Amanda Reeser Lawrence’s book about the architecture of James Stirling deftly explicates the work of a master who belongs in the canon but whose place within it has not yet been found. Stirling (1926–92) was associated with the New Brutalism of the 1950s, but his turn to postmodernism in the 1970s made him difficult to categorize. In James Stirling: Revisionary Modernist, Lawrence frames her study of selected works with the question, was Stirling a modernist or a postmodernist? She argues for him being a “revisionary modernist,” maintaining that Stirling continuously revised or corrected previous modernists’ works and, eventually, even his own in what can be understood as an act comparable to rewriting.
For her interpretation, Lawrence turns to The Anxiety of Influence (1973) by Harold Bloom, whose landmark literary theory complicated the concept of influence by showing that it was a transformative process in which young, weak, ephebic poets overcame the presence of strong masters of the past by rewriting and, in fact, improving or correcting their works (Wordsworth rewrites Milton). Eventually, having become strong poets themselves, they begin to rewrite their own earlier works. Close reading was the basis of Bloom’s method: the text itself, separate from historical or biographical circumstances, becomes all that matters. Such hermeneuticism was countered by the New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt, for example, who turned to history to help explain Shakespeare’s plays as cultural formations.
Lawrence makes a good case for reading selected projects by Stirling using Bloom’s concepts and method. Her purpose is not to be comprehensive or biographical in interpreting Stirling because monographs and a biography already exist. A major exhibition in 2010 revealed new dimensions of Stirling’s work, but analysis is still lacking. Though nearly every significant critic and historian of the late twentieth century commented upon Stirling’s architecture, there are no in-depth explanations much less an overall theory to explain it and why it is noteworthy. Lawrence attempts to provide these things. She claims that Stirling’s understanding of history and employment of established forms and types were unique in architectural history. His “seemingly contradictory notion of a historically dependent modernism defines his singular contribution to twentieth-century architecture” (3). Adhering to modernist principles against explicit borrowing and copying, “he layered and recombined references, stripping away their specificity and legibility” (3), resulting in a complex abstraction. Stirling never articulated such an explanation but left abundant material (much of it in the Canadian Centre for Architecture Archive) that provides the basis for Lawrence’s interpretation. As though thinking of future scholars, Stirling, from early on in his career, kept a notebook listing his influences for projects.
To support her thesis, Lawrence selects six projects from Stirling’s extensive oeuvre that she identifies as critical turning points in his career, such as the well-known Ham Common and the Leicester Engineering Building. All are from between 1955 and 1978, when his projects began to assume their most full-blown, postmodernist guise. The rigor of her method and research results in six beautifully written and powerfully argued chapters.
Lawrence makes engaging once- acclaimed buildings that are little understood today. Her first chapter examines Ham Common (1958), an apartment complex that seems little more than a puzzling copy of Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul (1956). Lawrence believes that Stirling emulated the Maisons Jaoul in order to understand them. Stirling and his British contemporaries were dismayed and perplexed by Le Corbusier’s seemingly irrational postwar turn from the machine aesthetic to the rough-hewn béton brut with its surreal undercurrents. Showing the true chutzpah of the ephebe, Stirling corrected Le Corbusier’s mistakes, smoothing out the roughness and irrationality and thus pushing Ham Common into closer alignment with Le Corbusier’s own earlier rationalism. Essentially, Ham Common was Stirling’s improvement upon the Maisons Jaoul. To make her case, Lawrence performs a close reading of the elevations of Ham Common, explaining how elements like the clerestories between wall and roof reveal the differences between surfaces and materials. She parses the brickwork down to the pointing between the bricks. Such analysis is rarely found today in theoretically driven works of architectural history. It is, simultaneously, an old-fashioned classic, art historical technique, a Bloomian close reading, and an example of contemporary scholarship’s reengagement with the material object.
The six chapters build a strong case for Stirling as an architect who sought to broaden modernism’s scope by reengaging with historical form. Chapter 2 explains how the monumental but unbuilt Churchill College project (1959) at Cambridge University was an attempt to “interrogate—and update—the core tenets of the courtyard type” (59) that had been the basis of the school’s colleges since medieval times. Stirling, at the same time, drew upon the vernacular buildings he had long admired, especially the warehouses of his native Liverpool. In this way, he reinvigorated fundamental modernist principles, like functionalism, then on the wane. Thinking about the Englishness of university colleges and warehouses also gave Stirling further insights into regionalism, a modernist preoccupation virtually exhausted by the end of the 1950s. It is interesting how Stirling pondered subjects already intensively investigated abroad. This is an example of both his own belatedness and characteristic of the situation for the British, latecomers to modernism who initially struggled after World War II to catch up with international developments.
To show how Stirling caught up, Lawrence ingeniously ties together strands of postwar architectural discourse. She explains how Luigi Moretti’s plaster castings of the internal spaces of important historical buildings influenced Stirling’s Leicester Engineering Building (1963). In what also comes from a close reading of forms and surfaces corroborated by the commentary of critics such as Colin Rowe and Reyner Banham, Lawrence sees Stirling’s range of references at Leicester as corrections to projects by architects as varied as Konstantin Melnikov and Frank Lloyd Wright. Expanding upon Bloom’s model of how artists mature, Lawrence ably moves her narrative forward to show how Stirling advanced beyond mere quotation to achieve a synthesis resulting in “one enormous gesture” (Vincent Scully’s phrase, quoted on 121) in the Florey Building at Cambridge (1971).1
Having thoroughly explained Sterling’s predilection for quotation, Lawrence is able to make a good case for seeing the range of references in his unbuilt museum for Düsseldorf (1975), not as postmodern contextualism but as Stirling’s own more nuanced “contexturalism,” a neologism for his conflation of context and texture. Working through Bloom’s influence theories to their finish, Lawrence concludes the book with Stirling rewriting his own works when he inserts thirty of his own projects into Nolli’s eighteenth-century map of Rome for Roma Interrotta (1978), a project epitomizing postmodernism, where nine different architects were asked to reconceive sections of the plan of Rome. Elaborating upon his contextualism, Stirling painstakingly sited his buildings among the ruins of Rome. For Lawrence, this is not postmodernism at its most coyly self-referential, because Stirling’s Roma interrotta entry posed bigger ontological questions than those of his postmodernist contemporaries. Lawrence writes, “Stirling violates the entire system of influence and revision and most importantly the stability of the referent. What does it mean to revision yourself? And what does it mean to revision yourself if the project to which you are referring to is itself already a revision of something else?” (197).
Though persuasive, Lawrence’s reading is sometimes so inward looking and airtight that it brings to mind the hermeneutics described in Manfredo Tafuri’s “L’Architecture dans le Boudoir” (1974), a text that, in fact, surfaces in Lawrence’s discussions.2 Her chapters are almost formal readings, as eloquent as Bloom’s parsings. As she explains in her introduction, this book concerns only the projects themselves and only certain aspects of them. Her analysis concentrates upon elevations and particular drawing types, such as the axonometric. For a book that discusses specific buildings in such depth, there are unusually few photographs of interior spaces, and the accounts are very circumscribed. The necessary facts about client and site are briefly laid out and some avenues of architectural discourse are followed in an illuminating fashion, but there is deliberately no larger sense of historical forces or of Stirling himself. His Liverpudlian origins are mentioned briefly. The boisterous Stirling described in Mark Girouard’s biography is absent. The name Stirling functions only as a signifier in the text for the agent who makes the buildings. Lawrence is candid in her introduction about bypassing biographical detail in order to concentrate on selected projects, but this approach results in some surprising lacunae. For example, she never mentions the considerable time Stirling spent teaching at Yale during the years the book encompasses. This is an aspect of Stirling’s development that could have deepened her discussion about the strained postwar Anglo-American relationship. His World War II service also is not mentioned. In the Düsseldorf chapter, the reader realizes with surprise that Stirling must have been in the conflict when Lawrence remarks obliquely that it must have been significant for a British paratrooper to design a project for a bomb-devastated site in Germany. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s book is more than just a skillful exercise in method. It stands as a lucid, new interpretation of Stirling that raises the level of analysis about his architecture head and shoulders above the rest.
Vincent Scully, The Shingle Style Today; or, The Historian’s Revenge (New York: Braziller, 1974), 4.
Manfredo Tafuri, “L’Architecture dans le Boudoir: The Language of Criticism and the Criticism of Language,” trans. Victor Caliandro, Oppositions 3 (1974), 37–62.