Stirling’s Preston Housing


Fifty years ago James Stirling* was commissioned to design new housing for Preston. The scheme was completed in 1962 and was one of his earliest built projects in independent practice. In ‘Complete Works 1950-1974’ the scheme is illustrated alongside a reproduction of an L.S. Lowry painting and a descriptive text which refers to the ‘horizontal approach’ of housing in 19th century towns: “…you pass perhaps twenty or more front doors coming to your own; with children playing in the roads, parents chatting on the pavement and sitting in doorways, and the old peering through windows…the 19th century solution seems more dynamic than later planning solutions for mass housing.”

The scheme was built in an area of ‘slum clearance’ adjacent to four new tower blocks (map comparison 1955 & 1984)…


…and took the form of thin blocks of flats and maisonettes around a communal garden. The associated cubic forms were housing for old people.



Pictures taken soon after construction show Stirling’s idea of using utility structures on the facade to articulate individual dwellings. His own pictures show the occupants using the communal ramps at the end of the block and include 19th century dwellings in the background.


By the early ‘nineties the housing had been significantly altered, losing the stark parapet in favour of a standard local authority eaves detail. The mound depicted in the original drawing is there but less sharp than before…

…and the old peoples’ houses have lost their pyramidal roofs.

The whole scheme was recently demolished along with the adjacent tower blocks.

*Stirling & Gowan

Jim and San Souc-i

Electa in winter

Electa Bookshop, out of season

Ronny Ford has written to us remembering Stirling:

In 1991 I made a six-month visit to Italy with the intention of taking in all of the regions and as many of the islands as possible in that time. Looking back now on the number of photographs taken, the varied array of buildings and events that were sought out photographed, sketched, strolled around or watched, it seemed as though I had spent years there, and although I have been back and lived there since, that trip in 91 remains the most memorable. By September of that year I was preparing to return home to undertake the postgraduate course at the Liverpool School of Architecture. So after starting out in Milan earlier in the year and travelling as far south as Marsala in Sicily, I began to head back north, with the last region being Veneto, and in particular to Venice, as I had visited both Verona and Vicenza earlier on in the year on the way up to Udine.

Once in Venice, it was by pure coincidence that I became aware that the architectural biennale was taking place at the giardini. The bold silver and mauve posters in the various squares pronounced the British Pavilion, exhibiting such luminaries as Rogers, Foster, Grimshaw and James Stirling. What luck I thought, and asking directions in the best dialect, I found myself at the site.

I vaguely remember being waved through the Scarpa ticket booth and gate by a couple of what looked like architecture students whilst also noting that there was not much of a rush on at the time. Due to it being the end of the summer, the sight of a building form in the immediate foreground was just about visible amongst the trees, and thus I ambled towards this point.

Once there I could now make out that this was in fact, a brand spanking new bookshop, not I might add, any bookshop but an Electa bookshop, architects everywhere will know what I mean by this accentuation.

Without a moment’s hesitation, I darted through the open single leaf that was ajar. That there was no other person in the space, except for a diligent carpenter working away at the reception desk. was of little concern to me. I was immediately taken aback by length of the space that reached before me, as mentioned the amount of tree foliage had created a dark environment initially, but the huge curved end consisting of two pieces of glass intensified the light like a prism at the far end, and I was sure at that point that I had entered a tardis.

I now realised that I had gained entry by default, and decided against book browsing and began to frantically click away with the camera in order to get as many shots as possible. Finally an efficient young female biennale person politely ejected me from the interior with a firm “do come back when we are open, bye bye!!”

I then began photographing around the nautical looking exterior. Predominating the buildings form was the draped and steeply pitched green patinated copper roof, and although this has cladding type is common enough now, in 1991 it was very new, especially utilised in this manner.

I eventually made my way around to the curved end of the building, and in doing so noted a few people here and there milling around what seemed like a makeshift café bar. I continued snapping and finally as one last parting gesture thought I should see what roof material felt like, and on tiptoe I just managed the reach this at the junction with the eaves. As I rocked back on my heels after being overstretched I felt the presence of someone standing a couple of feet directly behind me, and as such I was also aware they were studying my actions quite closely. Trying to ignore this I thought I should try to get a close up shot of the texture of the material. This proved a little more difficult with two hands in the air holding the camera this resulted in my being propelled head first towards the curved glass window where the woman who had earlier slung me out was standing inside, and who must have been thinking I was taking no for an answer whilst attempting a slightly more unconventional means of entry.

It was at this point that I heard a burst of laughter from behind, and I swung around to see a corpulent man in a beige suit strolling towards the bar. Slightly fatigued by both the heat and the incident I thought it would be a good idea to have a break as at was now about 2.30PM

As I made my way across to the café the man in the suit was sitting on the wall facing the bar I could now make out other features that made him stand out, other than his size. These were his bright green open neck shirt and matching socks!! These being crammed into a pair of ankle high hush puppies! And to top it all, both shirt and socks matched perfectly the colour of the copper roof.

Two and two began to make four and as drew closer it was undoubtedly Jim Stirling and the bookshop was obviously his latest building. As I passed to get my drink he nodded to me in acknowledgement and I gesturing back before joining the queue to get my refreshment. After waiting about five minutes it was apparent some disagreement was going on up front, I turned around and asked “Hi, what came first, the shirt or the roof?” laughing, he didn’t respond directly to the question but said very matter fact, “I’m having a beer, would you like to join me?” “Yes great I’ll just get mine” I replied. “Allow me” he answered and in going to the bar he attracted the barman’s attention immediately and strolled back with an ice-cold bottle of San Souci and a plastic glass.

