Revealing the Mystery Behind the Architect: What Was James Stirling Really Like?

Revealing the Mystery Behind the Architect: What Was James Stirling Really Like?
© Evan Chakroff

James Stirling (1926-1992) was a British architect who is considered by many as the premier architect of his generation and an innovator in postwar architecture. Some of his most famous projects include the Sackler Museum, No 1 Poultry, and the Neue Staatsgalerie. Through the influence of his teacher Colin Rowe, Stirling had a deep understanding of architectural history, yet never adopted a singular doctrine. His career began with designs that were more aligned with what would later be labeled as the high-tech style, but evolved into buildings that were a series of dynamic and often colorful arrangements. Stirling’s aesthetic tropes ultimately gave the final push that broke architecture free from the clutch of post-war European Modernism as he turned the Modernist canon of “form follows function” into a hyperbole by celebrating the expression of a building’s program with his over-the-top details. Stirling’s work is still largely influential, and the recursive wave of history has shown that the underlying implications of his oeuvre remains somewhere in all architectural practice of the present day.

Reflecting on his impact on architectural discourse, critics have described Stirling as two separate individuals: James Stirling the architect vs. James Stirling the man. At his best, Stirling’s architecture showed how powerful and deliberate buildings can be, while others described his provocative personality that drove his designs and celebrated his gall to become one of the most controversial British architects. We recently sat down and talked with former Knowlton School of Architecture Section Head, Robert Livesey, FAIA, who spent the early years of his career practicing alongside Stirling. Here, Livesey offers his insight as to what it was like to have a close personal relationship and develop designs with one of the most influential architects of our time.

© Masao Arai via Robert Kahn

Livesey worked for Stirling initially in his London office, later joining him to teach together at Yale, and ultimately took on the role of running the Stirling and Wilford office in New York City. The London office was surprisingly small, with an average of 12 employees at any given time who were tasked with executing Stirling’s bold designs. Livesey described the close professional and personal relationship between the two as advisory towards each other. They both shared similar credo of design. “The Swiss and English designers who worked in the London office were deferential towards Jim. I was not,” said Livesey. Contrary to how many critics described his exuberant and aloof personality, Livesey recalled that he was actually rather shy, and didn’t enjoy being fawned over.

© Evan Chakroff

Stirling was always concerned with knowing what was being designed in the US, so he would often travel to New York and have Livesey, who was well connected to the architecture scene, host dinner parties for his friends including the New York Five, Harry Cobb, and Kenneth Frampton, among others. Stirling heavily relied on Livesey to update him with what was going on in the corporate and postmodern worlds “so that he could contradict it”, both during conversations with his friends and in his realized designs. Stirling often poked fun at Graves and Johnson since they proudly wore the Postmodern title and considered themselves as the main cogs in the machine of the reactive movement. Livesey reemphasized Stirling’s adversity to his style being grouped in with that of his colleagues. “It wasn’t postmodernism and it wasn’t his representation of the historical forms. It was the spatial consequences of the manipulation of the elements,” said Livesey. “He was definitely working through ideas in his work, but did not like theoretical rationalizations. Stirling didn’t have a style, but an attitude towards architecture. He loved to make jokes about things.” These “jokes” often revealed themselves both in Stirling’s realized designs, and in his uniform of purple socks and chartreuse briefcase that matched the mullions in the iconic curved glass wall of his Staatsgalerie project.

Courtesy of Robert S. Livesey, FAIA

Together, Livesey and Stirling developed a design in a competition for the Solow Townhouses. These luxury homes called for big entertaining spaces, private elevators, and fair-sized dining rooms. About the design Livesey said, “While Stirling wanted to emulate the idiosyncratic character of the upper east side townhouses, I wanted to play off of the character of the designers.” What ultimately developed were units comprised of “fat guys” and “thin guys.” The “fat guys” were two wider units stacked on top of each other, and the “thin guys” were tall, slender 5 story units sandwiched in between. The “thin guys” had their circulation pulled to the outside, allowing for the narrow space to open up to accommodate the large entertaining space. On the street level, balconies, gardens, and bow windows articulated the units and gave them identity. “Stirling and I had one disagreement. I wanted to use the garden as an amenity and therefore give the maisonettes roof terraces. Stirling had none of it. So I drew it anyway.”

Courtesy of Robert S. Livesey, FAIA

When it came to the construction of buildings, many critics claimed that this was Stirling’s Achilles heel. Although the Cambridge Library narrowly avoided demolition in the 1980’s for its dodgy insulation, frequent leaks, and poor acoustical quality, Livesey defended Stirling’s designs by saying, “Jim wasn’t cavalier about it. He cared very much about how his buildings were constructed. He cared about the assemblies, although contractors were not always able to construct them properly.”

James Stirling was a fearless innovator who may best be remembered for his drawings and buildings which continue to beguile the masses. While critics often aimed to create two different images of him, either describing his personality or his designs, it is clear that those who knew him best understood that his style was both the way in which he presented himself outwardly, and in his buildings. There was no definitive distinction between James Stirling the architect and James Stirling the man. Stirling’s portfolio shows show a complete belief that the design of buildings is an important business but as Livesey perhaps stated it best, “It was about the shock value of it all. He was not so serious.”

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Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "Revealing the Mystery Behind the Architect: What Was James Stirling Really Like?" 14 Aug 2018. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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