Stephen Witherford, Chris Watson and William Mann. It is direct and personal. It reminds me of Stirling’s work.. 

And not just for its powerful draftsmanship, plan and restricted palette of materials, but for its intimacy. An intimacy that is apparent in much of Stirling’s oeuvre. I do not refer to the production of intimate spaces per se but the formulation of an architecture that is authored not by a factory but a few minds. 

The latest Stirling prompted me to look back, and reconsider the work of Stirling himself.

Astley Castle / Witherford Watson Mann. Image © Helene Binet, courtesy RIBA

When Stirling was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal (1980) and the Pritzker Prize (1981), the Staatsgalerie was on site, his building for the Rice University School of Architecture had just been completed (in 1979), and the office was working on the Fogg Museum for Harvard University, a terrace of townhouses on Manhattan, the Science Centre in Berlin and the Tate’s Clore Gallery. His clients were, all bar one, in Germany and the USA.

He begins his RIBA Gold Medal acceptance speech with thanks to his partners past and present – James Gowan and Michael Wilford – and his patrons, in particular his first client Leonard Manusso, who commissioned Ham Common, and fellow architects who had supported his cause. He singled out Sir Leslie Martin, without whom he would not have had the opportunity to design the red buildings. He dwells on the practice’s then current work, and on their preoccupations and interests and quotes from a series of competition reports, which in plain terms articulate their architectural and urban design ‘OBJECTIVES’.

Stiff Dom-ino Housing, theoretical project (1951): cut-away axonometric view with hinged windows. James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds. Image Courtesy of Canadian Centre for Architecture

What is interesting is the debt that he and his practice evidently owe to the history of architecture. He talks at length about the English Baroque - Archer, Vanbrugh & Hawksmoor and their eclectic tastes and ‘adhoc technique which allowed them to design with elements of Roman, French and Gothic etc.’; the Neoclassicists - Soane, Gandy Playfair & Goodridge, and in Germany - Gilly, Weinbrenner, von Klenze & Schinkel for their ‘far greater juxtaposition of scales and materials’; the ‘stripey brick and tile Victorian architects’ - Butterfield, Street & Scott; and Frank Lloyd Wright ‘particularly the concrete block houses around Los Angeles’, Mackintosh & Hoffman, Asplund, Le Corbusier and the Constructivists. He talks of his debt to his teacher Colin Rowe and to Saxl and Wittkower’s encyclopedic British Art and the Mediterranean. ‘With such an education I developed obsessions through the entire history of architecture – a situation which is still with me….’

His work, as he suggests, is about “memory”. But it is also intimately connected to draftsmanship and the capacity that afforded him to conjure up designs. We know from the drawings produced by Stirling’s office, in particular the use of the plan, the axonometric and ‘promenade architecturale’, that each is carefully conceived and composed and subsequently edited to great didactic affect. 

Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Germany (1977–1984), 1984. Alastair Hunter, photographer. James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture. Image Courtesy of Alastair Hunter / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Landscapes play a part – found landscapes and synthesised and imaginary ones. They serve as a counterpoint, a context rooted in the present – an inspiration that was fundamental to his last completed work, the Braun Factory in Melsungen. Stirling, like Kahn, demonstrates a capacity to distill the complexities of a brief into an archetype. Indeed, I would suggest that he has the unique ability to marry “type” (not function) to “site” and so to make an intrinsic connection between the two, in effect establishing that there is such thing as the typology of site. Florey is an exemplar of this approach just as Leicester, St. Andrews and the Staatsgalerie are, to name but a few.

He talks about the “art” of architecture and how ‘by and large the UK situation is to rate artistic content as coming rather far down the line of priorities….So how do fine buildings get built in the UK? Often subversively, I suspect.’ A point that he knew full well because he confessed that a project should only ever be explained to a client from a functional perspective. The architect’s aspirations should be kept under wraps.

