James Stirling

Getting to know James Stirling: the architect after whom the UK's most prestigious architecture award is named.

By Royal Institute of British Architects

Sir James Stirling (1970) by Architect: Sir James Stirling ( (1926-1992)Royal Institute of British Architects

In 2021, the RIBA Stirling Prize celebrated its 25th anniversary. Considered to be the most prestigious architecture award in the UK, it recognises excellence in a built project. This story takes a closer look at the architect whose name adorns the honour.

James Stirling clip (2)
00:00

Shortly after graduating from the University of Liverpool in the early 1950s, a young James Stirling (1926–92) made the following statement: “Since the crystallisation of the modern movement around about 1920 – Britain has not produced one single masterpiece, and it must be practically the only European country which has not produced a ‘great man’”.

James Stirling's surprise 50th birthday cake (1976) by Architect: Sir James Stirling (1926-1992)Royal Institute of British Architects

Little did he know that he would later become one of the most celebrated British architects, and Britain’s most notorious postmodern protagonist – the antithesis of the modern movement. 

James Gowan and Jim Stirling topping out the Engineering Building, University of Leicester (1963) by Architect: Sir James Stirling ( (1926-1992); James Gowan (1923-2015)Royal Institute of British Architects

Breakthrough projects: The Red Trilogy

Stirling shot to fame with his breakthrough project, the Leicester Engineering Building, in partnership with James Gowan - with whom he worked from 1956 to 1963. The project kickstarted the Red Trilogy series. 

History Faculty, West Road, Cambridge (1996) by Architect: James Stirling & PartnerRoyal Institute of British Architects

After completing the Engineering building, Stirling and Gowan dissolved their partnership and Stirling would continue working on the next two projects independently. The second project was the History Faculty Library at the University of Cambridge (from 1968), as shown here. 

Queen's College, Oxford: the Florey Building (2005) by Architect: James Stirling & PartnerRoyal Institute of British Architects

The third and final project was the Florey Building accommodation block for The Queen's College, Oxford, completed in 1971.

History Faculty, West Road, Cambridge: Reyner Banham with his camera on the catwalk of the roof-truss system (1968) by Architect: Peter Reyner Banham (1922-1988); James Stirling & PartnerRoyal Institute of British Architects

For all three projects, Stirling reused the same design language of planes, contrasting engineering bricks with glass, tiles and a sophisticated system of steel trusses. The buildings’ expressions vary as you walk around them, alternating between solid volumes and crystalline qualities. 

History Faculty, West Road, Cambridge (1970) by Architect: James Stirling & PartnerRoyal Institute of British Architects

Although Stirling refused to be aligned with Brutalism or Postmodernism, his work clearly displays a debt to each. 

Buildings like the Florey Building in Oxford and the History Faculty in Cambridge represent a significant breakthrough in the redefinition of functionalism. 

History Faculty, West Road, Cambridge: the stepped entrance facade (1968) by Architect: James Stirling & PartnerRoyal Institute of British Architects

The Red Trilogy also displays Stirling’s fondness of colour, an important architectural characteristic across his lifetime’s work; from his early student work, showing the use of clashing primary colours to the bold colours, in his later postmodern buildings.

Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (1985) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

Cementing an international reputation

Fast forward to the 1980s, and after a series of successful projects in the US, Stirling – now in partnership with Michael Wilford – created another trilogy of buildings. This time it was a series of museums in three German cities with a more elaborate postmodern slant. Considered by many as his best building, the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart shows a more audacious use of colour and contrasting interplay between traditional and new materials.

Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Stuttgart (1984) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

Classical architectural features are reinterpreted, reshaped and sometimes reused like this single, squat column in bright yellow, a striking detail which Stirling would also insert 13 years later in another context and country for his final building: Number One Poultry in London. 

Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Stuttgart (1985) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

Whilst the design can be seen as a collage of various style references and mimicking the work of historical architects, it also portrays the conviviality and humorous personality of Stirling. These ruins in the garden are described by the late architecture critic Charles Jencks as… 

... “classical blocks which have fallen about in an eighteenth-century manner, reveal[ing]  the reality of Post-Modern construction: a steel frame holds up the slabs of masonry, and there is no cement between the blocks, but rather air. These holes in the walls, which are ironic vents to the parking garage, dramatize the difference between truth and illusion, and allow Stirling to assert continuity with the existing classical fabric while also showing the differences.” 

Clore Gallery extension to Tate Britain, Millbank, London: the junction between the older building (1987) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

First major London commission: Tate Britain Clore extension

In his first major London commission for a cultural building, the design language applied in Germany is transferred to the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain, a gallery dedicated to the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. The green entrance and windows in particular offer a direct comparison with the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. 

Clore Gallery extension to Tate Britain, Millbank, London: the junction between the older building (1987) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

Here a conscientious surface transition from yellow plaster to the use of red bricks connects the extension with the smaller building on the right. 

