I never understood why modern architecture was so odd-looking, especially when compared to the buildings and palaces of antiquity. But while walking through the new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, entitled “James Frazer Stirling: Notes from the Archive, Architect and Teacher,” I came across the answer.
A book on display in one of the glass cases was opened to a page with Stirling’s photo. Next to the photo was written, “Why clutter up your building with ‘pieces’ of sculpture when the architect can make his medium so exciting that the need for sculpture will be done away with and its very presence nullified.”
This quote provided me, a viewer who knows little about modern architecture, a sense of the importance of Stirling’s work. His style fused elements of antiquity and traditional European architecture with quirky geometric elements to create visually intriguing and interesting works that stood out from his contemporaries in the second half of the twentieth century.
The exhibition, co-organized with the Canadian Center for Architecture, begins with James Stirling’s birdwatching book from his adolescence. While the book is not directly related to his architectural work, it shows how Stirling developed an acute sense of observation and detail early in his life. Another notable object on display is Stirling’s camera; he was rarely seen without it — his camera was his sketchbook. Photos of life in his hometown of Liverpool, England and of buildings in Italy are also on display, buildings with elements that Stirling would eventually incorporate in his projects.
Stirling’s school designs from the Liverpool School of Architecture are the primary drawings on display. The projects range from museums and libraries in Europe to urban housing projects in Peru. Supplementing many of the sketches are intricate three-dimensional models of the commissions, most notably that of the History Faculty Building of Cambridge University. The model is elevated so the viewer can look at the model as if she were looking up at the ceiling, which was brightly illuminated with a sheet of sloping glass.
While Stirling worked on a wide range of projects, urban planning — the theme of his senior thesis — was the primary focus in his work, especially during his teaching career at the Yale School of Architecture from 1959-1983.
Stirling came to work in the United States after struggling in Britain. Not only did his style clash with mainstream contemporaneous architecture, but Stirling — who was of the lower-middle class — had a hard time breaking into what was traditionally a “gentleman’s profession.”
The exhibition’s curator, Anthony Vidler — Dean and Professor of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union in New York City — explained that British architecture is very understated and modest. Stirling’s eclectic and dynamic style was met with reluctance because it deviated from the monotony of the International Style, the prevailing modernist architectural style.
Stirling’s style incorporates Classical elements such as columnar arcades, vaults, and rotundas, reminiscent of ancient Roman villas or institutional buildings. His other buildings incorporated ideas from Italy such as the palazzo style, which emphasize horizontal structure.
At a time when the international style was especially prevalent, Stirling’s incorporation of traditional elements in his designs was a refreshing break from the generic buildings of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier’s successors.
Stirling’s frequent blending of open and closed spaces creates an exciting dynamic. A single building complex, such as the Bibliothèque de France, looks like a miniature city.
The end of the exhibit presents Stirling’s lecture notes, modestly scribbled on the backs of post cards and provide a connection to the sister exhibition at the Yale School of Architecture just a block away. The exhibition, entitled “An Architect’s Legacy: James Stirling’s Students at Yale, 1959-1983,” presents drawings donated by 79 of Stirling’s former architecture students.
“Stirling represented the real architect because he maintained the tradition of drawing sketches,” Associate Professor Emmanuel Petit who curated the exhibition said.
The drawings, supplemented with photographs and slideshows of the finished buildings provide a satisfying survey of how Stirling would create a building from start to finish.
As a teacher, Stirling occasionally assigned students commissions that Stirling had actually received at the time. He would award two prizes for the assignments. One prize, a blue work shirt — a staple in Stirling’s wardrobe — would be awarded to the design that was most similar to the design Stirling had created. The second award, a tie, was given to the design that Stirling wished he had created.
Stirling’s 24-year tenure that spaned four deanships at School of Architecture served as an example of transformation of modern architecture. As Pitti put it, Stirling’s time at Yale was “a cross section of the School of Architecture itself.”
“Notes from the Archive” will run until January 2. “An Architect’s Legacy” will be on view until January 28.
Correction: October 18, 2010
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Associate Professor Emmanuel Petit, who curated the exhibition “An Architect’s Legacy: James Stirling’s Students at Yale, 1959-1983” at the Yale School of Architecture.