Thursday, 19 May 2011

James Stirling: Notes from the archive

The work of James Stirling, on exhibition in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain (until 21 August) represents the first major exhibition reassessing his contribution to twentieth century architecture since his unexpected death in 1992. The display of so many small drawings dredges up in my tmind an observation from a personal friend of his 'It's hard to imagine those big hands producing such tiny drawings'. The key motif of the work is a crystalline geometry which persistently returns from the student project for the hexagonal mountain rangers' station to the later arts complexes with their sophisticated multilevel circulation strategies.

The exhibition is disappointingly staged. An efficicent subdivision of the oeuvre into early, middle and late periods is fitted snugly into the three gallery spaces. Material which tends to be rather small in size, (although it being the work of Stirling big in scale) is presented in a deadpan but methodical way with drawings on the walls and models associated with particuar projects isolated in groups on centrally placed tables. The judicious use of Stirling's trademark vivid palette would, perhaps, have added a little impact to the display. Inexplicably, a useful timeline of Stirling's career is marooned on a separate floor with a slideshow of photographs. The attention is so completely focused on Stirling that little context is offered to explain the successes and disappointments of his career, the relative paucity of British projects built after the university series and the greater esteem with which Stirling was held in Europe and the United States.

What gives pause for prolonged reflection is less nostalgia for the imagination of a vanished genius than rather more mundane matters. Major buildings are just not produced in this way any more. A whole plethora of digital systems have replaced Stirling's, his partners and assistants manually produced exploration of space and form, leaving the student of architectural evolution with a much harder task to trace the development of a project through repeated iterations of forms in different juxtapositions. The abiding impression is of the archaeology of the recent past, a slightly puzzling display of fascinating forms which continue to be worthy of exploration.