Clore Gallery extension to Tate Britain, Millbank, London: the junction between the older building (1987) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

Linked to the Classical Revival architecture of 1897 Tate Gallery by Sidney R. J. Smith, Stirling's extension draws on the proportions and classical features of the original gallery while clearly marking a distinct departure from its predecessor through its geometry and colour scheme.

Clore Gallery extension to Tate Britain, Millbank, London (1987) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

Stirling himself was renowned for his colourful, larger-than-life persona, which was expressed through his attire including his signature purple socks. The colour purple is also seen throughout the interior of the Clore Gallery and the pink tubular handrail is a mini version of the oversized one in Stuttgart. 

But Stirling’s use of cheerful colours did not always go down well. They could also cause controversy. A dispute with Tate curators over the wall colours for the Turner paintings in the Clore Gallery resulted in a prolonged ‘colour war’ as recorded in the biography Big Jim by Mark Girouard.

Model for 1 Poultry, Mansion House Square scheme, City of London: Scheme B (1998) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

Stirling's last building: Number One Poultry

In 1984, Lord Peter Palumbo commissioned Stirling to build a modern masterpiece in the City of London following a protracted, unsuccessful planning battle for a scheme designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). It was an unusual pairing: it was Britain’s most notorious postmodern protagonist following the tracks of one of ‘the great men’ of the modern movement, the master of a restrained and muted architectural language.     

Number One Poultry, City of London: the 'prow' seen from Bank (2000) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

Stirling died in London in June 1992, just 12 days after the announcement that he was being awarded an knighthood. His final building, Number One Poultry, was completed posthumously in 1997 and situated among some of the most important architectural landmarks in London. The material choices and colour palette pay respect to the conservation area around Bank Junction, and show an eclectic and creative play with historical references.

Number 1 Poultry, City of London (2017) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

The façade of Number One Poultry is characterised by its alternating bands of muted yellow and salmon-pink sandstone, creating a distinctive reference to the colour combination of the architecture of Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield (1814–1900) and bronze windows in reference to Edwin Lutyens’ (1869–1944) Midland Bank.

Number 1 Poultry, City of London: the central lightwell looking upwards (2017) by Architect: James Stirling Michael Wilford & AssociatesRoyal Institute of British Architects

Tucked away from immediate street view, the building exudes a much more daring use of colour with opposing yellows, greens, pinks and blues used to express manufactured materials in contrast to the softer colours of natural stone. The most striking use of colour in the five-storey office building is kept for the rooftop terrace and internal courtyard, providing visitors with continuous visual surprises.

Although there continues to be mixed views about Stirling’s candy-striped Number One Poultry, the building was honoured with a Grade-II* listing in 2016. This made it the youngest building ever in the UK to obtain listed status and places James Stirling as one of the most important British architects, well worthy to have the premier architecture award in the UK named after him.

Stirling Prize

Credits: Story

Explore more from RIBA Collections here. All images are from RIBA Collections unless listed.    
History Faculty, West Road, Cambridge. Rights: John Donat/RIBA Collections
James Gowan and Jim Stirling topping out the Engineering Building, University of Leicester. Rights: Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections
History Faculty, West Road, Cambridge: Reyner Banham with his camera on the catwalk of the roof-truss system. Rights: Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections
James Stirling's surprise 50th birthday cake. Rights: John Donat/RIBA Collections
History Faculty, West Road, Cambridge: the stepped entrance façade. Rights: John Donat/RIBA Collections
James Stirling in his London office. Rights: John Donat/RIBA Collections
Clore Gallery extension to Tate Britain, Millbank, London. Rights: Tim Benton/RIBA Collections
Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Stuttgart. Rights: Charlotte Benton/RIBA Collections
 Social Science Research Centre (Wissenschaftszentrum), Berlin. Rights: Charlotte Benton/RIBA Collections
Clore Gallery extension to Tate Britain, Millbank, London: the junction between the older building. Rights: Tim Benton / RIBA Collections
Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. Rights: Charlotte Benton/RIBA Collections
Number 1 Poultry, City of London: the central lightwell looking upwards. Rights: Danilo Leonardi/RIBA Collections
Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. Rights: Alastair Hunter/RIBA Collections
Number 1 Poultry, City of London. Rights: Danilo Leonardi/RIBA Collections
Number 1 Poultry, City of London: the 'prow' seen from Bank. Rights: Janet Hall/RIBA Collections
Queen's College, Oxford: the Florey Building. Rights: Jeremy Harrison/RIBA Collections
History Faculty, West Road, Cambridge. Rights: Robert Elwall / RIBA Collections
Queen's College, Oxford: the Florey Building. Rights: Alastair Hunter/RIBA Collections
Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Stuttgart. Rights: Alastair Hunter/RIBA Collections
History Faculty, West Road, Cambridge. Rights: Janet Hall / RIBA Collections
Number 1 Poultry, City of London: the clocktower. Rights: Anthony Palmer/RIBA Collections Model for 1 Poultry, Mansion House Square scheme, City of London: Scheme B. Rights: John Donat / RIBA Collections

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps