Mark Crinson offers new insights into the brilliant but short-lived creative partnership of Stirling and Gowan, says Sunand Prasad.
Stirling and Gowan: Architecture from Austerity to Affluence
Yale University Press, 344pp, £40
As he shows so richly in his new book on Stirling & Gowan, Mark Crinson is committed to finding the mechanisms and accidents underlying the surface appearance of the events and processes in architectural history; ‘sometimes’, as he says, ‘in ways that do not take the discipline’s own wishes for protocols and boundaries for granted’. Accordingly he has brought a wide-ranging forensic approach to increase our understanding of a creative partnership that has sometimes threatened to be as famous for being under acknowledged as for having existed. Although there is an agenda to set history straight and recalibrate James Gowan’s role, the greater contribution of this account lies in the way it illuminates the genesis, development and significance of both architects’ projects, from the earliest individual ones to those undertaken as the celebrated partnership.
The book follows a chronological scheme, starting with James Stirling’s generally unremarkable progress through Liverpool School of Architecture, interrupted by the war; the enormous impact the city itself had on him; and his later encounter with Colin Rowe. Chapter two – The Third Generation, referring to the modernists born between the two wars – starts with Gowan’s similarly interrupted progress through Glasgow School of Art and Kingston School of Architecture, his admiration for Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and his own keen insights into Le Corbusier’s work. It goes on to analyse in compelling detail Stirling’s development in the early 1950s to introduce a key theme of the book: that a realistic embrace of post-war austerity is the principal philosophical ingredient that characterises his work of this period. Crinson also identifies another familiar theme that was to have a lasting presence, an incipient anti-modernism (though perhaps ‘counter-modernism’ would be a more accurate description).
The dense central chapter, Junk Bunk and Tomorrow, concerns Stirling’s emergent aesthetic preoccupations, which are positioned somewhere amongst bricolage, ‘as found’ objects and situations, a new vernacular and other prevalent forms of practice: ‘modernism cast as an open-ended or receptive project, recuperating the ugly and the ordinary as well as the durable and grand’.
Chapter four analyses the early Stirling & Gowan collaborations, starting with Ham Common flats (1955-58) but it really gets going with the synthesis implied by its title, The Cube and the Pile Up – the latter referring to Gowan’s initial esquises for the Expandable House project (1957) whereas the ‘cube’ is Stirling’s imposition of a robust order that the pair adopted for the final design. Crinson’s account of the partnership as a periodic coming together and breaking apart of the two architects, as if in elliptical orbits, is described through a number of projects that are particularly fascinating for being so little discussed.
Chapter five, The Uses of Nostalgia, deals mostly with the often ignored Preston Housing (1957-61), a striking reminder of the role of social concerns during this period of Stirling and Gowan’s work that both identifies them with and differentiates them from contemporaries such as Alison and Peter Smithson. Preston had a rough ride from the critics, essentially for its apparent sentimentalisation of Victorian slums. Fifty years on, it is difficult to see much sentimentality in what Crinson describes as ‘the first example in post-war British architecture of an attempt to sit across a gap between modernism and previous architectural forms’ – an anticipation by two decades of ‘in-keeping’ architecture, but a lot tougher.
The penultimate chapter deals with Stirling & Gowan’s last three projects – unbuilt schemes for Churchill College and Selwyn College in Cambridge, and culminating in the Engineering Building at Leicester – and the final chapter with the gradual divergence in their concerns after the dissolution of the practice in 1963. This ground has been relatively well-trodden but, following his interviews with Gowan and others who worked in the office, Crinson brings plenty of fresh interpretations. I was particularly struck by his observation that it was Gowan who contributed the ‘pile up’ composition of Leicester – not so Presbyterian a pen then.
Crinson’s trenchantly entertaining style makes a good read, even when pursuing an abstruse line of argument or when dense with references. He convincingly evokes post- war Britain and his insights, such as tracing the very different meaning of nostalgia that prevailed in an era of industrial decline, are often illuminating. Thus the ‘austerity’ in the book’s subtitle is well contextualised in relation to the architecture of Stirling & Gowan. Less so is the ‘affluence’, except by implication and, in discussing Leicester, a reference to critic Robert Maxwell’s ‘dilemma of functionalism in an affluent society’. But leaving a question or two open is no bad thing.
Crinson’s book is an important contribution to understanding the work of Stirling & Gowan and, as a practitioner, it leaves me appreciative as ever of its ‘disabused probing of the matter at hand and the resourceful and eloquence of its aesthetic intelligence’.
Sunand Prasad studied at Cambridge, the AA and the RCA. He worked for Edward Cullinan Architects for eight years before setting up Penoyre & Prasad with Greg Penoyre in 1988. Prasad was RIBA president from 2007-09.
First published in AT230, July/ August 2012