Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old architect called James Gowan

James, who has died at the age of 92 ,was best known as the more reticent and cerebral partner of the larger-than-life 'starchitect', James Stirling. Although Stirling's equal in design of their early projects, he rarely received the credit he was due and following the duo’s acrimonious split in 1963, he worked alone and in relative obscurity for the next forty years.

What you possibly didn't know about James, that he :

* was born in Pollokshields, Glasgow, Scotland in 1923, the son of James Gowan and Isobel Mackenzie, from a family of Paisley meat traders and was brought up by his grandparents in Partick (right), following his parents’ separation and in reference to his youth, admitted in his fifties that : "I will never escape the Scottish Puritanism."

* having left school joined the Glasgow School of Art,  enrolling for a 'Beaux Arts' architectural degree after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, but had his studies interrupted when he was called up and spent the duration of the War serving as a radar instructor and after being demobbed at the age of 22, at the end of the War, resumed his studies in England at Kingston School of Architecture, where he was taught by Philip Powell of 'Powell & Moya Architect Practice'.

* later recalled and revealed his thoughtful approach to his studies : "When I was a student, we did studio exercises to teach both the classical and the gothic. The gothic exercises were tasks like setting out the diagonal vaulting of a chapel. That really fed into your mind the fact that the two styles were fundamentally different. With the classical, you didn’t start out with diagrams, you started with elements — orders, capitals, entablatures — which were pieced together. It sounds simplistic, but with the gothic nature of things, you had to have a geometrical armature. With a classical building, you didn’t, you could start with a plan form or an elevation. The distinction may seem narrow in words, but in effect it is not."

* after his graduation,  worked 'Powell & Moya' on plans for the 'Churchill Gardens Housing Complex' and, at the age of 28, on their winning entry to the 'Skylon 
Competition', for the 1951, Festival of Britain and after leaving, was briefly attached to the Design Office of Stevenage New Town, before he joined  'Lyons Israel Ellis', in 1954 after mistakenly thinking it was the practice of Eric Lyons, whose Span Housing he admired.

* having met the ambitious, 28 year old, James Stirling at 'Powell & Moya', in 1956, together set up set 'Stirling and Gowan' and landed a dream 'first job' for 30 apartments,'Langham House Close' near Ham Common, South-West London, for Stirling’s friend Paul Manousso, at first rejected by planners on the grounds that it infringed the neighbouring property's rights to light.

* later recalled he that Stirling said "the client would be hopping mad but that there was bugger all that could be done about it...he was going to see the client and chuck in the job rather than have the man kick him out. I asked if I could look at the problem and he passed it over. On Monday, I came in with a new plan form sketched out which he took along to the client. There was a certain disappointment because you got less on the site, but they put in the application right away and got it passed."

* saw the project, when completed in 1958, establish them as one of the most radical practices of their generation and was later described by the architectural critic, Ian Nairn, as : 'the first building in a new tough style which was as much a reaction against well-meaning vacuity as the Angry plays and novels. The fierce but not overbearing yellow brick and exposed concrete still make their protest straight.'

* continued the theme of buildings that strongly expressed their function, with the family house on the Isle if Wight, the 'House at Cowes', designed by James, between 1956 -57.

* of his early years of working with Stirling, later reflected : "We appeared to have in common, the pursuit of a single magical idea of overwhelming beauty, usually, which worked fairly well, sometimes, and would make everybody's eyes pop out. That's a reasonable objective for two young architects" and on another occasion : "We were reacting against the older generation, setting up a critique of what might be done – a reaction against boredom, plainness and the mechanical nature of contemporary rationalism, of social rationalism and dainty well-produced things."

* from 1958, supplemented his income by working as a tutor for the Architectural Association and numbered among his students and one of the brightest, the nascent neo-classical architect, Quinlan Terry and also Peter Cook and also later recalled : "Richard Rogers (left) was one of about twenty like this. All about six foot tall and so big and one day they cornered me and demanded of me an explanation of "what architecture was directed at ?" I had no idea, but I had to eat. I knew it was expected of me and in desperation I said :"It's to do with the search for the truth" and we were all terribly embarrassed, I was. They all hung their heads because it had an evangelical ring about it. It sounded pretty self-righteous and Christian" and added : "but curiously it's rather near the mark".

* worked with Stirling on the 'Housing Estate in Preston' and later reflected  : "When Stirling and I had finished the scheme, having been kicked around by almost everybody, it really was a very painful experience" and also the process of producing a 'blurb' to go with the project : "So Partner A wrote a piece of blurb and passed it to Partner B to hammer around and work on as we tended to do. We'd ricochet the thing to and fro, drawing a little bit of blood each time, until one of us lay down, though exhaustion. It was a 'simple' working relationship."

* with the 'Assembly Hall in Brunswick Park Primary School' in Southwark, London, later recalled that when they sold it to the Greater London Council Committee they :"didn't want the building. They thought it was horrible : insufficient windows at lower level for children. They hated the high level windows, the subdivision of the main space. They were all ladies really. It wasn't really a fair match : the two of us. It was a terrifying sight and every point they made, we just smashed down really and we made a piecemeal mess of them and we left the Committee Room, more or less shouting  "Yaboo" at one another. It had got to that level and "the same to you" and closing the door."

* reached the apotheosis of his work with Stirling with the 'Engineering Department Building' at the University of Leicester in 1963 and saw it hailed as the 'first postmodernist building in Britain' and later recalled : "I set the initial configuration going, working with Kit Evans, while Stirling was in America for four months. At first, we didn’t have the two auditoriums set at right angles to one another, but I saw that it could be more exciting. The thing I had in mind was the Picasso profile with the big eye slapped on the front. Later, the development of the tower was done by Stirling and the development of the back was done by me."

