To coincide with the exhibition ‘James Stirling: Notes from the Archive’ at Tate Britain (until 21 August), we have reunited a cast of former colleagues with the drawings to tell their tales.
The abiding memory of visiting Jim Stirling in his Gloucester Place and later Fitzroy Square offices, apart from trepidation, is of drawings. Up the staircase, lining every wall, and on every available horizontal surface were renderings of all kinds. It’s what everyone in the office did, from concept doodles to exhibitable artworks, and it’s how the buildings were conceived and developed. Ian Latham
Throughout every stage of the design process we drew every probable option for each part of the project. All our staff were creative architects who thought and invented as they drew. We began with a series of alternative conceptual studies and schematic outline drawings, and when a single concept had been agreed with the client, we developed a full range of plans, sections, elevations, up- or down-view axonometrics, isometrics and perspectives. The viewpoint from which we decided to ‘see’ and draw a building was of course critically important, and could be determined only after experimentation with different drawings.
Drawings were prepared in alternative versions, which allowed us to make comparative evaluations and to ensure that our decisions were based on full knowledge of the design problem. Their appearance was deliberately hard, spare, restrained, and scientific in character, meticulously to scale and as accurate as hand and eye could make them. They were meant to convey information clearly and with immediacy, and to be restricted to the task in hand. For clarity, we omitted much information, retaining it instead in our mind’s eye; thus what was not shown on a drawing may have been just as important to the design process as what we decided to draw. The image on the paper represented the absolute minimum necessary to convey the maximum amount of useful information in the clearest possible way.
Stripping away extraneous information was done by overlaying tracing paper on an under-drawing, and redrawing it, often many times, until the scope and detail were pared down as required. We used the smallest sheets of paper possible so that the eye could encompass the whole image without any need to scan and search across the page. This also eliminated the temptation to incorporate extraneous or irrelevant information. When completed, our design drawings conveyed, to the practiced eye, a correct and factual architectural understanding of the building – not a confusing and subjective ‘artist’s impression’.
Although made by many different hands and personalities, our drawings were consistent in style and technique. By remaining strictly within the limits of this shared discipline, we found that the individual creativity of each architect could be expressed far more effectively and comprehensibly to the others because we were all communicating in the same visual language.
We had a partiality for axonometrics because they enabled us to set out spaces, surfaces and volumes in a single image. The vertical and horizontal planes were both represented at the same scale (what Reyner Banham once described as ‘all dimensions true’). This facilitated our design decisions by making explicit what the consequences of these decisions would be and by clarifying how complex assemblies, interlocking functions and construction sequences would actually work. We therefore developed the axo as one of our key working tools and also often found it useful in explaining the more complex parts of a project to our clients.
For the same reasons of accuracy and lack of distortion, our use of perspective drawings was limited. Occasionally we found that to get the best understanding of how a particular interior space would feel, simple one-point perspectives enabled us to study what the surfaces enclosing the space would look like, and to ensure that lighting, air conditioning and other details were properly considered in the room as a whole. We also made use of three-dimensional explor-atory drawings to study details or special elements of construction because by using single, simplified images we could grasp the essence of an idea in a way which normal orthographic projection could only achieve using several images, often with less clarity.
Michael Wilford joined Stirling & Gowan in 1960 and became Stirling’s partner in 1971. He set up his own office in 1992.
After an enjoyable year-out in an office in Oxford, I knew that the Architectural Association had little to teach me as I returned for my last two years in 1959. So to maintain my sanity I attended the AA for two days a week and looked for a job for the rest of the week and during vacations. Gowan and Stirling took me. I went there in the hope of hearing some light-hearted conversation from James Gowan, who spoke seldom but when he did was always interesting. To my surprise there was no small talk; it was all hard slog to meet tight deadlines. We were all in one large room which was also Big Jim’s bedroom, on the ground floor in York Terrace. In the room were Stirling, Gowan, an assistant called David Walsby who wore a white smock, Kit Evans for part of the time, and myself. The hours were 10am to 6pm. Malcolm Higgs (who was also with me at the AA) and Michael Wilford came later. There were occasions when we arrived at 10am and Jim was still in bed. I worked on the details of the Avenham Housing in Preston (1957-59), which has since been demolished, and Leicester University Engineering Building. I admired Gowan because he had the patience and application to try to make sound constructional sense out of the wilfully innovative and often unrealistic designs of Big Jim.
Quinlan Terry worked for Stirling & Gowan from 1959-60. He set up his own practice, now Quinlan & Francis Terry, in 1962.
When at 75 Gloucester Place, I often stayed after hours to look through old projects which had not been archived yet. In the Dorman Long drawer I came upon a stapled bundle of variously-sized pieces of paper and trace containing many dozens of Stirling’s thumbnail sketches. When, six years later, I edited the ‘Black Book’ (Buildings and Projects 1950-74), I wanted to find those precious doodles. They illustrated Jim’s method of developing something he had picked up somewhere and how he made it his own. ‘Oh those’, he mumbled when I asked him insistently about their whereabouts, ‘they were dumped long ago.’ I then pressed him so hard about finding other working-doodles of his own hand that he started reconstructing a few, sometimes ante- dating them. I am quite sure that he was faithful to himself, being fastidious about what a drawing had to contain and how it was drawn, whether with a solid, a dotted or an interrupted line. He forgave nothing, not even the correction of a mistake, if he happened to be its author. In a diagrammatic section of the Runcorn terrace building, I had corrected his handwritten ‘FLEXABLE’ to‘FLEXIBLE’. He spotted it immediately and Tipp-Exed out my correction, restoring his own original misspelling. In a perspective I drew in 1973 for the Core and Crosswall House , I gave the Volkswagen Beetle in the carport a 1970s-type single rear window. Without fail he identified the ‘mistake’ and made me change it to the period double-lensed one.
Léon Krier worked in the office from July 1968 to December 1970 and again from April 1973 to May 1974.
I joined the office in 1969 when there were eight of us at Gloucester Place: Jim and Michael in the back room and the rest of us in the front. Our room was dominated by hanging model of the Cambridge Library but it was drawings that we did, some brilliantly and some carefully, while Jim did multiple doodles on aeroplane flights.
In spring 1970 Jim arrived one morning with a roll of tracing paper and pencil-drawn plans, section and elevation for a new project, the Olivetti Training Centre at Haslemere [1969-72], and asked Julian Harrap and me to draw it up in ink. It was a complete design that, however hard I tested it, could not be changed. There was a hall that could be subdivided by walls that dropped from the sky and rolling walls to open it up to the tapering glazed link and yet it had no structure or cladding material.
All this is summarised in the axo with the unclipped end, which I drew; Barbara Littenberg then traced it and you can now find it in Jim’s drawer at the V&A. While I was working up sketch alternatives of details and junctions for Jim to consider, Léon Krier was drawing the fantastical competitions for Siemens and Lima. When I came back from time out in Chile, the office had grown and Léon was redrawing many of the schemes and laying out the Black Book with Jim.
Robin Nicholson was in the office from 1969-73 and part-time from 1974-76. He is a senior director at Edward Cullinan Architects, which he joined in 1979.
My job negotiation with Jim was characteristic: ‘How much can you work?’ ‘Three days a week.’ (My tutor advised I would learn more in the office than at the AA). ‘Any particular days? No? Well make sure you include Fridays as we frequently have a long lunch.’
The office was a brilliant experience. There were only eight or ten of us and the Florey Building, Runcorn and Olivetti Haslemere were on site and Olivetti Milton Keynes, St Andrews Art Centre and later the German competitions were on the boards. There were two ground-floor rooms and a basement in the Gloucester Place office, with net curtains at the windows, bare boards on the floor and trestle tables with drawing boards angled on bricks or 4x2s. The technology was an Olivetti golf-ball typewriter, a Kona coffee machine and a radio tuned to the Home Service. I don’t recall phone calls or many visitors. Everything was about the drawings which were worked over and over, with Jim keeping total control.