Biblioteca Pubblica, Latina, Italy (1979–1985): worm's-eye axonometric view of reference library. James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds. Image Courtesy of Canadian Centre for Architecture

Our practice recently made an expression of interest for a commission to conserve Stirling’s Florey Building. It is a building for which I feel great affection. I have not stepped inside but I have stood beneath it and stared up at this great armchair-of-a-structure. I have stood in the court and scanned my eyes across the patent glazing. Over the years I have studied his work, I have literally “read” his plans, again and again. I have visited most of his buildings – Ham Common, the childrens’ home in Putney, the school hall in Camberwell, the Red Buildings, St.Andrew’s, the Clore Gallery, Tate Liverpool and No1 the Poultry in the UK, the Staatsgalerie, the Science Centre and the Braun Factory in Germany, and Cornell, Rice and the Fogg Museum in the US. I have read his writings and all the key texts. I am very familiar with his work.

Of course, there has been a resurgence of interest in Stirling’s work since the CCA book and exhibition Notes from the Archive, written and curated by Anthony Vidler. Alan Berman, Amanda Reeser Lawrence and Mark Crinson have all written about the work. And, there has been much debate about the merits and demerits of his work. 

Florey Building. Image © Flickr User seier+seier

Florey is archetypal. Like the Cambridge History Faculty Building it is a segment of a panopticon, but where the first is convex, Florey is concave. It is a remote body. Its shape suggests it has the capacity to receive and send out signals and so, like a satellite orbiting the earth, it is subordinate to greater bodies, in this case the College and historic Oxford.

Florey is not just the last of the “Red Trilogy” - Leicester, Cambridge and Oxford. It is an exemplar of his work in respect of typology. The general view is that it is a reinterpretation of the Oxbridge model of court or quad, and the medieval cloister from which they were both derived. However, I believe that it is more accurate to see it in terms of another type - the theatre and in particular the plan-form of an English horse-shoe shaped auditorium. Of course, it also recollects the amphitheatre of classical antiquity. Students are cast into the role of the audience and, like Georgian theatregoers, enjoy the spectacle of one another as well as the view of old Oxford and Magdalen Tower, on which the breakfast room and kitchen ventilator are orientated, framed by the “proscenium” that is the open fourth side of the plan. Oxford becomes the ‘play’ that the audience observes.

History Faculty Building, University of Cambridge, England (1963–1967). Ezra Stoller, photographer. James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture. Image © Esto

Personally, I return to the work of Stirling again and again for inspiration. As I have written on a number of occasions - ‘Solutions: Andrew Melville Hall’ 09.01.09, pp14-15 and in The Architecture of Parking on the Braun Factory - for me Stirling is the supreme example of an architect whose works have incredible presence both in reality and on paper. More so than any other architect, Stirling’s drawings and plans in particular may be “read”. More often than not they exhibit some form of concentric - although not literally circular - geometry, and it is their intrinsic social and anthropological qualities that I believe lend his plans to the institutions they serve. His buildings have the capacity to convey very successfully the necessary and timeless messages about society in microcosm - and they do it with rigour and wit.

In his Pritzker Prize speech Stirling states ‘For many of us working with the language of abstract modern architecture, Bauhaus, international style – call it what you will – this language has become repetitive, simplistic and narrowly confining and I for one welcome the passing of the revolutionary phase of the Modern Movement….Today we can look back and regard the whole of architectural history as our spectrum – including most certainly the Modern Movement, high tech and all. Architects have always looked back in order to move forward and we should, like painters, musicians, sculptors, etc., also be able to include representational as well as abstract elements in our art.’ 

This, Stirling evidently did, and so too do Witherford Watson Mann with their 2013 Stirling Prize-winning reinvention of Astley Castle. It is a work that exemplifies the ‘art’ of architecture that is otherwise lost on the production line of modern practice, where the hand of the thinker-draftsman is remote from the act of design.

Portrait of James Stirling. Ray Williams, photographer. Gelatin silver print, 18.8 x 21.4 cm. James Stirling/Michael Wilford fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture. Image © Ray Williams

Simon Henley is a teacher, author of the well-received book The Architecture of Parking, and co-founder of London-based studio Henley Halebrown Rorrison (HHbR). His column, London Calling, looks at London’s every-day reality, its architectural culture, and its role as a global architectural hub; above all, it will explore how London is influencing design everywhere, whilst being forever challenged from within. You can follow him @SiHenleyHHbR and be a fan of his Facebook page, HHbR Architecture.

About this author
Cite: Simon Henley. "London Calling: The Man Behind the Stirling Prize" 04 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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