We did not speak about architecture at all, or his building, despite his renowned taciturnity, he was interested in my travels, had I been to Pompeii? what was the Palio like? did I have Pecorino in Sardinia? was the wine better at source in Orvieto? these amongst the questions he asked.

I mentioned that I would be returning to Liverpool to complete my studies, “Yes, I haven’t been back recently, I used to go often to visit my mother in Bootle, that was until she died a few years ago. I used to enjoy going back to Liverpool”. For some reason, which I now regret I had to go and meet some friends, I took my leave but asked could I buy him a beer back, no thank you, I had one before this and I have a little speech to give later tonight, with that he turned and strolled towards the bar. “Hopefully you will get back to Liverpool again” “Yes I would like to” he replied in the distance.

I learned from a friend I made some years later who worked for Jim, who was also in Venice at that time, that during the very formal exhibition opening ceremony that evening, attended by both dignitaries and famous architects alike, Jim forced security personnel to let in 20 to 30 architectural students who had gathered at the gates, into the gardens and the party, for an evening, I gather such as Byron might have known.

I made it back to Liverpool, and completed my course; I gather Jim never did return, which was sad, as I would have liked to have the opportunity to buy him that beer.

R. Ford, July 2007

James Stirling 22 April 1926 – 25 June 1992



James Stirling’s relationship with his clients and end users is no better demonstrated than the pride with which the architect and his work is presented on the site for Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (Social Science Research Centre) in the Kulturforum. The eclectic elements of the building’s architecture are thoroughly documented. Take the virtual tour…LINK

The Staatsgalerie Downhill

staatsgalerie 2 1984

Views of Stirling’s Staatsgalerie tend to show the front of the building with its extraordinary denial of the conventional facade in favour of an array of architectural motifs grounded in a stylised ruin – the approach from Konrad-Adenauer-Strasse invites the visitor to immediately enter or to climb the building.


A visit in 1984 soon after the opening of the building was quite different. The hostel was on a hill side and we made our way down to the city centre by foot, encountering the Weissenhof-style administration building first and using the path via the building’s rotunda as a route between the hillside and the city below. This powerfully linked the promenade through the building with the surrounding landscape and we experienced Stirling’s architecture as an easygoing down-hill short-cut – a series of experiences in which the building never fully presented itself. View the Staatsgalerie Slideshow 1984-1990.

staats 1984

James Stirling 22 April 1926 – 25 June 1992

Encounters with Big Jim: What not to say…

Picture the scene – the garden of an East Anglian manor house in early October in the late 1970s. A group of gauche first year architecture students are enjoying the hospitality of their tutor (the widow of an eminent professor of architecture at a Fenland university) and the company of the great and the good. Alison and Peter are prominent in batik, but many another brutalist hogs the bar. A circle of students are joined by a large man in a blue shirt, slightly perspiring as the evening draws in. A faux- suave nineteen year old decides to break the ice. He clears his throat, restrains his natural air of condescension, and asks the stranger “So, are you an architect?”. Silence follows as James Stirling turns and walks away…


James Stirling 22 April 1926 – 25 June 1992

Stirling Archive

In 1999 the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal purchased the archive of James Stirling and Michael Wilford’s office, including much material from Stirling’s previous architectural firms. In the linked edition of MOQDOC (a Canadian newsletter for art libraries and archives) the cataloguer Eva-Marie Neumann outlines the archive’s contents and some of its unexpected material which will shortly become available to researchers.



Drawing of the Olivetti Training School, Haslemere 1969
From James Stirling, Buildings & Projects 1950-1974: “the classroom wings were cranked in plan to avoid colliding with groups of very large specimen trees and the wings have been sited along level ground to permit linear expansion. Prefabricated wall/roof units are of glass reinforced polyester (GRP) which are clipped together, a process similar to industrial design products and to Olivetti’s own production of machines and equipment…Seventeen colours for the external GRP were rejected by the local Planning Committee on aesthetic grounds and the original colour scheme [lime green and violet] could be used only inside the building.”

James Stirling 22 April 1926 – 25 June 1992

“not enough Jim.”

Doris Lockhart Saatchi has written about the artist Ben Johnson and his encounter with James Stirling.

Johnson became attracted to the artistic issues raised by architecture in 1973, when he first saw James Stirling’s Leicester University Department of Engineering building. He contacted the architect and said he would like to make a painting based on the building, and Stirling expressed interest in commissioning it. Johnson declined the commission but offered the architect first viewing and option to buy. Some time later, he duly presented the finished painting. After a few moments of silence, Stirling walked up to the canvas, tapped it with his fingers, turned to Johnson and said, ‘Too much Ben, not enough Jim.’

Perhaps Johnson’s 1986 painting of the galleries of the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart rebalanced the equation?


James Stirling 22 April 1926 – 25 June 1992

Frankenstein in Leicester


Leicester University Engineering Building
Architect: Stirling and Gowan 1959

In the engineering building at the University of Leicester by Stirling and Gowan, the profession was presented with its Frankenstein, amidst a concert of maidenish squeaks that have not yet died down.*

Steve Cadman has produced an excellent photo set of Leicester buildings. View the Leicester architecture slide-show at fast speed and see Stirling’s Leicester Engineering Building in the context of the vigorous and eclectic architecture of the city.


Steve Cadman’s Leicester architecture set

* Ian Brown in Architectural Forum April 1972, quoted in James Stirling, Buildings and Projects 1950-1974 Introduction by John Jacobus, Layout by Leon Krier and James Stirling.

Photographs © Steve Cadman

James Stirling 22 April 1926 – 25 June 1992