During final preparations for the Cologne competition submission, Jim asked me to do the ‘blueing-in’, which involved blocking in the structural elements on the plans and sections with a soft blue pencil. Normally Jim did this himself but, probably for lack of time, I was elevated. Having given me a clear and specific brief, he left for home.
The structure he required didn’t exactly concur with my understanding of the building so I took the liberty of some rationalisation and left the completed drawings on his board. Next morning I was called in and explained my logic. Jim listen-ed, then replied: ‘I decide where the structure goes, I decide where the blueing-in goes, and Frank [Newby] makes it work.’ My position became clear instantly. He was a great, wilful and mischievous man.
John Corrigan worked in the office from 1974-76. He co-founded Corrigan Soundy Kilaiditi in 1983.
I recall particularly an episode when the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart client, Herbert Fecker, was coming to London and we wanted to show him the detailing process. I knew that certain details, such as arched windows, keystones and other elements of architectural history that we had fun with in the office would be a bit hard to take for a German critic. So we produced not just sketches but arty, ambitious drawings (mostly difficult to read up-views) in a series, in order to emphasise their importance for the building.
Normally the office produced so-called ‘after-drawings’ to explain buildings in their essence in the architectural journals, but here we used it as a tool for ourselves, and our passion rubbed off very successfully on Fecker, although he swallowed hard on the arch detail. Jim himself took so much pleasure from these drawings that, years later, he added blue skies and pink walls, I suppose as a therapeutic relaxation process, and to recall that important moment in the development of his oeuvre.
Ulrich Schaad worked in the office from 1975-81, at times alongside Werner Kreis and Peter Schaad, with whom he set up Kreis Schaad Schaad in Zürich in 1989.
As an inexperienced member of the small team working on Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, I was entrusted with the relatively minor but tricky task of resolving the detail design and setting-out geometry for the various canopied entry points around the building. Given the diagonal supporting structure it seemed logical to figure out these complicated elements in three-dimensional drawings. I set out some hard-line pencil 1:50 scale investigative studies, working in the office tradition of the worm’s-eye view. Jim passed by my desk, murmuring about deadlines, worrying that these tedious drawings might be taking too much time. He took one of the drawings upstairs to his desk and spent a couple of hours painstakingly working over the tracing paper with colouring pencils, cross-hatching stone, steel and sky. No longer grumpy, he cheerfully suggested that we should make a few more, and we went on a wilful detour from the working drawings in progress. A couple of weeks later, admiring the finished set of six, he wondered how to describe these new drawings. Planar axonometric projections might be a logical name. ‘I was thinking of calling them Up-View Full Frontals!’, he replied, and soon the whole lot was framed up and sent off for exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
John Tuomey worked with Stirling Wilford from 1976-80 establishing O’Donnell & Tuomey (with Sheila O’Donnell, who worked there from 1980-81) in Dublin in 1988.
The essence of Jim’s collage-approach to design was to start with an idea, either a reference or simply a sketch design drawn up by an assistant. The more the project took shape, the more Jim became engaged. By starting with something already drawn up, it could be altered, distorted, enhanced, rephrased or fragmented. Many drawings were executed simply to test alternative schemes in the early stages; Jim might pick one or mix parts of them or just make up another. Axonometric representations were used at all stages, partly because they effectively depicted the object-like schemes and complex circulation systems.
Functions were much more carefully considered than might be assumed. For example, the design of an elevation might begin by drawing a ‘functional facade’, with simple square windows giving a 10 per cent required window-to-floor area ratio. The actual designing could then start, secure in the knowledge that it would be based on the appropriate window sizes.
Another stage was ‘blueing in’, when plans and sections were coloured to differentiate solid from void, a seemingly menial task that was done with a lot of care. These drawings weren’t for show; they just served as a model for the ink or hatching to fill the structural elements, after necessary adjustments.
There were times when Jim himself would colour in presentation drawings. He seemed at his happiest sitting among us in the basement of 75 Gloucester Place with his cigar, listening to opera, hatching with his Faber-Castell pencils.
Alexis Pontvik, a student of Stirling’s in Düsseldorf, worked in the office from 1977-79. His practice is based in Stockholm where he is also a professor of urban design.
After I had worked on the Bayer headquarters competition during my 1978 summer vacation, Jim came to my degree show at the RCA in 1979 and invited me to return to do presentation drawings of some recent projects.
Being assigned the task of making these ‘after-drawings’ was a bit like being given the number 10 shirt at Old Trafford. The office walls were lined with iconic drawings penned by legends such as Russ Bevington, Ulrich Schaad, Werner Kreis and Léon Krier, back to Ed Jones’ axonometrics for the 1975 ‘Black Book’.
During my time in Grosvenor Place Jim drew little; he didn’t keep a sketchbook and he didn’t have his own board. With some notable exceptions, his practice was to sketch over others’ drawings, and he loved ‘colouring-in’. He would sketch on anything and everything, and with whatever was to hand – including red Bic pen on yellow copy paper. But Jim was passionately interested in the craft of the drawing; when I left to return to Dublin he gave me copies of two of his favourite books – Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Decoration and Schinkel’s Berlin Bauten und Entwurf.
The ‘after-drawing’ was in a category of its own. Days, or sometimes even weeks, could be spent looking for an idealised image to represent the essence of a project which, as often as not, differed from the reality of the scheme design. Essentially analytical rather than representational, they were sometimes done long after the design was completed: my up-view full-frontals of the Manhattan townhouses, described as ‘preliminary sketches’ in Rizzoli’s 1984 monograph, were not drawn until 1980 – almost two years after design work was finished and the scheme suspended.
Often many versions were made of the same drawing. In the Notes from the Archive exhibition catalogue, Tony Vidler remarks that my cutaway aerial view of Rice School of Architecture was ‘preparatory’ to a similar drawing in the ‘White Book’ (Buildings and Projects 1975-92). In fact, one is an axonometric, the other an isometric, and both were done at the same time for Jim to decide which representation of the scheme he preferred. In this case it was the isometric, which then became the ‘authorised’ version published in the Rizzoli book.
What Reyner Banham called the ‘strong but fastidious quality’ of Stirling’s drawings was achieved with ink on tracing paper. But the Kahn influence of my Dublin tutors, Shane de Blacam and John Meagher, led to a fashion at University College Dublin for pencil on American crystalline paper. ‘Imported’ from Dublin to the UK, it was used by a few in the RCA studios, and I recommended it to Jim for the Rice and Manhattan drawings. Stirling developed a liking for its qualities, not least for the rag paper’s ability to take his trademark ‘pointillist’ colouring-in on the back, a technique developed to a fine art with later projects.
Paul Keogh worked in the office from 1978 before setting up his practice in Dublin in 1984. He is currently president of the RIAI.
The Staatsgalerie team had to come up with cost saving proposals after the stonework tender came back way over budget, and Jim assured the client we would make every endeavour to do so. He then had to go abroad for a week or two, and we worked on options for him to decide on after his return. When I called to enquire how we should proceed I was told I’d have to wait a few days for Jim to pick up my message. They said he had been on his own in his studio for some days colouring a set of drawings green. Rumour had it that he intended to replace large areas of the proposed stone flooring with a lime-green studded rubber floor – to my mind not something appropriate for a museum in Swabian Stuttgart in which everything would be expected to be top quality. I was very critical of Jim’s idea, but he argued convincingly that it would be consistent with the notion of a popular art museum in the late-twentieth century, at the same time improving the architecture and making a big cost saving. He sent off the green drawings and I got hold of a sample. I was very uncertain whether we could convince the client and museum director, but they were overwhelmed – probably somewhere between shock and enthusiasm. The client asked to keep one of the green drawings, and the Staatsgalerie foyers were floored with the green rubber.
