words Owen Hatherley
In George Bernard Shaw's now cliched phrase, all professions are conspiracies against the laity – and British Common Sense has long regarded architecture as the worst of conspiracies. Jim Stirling and the Red Trilogy centres on three buildings which, it asserts, are loathed by large proportions of the laity and adored by an almost equally large percentage of architects – the three University buildings designed by Stirling over the course of the 1960s, at Leicester (with James Gowan), Cambridge and Oxford. Through historical essays, detailed building studies and lovelorn accounts from famous architects, the book tries to resolve this conundrum.
What makes it far more interesting than the average glossy, large-format architecture tome is the historical drama it describes. Editor Alan Berman and many of the contributors see the three structures as creating a rupture in British architecture. These buildings were as formally extravagant as they were functionally deficient, and their break with an alleged English rectitude, their individualism and aggression, are supposedly as much a source of the still-persistent British anti-modernist sentiment as Ronan Point, the oil crisis and Thatcherism. This is a grand claim, but Berman makes it convincingly. Some here, like John Allan and Sarah Wigglesworth, see the Trilogy as ushering in an age of fevered architectural egos dropping down autonomous icons, divorced from context and that apparently all-important "human scale". So the Red Trilogy's central question, based on that apparently uttered by the frustrated users of some of these structures – "why do architects love these buildings?" - is perhaps the wrong one.
Architects tend to assume that they're the only people interested in architecture, and this error is repeated in the book; Berman even draws attention to his exclusion of "obscurantist" non-architect theorists or historians from contributors. The Red Trilogy were less architecture for architects as architecture for those who love architecture, a category that doesn't exclude those who have never drawn an axonometric, but does exclude a large proportion of the Great British Public. As many of the contributors point out, Stirling (and Gowan's) antecedents here are not the purism of "high" architecture, but a collision of strange sources – the Soviet constructivism of Melnikov, refineries, Cape Canaveral, the Northern industrial vernacular, Victorian gothic, the bulging, distorted baroque of Hawksmoor or Ledoux. These are all architectures that provide a feast for the eye, that create something striking and complex to look at. The fact that some here, like Will Alsop, describe Leicester as the building that made them want to become an architect in the first place (a story I've heard from many others of that generation) is telling, and hardly a reaction likely to be induced by a purely self-referential architecture.
At the same time, the book points to a paradox in Modernism. Although the detailed engineering studies here partly exonerate Stirling from the charge of functional ineptitude (laying the blame more on contractors and occasionally, as in Oxford, deliberate sabotage from hostile dons), for some of the contributors, functional criteria of judgement are irrelevant. Richard Rogers here compares Stirling to Lutyens, another eclectic master whose buildings have a tendency to leak, but then Lutyens, unlike Stirling (or Rogers), never claimed to have been driven by functional imperatives alone. You can't have it both ways. Finally, there's two other ruptures here that are only mentioned in worried passing – Stirling's later turn to a garish, bumptious postmodernism, and the apostasy of two of his 1960s collaborators, the neoclassical uber-reactionaries Quinlan Terry and Léon Krier. Yet The Red Trilogy remains a fascinating and visually sumptuous contribution to a seemingly endless argument.
Jim Stirling and the Red Trilogy edited by Alan Berman, Frances Lincoln, £30.
top picture credit Quintin Lake