This study of three of James Stirling's projects becomes a portrait of the man, his legacy and the continuing fascination with him, says Eleanor Young
Biography by building is pretty hard to achieve and was not what Alan Berman as editor of this book set out to do. For a start he limited himself to just three of James Stirling's early works for universities: the engineering department at Leicester (with Gowan), Cambridge's history faculty and the Oxford students' residence, the Florey Building. But the book's many layers unexpectedly build a multi-faceted profile of the legend known as Big Jim. Like all the best biographies it does this by mixing detailed research with opinion and hearsay.
Of the 20-odd architects contributing to the book most offer the latter, while Berman has done the research. He brings forensic knowledge of the Florey Building which, as an architect, he helped repair. Beyond that his use of project correspondence reveals the obstructive bursar, abortive plans for a riverside walkway that Stirling orientated the building around, and rushed tender drawings.
Disappointingly, chapters on the other projects are more conventional but still detail their twists and turns and the characters behind them. After these, Berman's chapter on the challenges and failures of post-war technology explains fascinating details, for example how the fact that even small distortions in patent glazing stopped it being airtight was unknown, and the lengths to which the Stirling office went to ensure these three projects' distinctive red tiles would stay put. That they didn't was down to cost-saving switch on the history faculty to a wonder adhesive - that failed.
While Berman suggests that the failures, which were relatively few, were a product of their time and hasty processes, many of the 20-odd well known architects who contribute show that they remain a major issue in the architectural memory. While today's legislation would have prevented these problems, Will Aslop argues that it was Stirling's freedom that was inspiring.
Many of the commentators, including Alsop, came to Stirling as students or younger and convey their astonishment at seeing Leicester's engineering department. Richard Rogers ranks Stirling as the best architect of the 20th century alongside Lutyens. But though he writes of admiration and Stirling's effect on hi-tech, the influence he picks out is being `fed by the ingenuity'.
MJ Long sees something quite different in this trilogy and other sets of Stirling projects. `He invented buildings that are absolutely on the money for a particular client and a particular place, and followed it with slightly less integrated versions using the same vocabulary.'
Many of the architect commentators are bemused by the post modern Stirling, describing it as a `diversion', `strange' or incomprehensible shift. John Tuomey turns to his puzzle over how Stirling was radical when designing yet `took comfort in convention' in other spheres of life. It is just another way in which the book throws up angles on this slice of history.
Between the lines I read an unwritten charge that Stirling made things harder for himself and other architects. His ideas of architectural language and form making might have been the most exciting since Le Corbusier but its appreciation was complicated by a reputation for being difficult and for technological failures, perceived or otherwise.
There are things you could wish for in this book; plans is the obvious one. A denser and more beautiful production would be an improvement. But even without these it is a model of how to assemble a collage around a character, an age and a moment in history. It starts to get to the heart of Stirling's enduring importance in British architecture.