Siggi Wernik ran the Stuttgart and then Berlin office from 1979-90. He set up Léon Wohlhage Wernik in Berlin in 1994.
‘A worm’, said Jim rather loudly. ‘A worm?’, muttered the City of London planning officer who, back in 1986, had just listened attentively but with a confused expression to Jim’s detailed description of the proposed materials, stone jointing and soffits for No 1 Poultry. The officer pointed at one of the six up-view axonometric drawings and queried, ‘so this is the front?’ ‘No, no, no’, replied an impatient Jim. ‘You’ve got to imagine you’re a worm, on his back, in a deck chair, taking a sun tan, looking up at the building from below through transparent earth.’ ‘Ummm, yes, me… a worm. Could we have some perspective renderings, please?’, asked the planning officer. ‘No, no, no. Much too early in the design process for renderings’, was Jim’s dismissive response.
Laurence M Bain worked in the office from 1985-92, later setting up Bain & Bevington with former colleague Russell Bevington.
I entered the Stirling Wilford office, like several others, from Kingston Polytechnic where a number of Stirling’s ‘old boys’ were tutoring the next generation of protégées. Throughout my eight years there I learnt about using drawing as a design tool and as a communicative art. Surrounded by framed hand drawings by those who had inspired me at college, we typically explored design through bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye projections, the type of volumetric investigation that had become a Stirling hallmark.
Among the extensive ink mileage, my most personal contribution was the depiction of two projects – the Chemistry Faculty at Columbia University (1980) and the unsuccessful competition entry for the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing (1985). Making these drawings was like a continuation of my college work, where I had been fascinated by the romantic tradition of Piranesi and Soane. Aside from the beauty of these historical masterpieces, part of the attraction lay in the idea that portraying a building as if in a ‘post apocalyptic’ period could inform the design itself. Projecting a scheme as a ruin could enable a clearer understanding of the materiality of the permanent and temporal elements of the composition. In addition, as both these projects remained unbuilt, drawing them in ruins enabled me to exorcise my personal disappointment and their depiction in the landscape of tomorrow suggested that they might, perhaps, have once actually existed.
Jim was fastidious about ‘red lining’ drawings until they were perfectly ‘cooked’ and this interaction was a significant part of the process of creating the exquisite drawings that came out of the office. I had independently drawn the National Gallery perspective over a month or so and on showing it to Jim I don’t think he picked up the Latin inscription at the base of the statue in the foreground – but I remember his response: ‘Hmmm, lovely drawing Richard… how about showing a Sainsbury’s plastic bag blowing across Trafalgar Square – maybe beneath the horse’s arse’.
Richard Portchmouth worked for Stirling Wilford from 1981-89, alongside Andrew Birds and Michael Russum, with whom he founded a practice in 1989.
The first drawing I worked on was the site plan for Compton Verney opera house (1989). The drawing of a site plan was used by the office to train people and test their skills, a kind of apprenticeship assessment. I was worried that my shortcomings as a draughtsman would surely be exposed, a feeling compounded by the virtuoso originals on every wall.
I laboured for several days before a photocopy of the drawing was expected downstairs. In a flush of enthusiasm I intercepted the brown paper roll from the copy shop, thinking that if I was to render the photocopy with coloured pencils in order to camouflage any inadequacies, I might survive the week.
Behind Jim’s back I silently deposited the completed work on the large antique meeting table in his room and returned upstairs to a ringing phone by my board. ‘Ahh… could you pop down?’ I gingerly returned to meet Jim, who was holding the offending item. ‘Ahh… this is my office… and ahh… I do the colouring in… actually.’
Charlie Sutherland worked with Stirling Wilford and Michael Wilford & Partners from 1990-96. His practice with Charlie Hussey, who also worked in the office, was set up in 1997.
AT 217, April 2011