* later said : " Stirling is a classicist, and I am a goth...You can say Leicester is all sorts of things, but if you’re going to put your finger on it, yes, it is 'gothic' I say, Stirling at heart is a classicist. There is nothing wrong with that, but he didn’t put the building together. He didn’t think of it in the first place. He came back from America when the initiation had been done. His contribution is quite recognisable : the building is moderated. It is my gothicism with Stirling hitting it with as much classicism as he can, disregarding my ten footers with a degree of pleasure wherever he could."

* had consciously shifted violently away from the prevailing functionalist doctrines of the postwar era and instead undertook dynamic structural feats and forceful geometries with steeply raked auditoria thrust out from beneath a pair of glazed towers, as monolithic wedges clad in red tile with a crystalline roof sailing over the workshop building : sky-lights on the diagonal, with the cantilever at either end which weren’t a feature of the early drawings and were incorporated because "Professor Parkes, the Head of the department, wanted a north light, which forced you to set the skylights on the diagonal. The overhang was derived from a project for a warehouse by a student who was at the AA when I was teaching there, Edward Reynolds."

* saw the building as an embodiment of what he referred to as “the style for the job”, an idea taken up by the critic Reyner Banham in his review of the project when he said : “The building succeeds because job and style are inseparable. The character emerges with stunning force from the bones of the structure and the functions it shelters.”

* had a fierce ideological split with Stirling over their next design, the History Faculty Library at the University of Cambridge because : “At Leicester we had found a vocabulary that was recognisably ours … and Stirling was enamoured of it", whereas he believed "repeating the aesthetics was unwise” and walked away from the project and ended the partnership in 1963.

* in 1964 at the age of 41, started work on his own from his studio/house in Notting Hill and in the same year designed 'Schreiber House' in Hampstead for his client, the furniture manufacturer, Chaim Schreiber and saw it described by Woodman as : 'the most significant London townhouse of the second half of the 20th century' with the four-storey building providing an open-plan world in which he designed the moulded furniture and bespoke fittings in teak and bronze in a realisation of one of the most elaborately developed interiors in the history of post-war domestic architecture, along with what were the latest mod-cons of 'warm blown-air' and a 'built-in vacuum cleaner system.'

* gained the commission to design housing for the London County Council in Creek Road, Greenwich (left), in 1967 and Trafalgar Road in 1968 and ten years later for the local authority at East Hanningfiled, near Chelmsford.

* continued to teach in the 1970s and gave a 'tongue-in-cheek' description of his relationship with clients to students at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in 1975 :"With a miraculous idea you have got to stand by it like a nursemaid from then on. Once the idea gells any client who wants more storage space is a fool, a barbarian and he has to be silenced and dealt with. He is normally silenced by lies which is : he says : "I'd like to hang my coat up there" and you say : "A coat ? The column won't carry it. If it's something larger, it will completely disrupt the building programme." One doesn't meet him on his own ground. The implications of his tiny requests are thousands and thousands of pounds, which, of course, scares the arse off him. It is a working relationship of a kind, where you need a new client every time. There have got to be a lot of them, because they never come back."

* in his fifties drew speculative sketches of gigantic bird buildings and portly pigs, as well as a giraffe-shaped skyscraper for the Thames at Greenwich Reach, whose long legs were suited to weathering the tidal conditions and for the 'Millbank Housing Competition', in 1977, a monumental howling dog, plated in gold, whose construction would have been funded by a massive levy on City bankers and said : “The quality I had in mind was the one that HG Wells describes in 'The War of the Worlds'. An object arrives in the middle of an English village and it is pretty fearsome. You can’t see a door. It just lies there smouldering and you are left guessing what it is until the hatch opens a couple of days later. It was that sense of wonder I was aiming for.”

* in 1982, designed a second, highly postmodern 'Schreiber House in Chester' and a colourful, toytown bookshop for the Royal College of Art and in the 1990s focused his energies on designing a handful of hospitals and was involved in teaching schemes in Italy in collaboration with Renato Restelli and in 2006, at the age of 83 completed his last project, the 'Instituto Clinica Humanitas' at Rozzano on the edge of Milan.

* in 1994 published a compilation of his thoughts and writing about architecture 'Style and Configuration' and had given insight into his creative process some twenty years before when he said : "It seems to work better at the last minute. When the fire's taking place, chemical things appear to happen to me to sharpen my intelligence. If the sun's shining and there's no sense of urgency, nothing seems to happen" and " There's a pain in my head at all times. Sometimes the pain is gentle and sometimes it's unbearable, but it's not an unpleasant pain, it's as if there was some remarkable mechanical device whirring quietly away."

* had, on his passing, Ellis Woodman, Executive Editor of Building Design say of him :
'His penetrating intelligence went hand-in-hand with a barbed but ultimately generous wit which endeared him to generations of students. The roll-call of his now-celebrated former students – which includes Richard Rogers, Quinlan Terry, Peter Cook, Tony Fretton and Alex de Rijke and Stephen Bates – is startling not just for its length but also its diversity. If contemporary British architecture is rich in free thinkers, it is in significant part down to James’ influence.'

Historian and 'Building Design' columnist, Gillian Darley, question :
'Later. Gowan at East Hanningfield was still a master - now of a tight budget and modest brief. 
So why did we waste him ?'

Architect, Tony Fretton, Emeritus Professor TU Delft, say of him :
'In some ways James was too clever for the world that followed.'

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